Music review: In a State of Flux: An Experimental Music Gallery, 18 September 2015. Creators: Chris Tonkin and Ashley Smith, with the UWA Young Artists.

Reviewed by: Patricia Alessi, The Callaway International Research Centre and The Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100–1800, University of Western Australia

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Keywords: Alison Knowles; Ashley Smith; Chris Tonkin; contemporary music; Eric Andersen; Fluxus Codex; John Cage; Ken Friedman; La Monte Young; Matthew D’Cruze; Mieko Shiomi; popular music; research week; Steve Reich; Tomas Schmit; Yoko Ono

At 7pm on 18 September 2015, the University of Western Australia (UWA)’s School of Music students simultaneously performed 38 works as their In a State of Flux concert. Curated by Assistant Professor Chris Tonkin and Lecturer Ashley Smith, this Friday evening performance was the encore to the highly successful Thursday Lunchtime Concert held on 10 September 2015. The performance was inspired by the work of the Fluxus network, led by George Maciunas in the 1960s, which sought to question the very basis of art.

In a State of Flux was created to be presented during UWA’s 2015 Research Week, 7-11 September. Acting as an experimental music installation experience, these Fluxus Codex-inspired performances offered its audiences a uniquely interactive musical experience. Audience members freely roamed the School of Music buildings and ‘dropped in’ on any one of the 38 simultaneously-occurring concerts. They could pick and choose with which work they would engage and when, sampling pieces by Steve Reich, Alison Knowles, Ken Friedman, Eric Andersen, Matthew D’Cruze, Mieko Shiomi, La Monte Young, Tomas Schmit, Yoko Ono, John Cage, Jude Weirmeir, Olivia Davies, Stephen De Filippo, Stephen Beerkens, Davi Det Hompson, Ben Vautier, Robert Wannamaker and Alvin Lucier, and those jointly-composed by Jordan Berini and John Cage; and Anna Maywdell and Rodrigo Kendrick. The Fluxus film reel was also listed as the 37th work of the simultaneous concerts.

The aim of the students and curators was to push beyond the traditional boundaries of Western music. This musical installation posed several questions to its audience engagers: Was what they were hearing music? Was it just ‘noise’? Or was it a combination of the two? Also, is music interactive? Or does it only occur when the audience sits in designated areas in a concert venue and the performers are clearly delineated from them by a stage? What is considered performance activity, and what is spectatorship? Can we achieve both? Can the audience be a part of the delivery of the musical work?

While audience members may not have walked away with clear answers to these intertwined questions, they did seem drawn to certain works of the installation. In particular, Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music (1968, rev. 1973) for microphones, amplifier speakers and performers was attended by most of the audience members, as it acted as the impetus to the 38 musical events. Many attendees dawdled here long after the microphones stopped swinging, or even returned at the end of their musical tour to see what changes in tonality were occurring in the now-empty Callaway auditorium.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) was performed in one of the School of Music’s top-floor practice rooms, with co-curator Ashley Smith as the canvas from which clothes were cut. Audience members often hesitated before almost gleefully grabbing the scissors and cutting oddly-shaped patterns of cloth out of Smith’s shirt and shorts. Once finished, they returned to their more reserved (and traditional) audience spectatorship behaviour. They then meekly exited the room, handing off the scissors to waiting participants.

Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On (1960) also encouraged audience members to behave in an unconventional manner, by asking them to try to break a canvas painting. Naturally, this challenged their perception of art. They had to ‘break’ what is often viewed as a sacred piece of ‘art’ in order to create new art. Art was no longer on the wall; it was underneath their feet.

Finally, the joint Jordan Berini–John Cage Improvisation for amplified cactus after John Cage’s Child of Tree encouraged audience engagers to think of what immobile living creatures sounded like when touched by humans. Many received their first aural experience of what a cactus ‘hooked up’ to wires and amplifiers sounded like when plucked and stroked almost like a guitar. As expected, the majority were curious, with several very intrigued by the methodology and practice of cactus-playing.

In a State of Flux successfully explored the ‘Fluxmanifesto on Fluxamusement’ produced by Maciunas in 1965. The performance demonstrated its musicians’ ‘self-sufficiency of the audience’ (the performances continued with or without audience members in the rooms) and that ‘anything can substitute art and anyone can do it’ (for example, an amplified cactus). The result was ‘substitute art-amusement’, which was ‘simple, amusing, concerned with insignificances’ (no enormous orchestras were used nor any complex stage machinery necessary) and had ‘no commodity or institutional value’ (meaning, other than ticket sales—which funded the performances themselves—no profits were made nor did it perpetuate institutionalized art). Just as contrastingly, it also demanded that each artist ‘doing’ the art had to ‘justify his [or her] income’ (earn their keep) and ‘demonstrate that only he [or she] can do art’ (they were the only specialist who could undertake that piece successfully). This made the art ‘appear to be complex, intellectual, exclusive, indispensable, inspired’ (demonstrating a contemplative, artistic process).

It was a performance of contradictions. On the one hand, it was self-sufficient of the masses and yet, on the other hand, it was limited to those who had bought tickets and saw the intrinsic value in the performances themselves. Regardless of the outcomes it accomplished, however, it did push the envelope of musical offerings in Perth to the point where it engaged its musicians-in-training in a complex musical dialogue: what is music (and art)? Is it what we think, or is it a continually-changing art form that can deviate from the norm? Can we make new art and drive music’s evolution ourselves? This performance may have just made them re-think their future musical careers and the trajectory of the art form itself.