An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments
There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

I started this NewMusicBox series on experimental music festivals of the 1960s with an article about critical reactions to the New York Avant Garde Festival; I trawled the newspaper reviews and promotional materials to find you facts. Next, we looked at the realities of composing and producing the Tudorfest; interviews and secondary sources carried the day. Then Ian Power gave us insight into what it was like to perform pieces from FluxFest Kit 2; in this case, personal and physical experience guided our understanding. And now I’d like to come back around full circle, to reinterpret what we think we know—the New York Avant Garde Festival again, but this time through the eyes of the audience.

Composers, performers—they’re relatively easy to find and talk to if you want to track them down. After all, many of them went on to established careers in the arts, and they have gigs and websites and email addresses. But audience members? People who just wandered in off the street and experienced what the New York Avant Garde Festival had to offer? That’s a little more difficult. Where do you even start?

I started by writing that first NewMusicBox article, hoping that the readers of this website might have been there, might be able to tell me something more about what the festivals felt like. I wasn’t disappointed. A comment on my March 5 article led me to contact information—which inspired me to send out an email and then schedule a Skype interview.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz wandered into the 10th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station in 1973 and—instantly, magically, organically—became part of the event.

The original poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival consiting of multiple texts in different directions superimposed on one another.

Poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station, 1973.

There’s a catch, a small caveat to this audience member’s experience. Báthory-Kitsz is, in fact, a composer, a musician, the former host of the award-winning Kalvos & Damian. (He’s also an author, an instrument maker, a teacher, a librarian, and an archivist if you want the full picture.) He ended up becoming a good friend of NYAGF producer Charlotte Moorman, and went on to attend (and perform his music at) all of the New York Avant Garde festivals in the 1970s that followed—even the much-maligned Cambridge River edition. But at his first 1973 festival, Báthory-Kitsz really didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “I don’t really know how I heard about it,” he said during our interview. “Somebody must have told me there was this thing happening in New York—I don’t think I read it, because I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy a New York Times. I heard it from somebody.” He was young, he was full of curiosity; he found a friend, took the bus from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City ($2.25 round trip), and made his way to the festival-occupied train tracks.

It was like a huge party, he told me. There were events happening everywhere, and he got to meet people. People like Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono—people who were making names for themselves in the experimental milieu, who were doing the very thing Báthory-Kitsz hoped to one day do himself.

“That’s cool. I love this,” he thought. And so he found ways to participate further, to get in deeper. He called ahead of the next festival—dialing a number that turned out to be Charlotte Moorman’s direct line—and found himself heading to her apartment to help fold promotional materials and talk experimental composition. The thing about the New York Avant Garde Festival was that there was no application to fill out, no credentials to present. There were no obstacles to you (yes, you) participating if you felt so moved. All you had to do was inform Moorman that you wanted in—so your name could be put on posters and so you could be counted in the official tally of participants—and then you were in. That’s all there was to it.

The way Báthory-Kitsz remembers it, the New York Avant Garde festival was completely non-exclusive, totally welcoming. There was no need for traditional musical virtuosity to perform these pieces; there were no great skills to show off except for a willingness to jump in and do, to take an idea and run with it as far as you were able. It was a “that-sounds-really-exciting-let’s-do-it!” culture, as Báthory-Kitsz calls it. In some ways, that made the whole avant-garde an outsider to the musical establishment. And if that was true, if everyone was an outsider, it paradoxically meant that everyone was an insider—even the audience, should they so choose.

An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments

Dashuki Music Theatre performing at the New York Avant-Garde Festival World Trade Center June 19, 1977; from L to R: Shirley Strock Albright; Jannet Passow Gillock; David Gunn; Dennis Bathory-Kitsz; Linda Kaye. (From the Dashuki Music Theatre page of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative website.)

The distinction between audience and performers wasn’t important, because there was always the potential for the one to become the other. It was 1977 at the 13th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival held at the World Trade Center, and Báthory-Kitsz brought his own ensemble to perform a chamber opera he had written for instruments he’d built himself, including the geometrically tuned “Hharp” and the wood and glass “Uncello.” (I have a copy of the poster for this festival, by the way. Báthory-Kitsz’s name appears at exactly the halfway point in the list of 237 participants.) “I know we had an audience, because I have photographs showing we had an audience,” he told me. The question of who exactly that audience was…not so clear. Báthory-Kitsz remembers walking around the festival, going to see other friends and acquaintances perform—so there were festival performer-spectators at any given event. Then, there were people who had come to see his opera specifically, and so he assumes there were people who had come to see other particular performers. And then “at one point I know that somebody wanted to play my ‘Uncello,’ and so sure they were in it.” The audience member turned performer. “It was so crowded,” Báthory-Kitsz said, “the vast majority of the people there must have been audience.”

