On 1 June, Copenhagen has a rare chance to experience György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962). The piece is better known as “the metronome piece”, and for a good reason: it is scored for 100 metronomes that are simply wound up and left to run down. The work, and a couple of related ones from the same period, is markedly different from the rest of the Hungarian composer’s oeuvre, and its eccentricity is usually explained with a reference to Fluxus. The score of the Poème symphonique was reproduced in the first issue of the Fluxus newspaper V TRE, which makes the connection an obvious one. The fact that it appeared there probably means that Fluxus’ spiritual father, George Maciunas, planned to include it in one of the Fluxus yearbooks that never appeared; most of the material he collected for publication in the yearbooks ended up being printed in V TRE and/or as a single edition.
As a work, the Poème symphonique fits the Fluxus repertoire very well: it is simple, funny and concrete, it is what Maciunas called “monostructural” – but it is too easy to explain its wackiness with a reference to Fluxus alone. Ligeti himself has tried very hard to make it an organic part of his oeuvre by relating it to later, more acceptably musical works (his String Quartet No. 2 from 1968, more specifically the pizzicato movement in it), and musicologists tend to connect it with the mechanical style the composer developed towards the end of the 1960s. The only possible conclusion is that there is not a single story to be told about the work, but that it is possible to tell at least two. One of them is based on continuities, the other on breaks. One of them is connected, via the idea of the oeuvre, to the ideals of high modernism, the other via the suggestion of radical alterity to the notion of the avant-garde.
The appearance of such easy binaries ought to make one stop and think again.
Fluxus was different, but it was not unique. The type of experimentation it is known for, is characteristic for its time, and although the artists associated with it were more radical than most, their interests were shared by others. At the time when Maciunas collected the score of the Poème symphonique, he was interested in what he called “concretism”, a tendency in art to let phenomena be themselves. What he saw, or rather, failed to see in an oddly perceptive way, was a tendency amongst artists to abandon form as an artistic category. Fluxus works, and many other works of the same period, can no longer be filed on the basis of outside characteristics, but have to be understood from the inside out, as process. They have, so to speak, made the leap from invertebrate to vertebrate, from external shell to backbone. This reference to evolution is misleading, because the leap they made marked the change from modernism into postmodernism, and therewith the abandonment of all evolutionary thinking. Works such as these exist in what Rosalind Krauss famously called the “post-media condition”.
Eric Drott, who devoted a long article in The Journal of Musicology to the metronome piece and two other works of Ligeti’s that are commonly associated with Fluxus, concludes that the piece does not conform to the Fluxus standard, amongst other reasons because it criticises recognizable musical conventions. The way the score is formulated, for example – extremely verbose and overly specific , with lengthy instructions about how to procure 100 metronomes, how to make sure that they are returned to the right owner, etc.; you will find the full text here – is interpreted by Drott as an ironic commentary on the typical modernist score of the time, with the attached elaborate instructions to the performer. As such, it is a specifically musical work, but at the same time it is not. The score does not contain a single note, but consists of words alone, and is therefore accessible in a way that is entirely different from the classical musical score. It is part-music, part-written word, and entirely something different. It ventures out in that mysterious no-man’s land between the established media that Dick Higgins called intermedia.
At one level, the level at which Maciunas connected with the work, it is a musical piece that makes no effort to hide the nature of the material it employs, namely, the ticking of 100 metronomes. At another level, the one at which scholars such as Drott understand it, it is a supramusical piece that critiques certain musical conventions. Both interpretations are perfectly valid, but they fail to notice the way the piece behaves. Certainly, one of the things it does is cause performances, like all musical scores, but it also changes the status of the score. Its title, Poème symphonique, places it at the crossroads of poetry and music, but actually it inhabits a previously unclaimed territory in between music and the written word. It is intermedial in nature, but what is even more important is that it experiments with the score as a means to an end and turns it into an end in itself. As much as the presentation of a certain body of sonic material and as much as a critique of certain musical conventions, it is a postmedial work that can just as easily be read as a text as it can be performed as a piece of music.
Oh well. Whatever it is, I look forward to hearing and seeing it on 1 June.