Fluxus will forever be associated with the destruction of pianos. Already during the first-ever Fluxus festival, the Fluxus internationale Festspiele neuester Musik in Wiesbaden in September 1962, a piano was smashed to pieces, and during the 50 year long history of Fluxus, many more have suffered the same fate.
There are other Fluxus pieces that ask for terminal damage to be done to a piano, but in Wiesbaden, the occasion was a performance of Philip Corner’s “Piano Activities”. Photographs of it appeared in countless newspapers in Germany and other European countries, and it even featured on German television. The item starts with a shot of the performers approaching a concert piano, Dick Higgins carrying a kettle and Emmett Williams a brick. Next, the camera follows Williams as he climbs up on the dais (the performance took place in a lecture theatre), straightens his glasses and grasps his brick in both hands. Before he has a chance to throw or drop it, however, the camera shifts to the other performers as they are at work on the piano, Benjamin Patterson hitting it with a hammer, Higgins rubbing the strings with his kettle, a third performer dusting it with a broom, et cetera. Then, it zooms in on the keyboard as a hammer crushes one key after another. This shot is followed by images of thoughtful and laughing spectators, and the scene ends with the performers solemnly carrying the remains of the piano out through the emergency exit.
To underline the violent nature of the footage, it is accompanied by a voice reading the first and third stanza of a poem by the German poet and cartoonist Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908) called “Gemartert” (“martyred”, first published in 1904). The poem describes the rough treatment a piano receives at the hands of a virtuoso pianist. “Ein gutes Tier/Ist das Klavier,/Still, friedlich und bescheiden,/Und muss dabei/Doch vielerlei/Erdulden und erleiden“, reads the first stanza, and the third: “Und rasend wild,/Das Herz erfüllt/Von mörderlicher Freude,/Durchwühlt er dann,/Soweit er kann,/Des Opfers Eingeweide.“ Roughly translated, the verses say: „A good animal is the piano, quiet, peaceful and modest, and as such it has to tolerate and suffer a lot. (…) And frantic and wild, his heart filled with murderous joy, he rummages through his victim’s innards as far as he can reach“. In combination, the text and the images leave no doubt as to the violent nature of the piece.
The message came across. Just consider the following passage from a text called “My Son” by George Maciunas’s mother, Leokadija Maciunas: “The evening [of the broadcast] arrived and I, fortunately, didn’t see the program (we didn’t have a television.) The next day I met the former landlady of our hotel on the street and I was grieved by her sympathy as if some kind of terrible grief had come to me. They had seen the previous evening’s program and had been horrified. It showed how several young people, including my son, had destroyed a piano with hammers and axes. Even if the instrument was old and useless, it was noble, someone had once played on it, had evoked beautiful sounds, it had served talented hands which had given the public joy and rapture. It was painful and terrible to watch how the chips flew, to hear the complaining twanging of the severed strings. People couldn’t hold back their tears seeing such a shameful and tormenting end to the instrument. We don’t know what to do with old useless instruments, we don’t see this cruel treatment of them, and so this grief and sentiment is understandable. These people felt sorry for me, sympathizing and understanding how a mother’s heart would ache seeing what her son was doing.” (You can read the entire text on http://georgemaciunas.com/?page_id=1310)
Maciunas himself, however, had a different explanation. In a letter to La Monte Young, dateable to October 1962, now at the Getty Research Center, George Maciunas wrote: “Then on the end we did Corners piano activities not according to his instructions since we systematically destroyed a piano which I bought for $5 and had to have it all cut up to throw away, otherwise we would have to pay movers, a very practical composition, but German sentiments about this ‘instrument’ of Chopin were hurt and they made a row about it.” According to Maciunas, what appeared to be violence was actually a money saving device.
The score of Corner’s “Piano Activities” has long been lost, but it is now a part of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It consists of three typewritten pages, describing a “piece for many pianists”. The musicians are instructed to examine their collective “potential for creating form” and to exercise their “awareness of scope and subtlety” – the piece outlines a kind of collective learning process. In the process, all the parts of the piano are manipulated by all sorts of means, both gentle and rough. While doing so, the performers have to be both restrained and rough, inactive and active, extreme and moderate, et cetera. The signature use of opposites is echoed in the development of the learning process as well, because the performers have to work towards the development of “a complete system of design and relationship”, but towards the removal of formality as well. The crux is to be found in a parenthesis: “(comprehending the full range of possibilities)”.
Here, it is useful to consider the footage that was shown on German television once again. It shows the keys of the piano being destroyed, but its inside being dusted as well, a stone being dropped on it but its strings being rubbed as well. All sorts of contrary actions were performed. It seems that the performers stayed closer to Corner’s instructions as Maciunas claimed. It may not have been a perfect performance of the piece, but there was at least some exploring of the range of possibilities offered by the general setting. The violence of the piece rests in its representation, by the press and by Maciunas. That Maciunas should court violence in this manner should come as no surprise: only a month earlier, he had sung the praise of a kick to the underside of a piano as an ideal way to demonstrate its physical properties, and he generally seems to have dreamt of Fluxus as a new incarnation of the revolutionary spirit of the pre-war avant-garde. That the press should pick up on this is equally unsurprising. What does come as a surprise is, how effective their representation of the piece still is. Only after reading Corner’s score is it possible to see the gentle actions as well as the violent ones and to spot the importance of their juxtaposition.