A photo of  Báthory-Kitsz's uncello which is shaped like a giant bow with a clear glass sphere in the cavity

Báthory-Kitsz’s Uncello (From the page devoted to his instruments on his website.)

Must have been, but who knows. All that really mattered was that it was exciting, that it was this huge event with many people and many performances, that there was an experimental electricity in the air. In any case, it clearly made an impression. Báthory-Kitsz went on to organize his own Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde in ’74, ’76, and ’78. “We were inspired by [Moorman’s] festivals because we had no gathering like that south of New York and we didn’t know if any were going on elsewhere in the country. But we knew one was not happening in Philadelphia, and certainly not in Trenton.” That sounds really exciting, so let’s do it! Báthory-Kitsz et al. contacted Trenton’s city council in the fall of 1973, rounded up 60 artists—some with name recognition (once heard, who could ever forget the moniker of sculptor Woofy Bubbles?), some with only the experimental love in their hearts—and put on a festival. Hundreds of people showed up. It was a great success. So great, that they put on an encore two years later and then another two years after that.

The original poster for the 1978 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde featuring text and drawings

The poster for the 1978 edition of the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde (From the website of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative.)

Báthory-Kitsz has photographs from the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde—and from the New York Avant Garde Festivals, too. Photographs, and also negatives, slides, posters and playbills, bits and pieces of handmade instruments, thousands of hours of audio on reels and cassettes, and even a few 8mm films. All of these things live in a storage unit (if they’re not temperature sensitive) and his studio (if they are)—because no museum or university will take them. Archival media is expensive to maintain, and Báthory-Kitsz is (quite reasonably) unwilling to split up his collection, to skew the representation of these events. Here I am, a historian who can’t find archival materials about these festivals in any of the usual places; there he is, a participant and a documentarian, with mountains of archival materials that he just can’t reliably get to the historians. But these photos and those reel-to-reel tapes are our history nonetheless, and they tell a story about festivals in general as surely as they do about any one festival in particular.

“So, you went up to New York for the New York Avant Garde Festivals, and then you produced your own festivals—what was it about the festival medium?” I finally asked him. “Well, it’s where you met people,” he told me. “There was no occasion to meet anybody if there was not a large event to meet them at.” It was a time before the internet, it was a time of exorbitant long-distance phone bills—“we were really disconnected from each other,” Báthory-Kitsz noted. Tudorfest? The ONCE Festival? Fluxfest? They might have been happening, but you had to know someone who was in the know in order to know about them. And even if you did hear about a concert now and again, it was always hard to tell if it was going to be worth it. You needed a good reason to travel to hear something new and interesting—and what could be better than an event where you were guaranteed to hear not just one new thing, but hundreds, where you could meet not just one new composer, but dozens?

For critics, the experimental music festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s were a departure—and sometimes an escape—from the highbrow world of classical concerts. For composers, they were a risk, a gamble of time and money and energy—and also a chance to put their work out there, to show the world just what they were doing. For performers, they were the chance to reach a more general audience and to commit to the uncanniness, the empowerment, and the fun of the experimental ethos. And for audience members, they were an opportunity to participate, to live in the experimental world for a day or two—to hear some new things and make some new contacts. When Báthory-Kitsz went to the festivals, he met people; when he offered to help fold posters, he met people. When he decided to produce his own festival, he got in touch with all those people he had met at the festivals and the poster folding marathons. When he started his radio show Kalvos & Damian, he pooled those contacts. Each new contact led to more contacts with more people—critics, composers, performers, audience, some combination of the above, it didn’t really matter. They were all interested in experimental music.

“I have one last question,” I told Báthory-Kitsz. “Do you have any plans for future festivals?” “Well no,” he said, but he is planning a huge party in August 2015 to celebrate all of the people who contributed to the Kalvos & Damian radio show during its years on the air. The long list of past interviewees consists of composers of every stripe, including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, Larry Austin, Frederic Rzewski, and David Behrman—avant-garde festival goers and doers every one. This party, then, is a celebration of the radio show, but I also like to think of it as a celebration of the way we meet people and the way that a community of experimental musicians produces so much more than a single event. It is, in its own way, a festival of festivals, and I for one hope that Báthory-Kitsz documents every last detail.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

  1. Jim

    Excellent article! Thank you for shedding some light on these very intriguing festivals of the past. Had I been born earlier than 1987, I would have attempted to attend at least one (preferably several) of them! :)


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