Estimated reading time: 10 minutes —
Here I would like to return to Paik’s meeting with Charlotte Moorman.
One of the chapters in the Tate/Paik catalogue deals with Charlotte Moorman and her role in Paik’s work… The essay is, by Joan Rothfuss – ‘The Ballad of Nam June and Charlotte’: A Revisionist History Below is an edited version of the essay… (The Author’s book – Topless Cellist: The improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman published by MIT Press in 2011)
She was Paik’s muse, his sidekick, his raw material, his Kunstfigur. Her body was the vehicle for two of his aesthetic experiments: the fusion of classical music with sex, and the humanisation of technology. A classically trained musician, she inspired some of his best-known pieces, including Opera Sextronique, TV Bra for Living Sculpture and TV Cello. She was a naif who blindly carried out his instructions, even after doing so got her arrested and convicted of lewd behaviour. She died prematurely of breast cancer, an ironic end indeed for the Topless Cellist.
This brief sketch outlines Charlotte Moorman’s story as most people know it, if they know it at all. In this story Moorman is a two-dimensional character in a stock narrative about a protean male artist who finds inspiration in the body of a passive, willing female. In some versions of the tale, she is the Joan of Arc of New Music – heroic but doomed. Rarely is she considered an artist in her own right, even in the most nuanced considerations of her work…
Moorman is not just Paik’s most trusted performer, she is one of his media . . . somewhere between a performer of his, a collaborator of his, and an artwork of his – not a Pygmalion, not an automaton, but somehow a product of his creative imagination, capable of creative feedback.”
The formulaic, almost mythic nature of Moorman’s story is partly her own doing. When questioned about the choices she had made in her work, she usually said that she had been happy to do whatever Paik wanted. As a classical musician she had been trained to play the music as written, no matter how peculiar it might be; being faithful to the score was a basic professional standard as well as a marker of her dedication. If the score involved her body, she claimed that she did not mind being treated as an object. ‘Paik thinks of me as a work of his, he does not think of me as Charlotte Moorman’, she told Paik scholar Edith Decker in 1983. ‘He can do with me what he pleases, and I’m very honored about the whole thing.’
But occasionally Moorman told a different story. In 1980, during a car trip from Frankfurt to Cologne, she talked with contemporary music scholar Gisela Gronemeyer about her work with Paik. ‘All these pieces (we did together) are half mine’, Moorman told her. ‘In performance, these are not Nam June Paik pieces, but Nam June Paik/ Charlotte Moorman pieces. They are all collaborations.’ Here, she suggests that Paik did not simply hand her a score that she simply followed. Rather. their creative process was based on the exchange of ideas during performance, and the results depended as much on her performative energy, ideas and audacity as they did on Paik’s concepts.
This version of Paik and Moorman’s story is, I will argue, the more accurate version. The iconic pieces they made together between 1964 and 1967 – Sonata for Adults Only, Variations on a Theme by Saint-Seans, Opera Sextronique and others – fuse art, sex, sound, comedy and spectacle through an improvisational, associative working process in which they both participated. Many of their most provocative ideas were developed during two tours of Europe in 1965 and 1966. These two tours might be thought of as an extended, itinerant jam session – not a one-way flow of information from composer to performer, but an ongoing duet between equals.
When they met in 1964, both Paik and Moorman were ready for the challenge of their partnership. For four years Paik had been pursuing a quixotic effort to correct what he later described as a ‘lamentable historical blunder’: the absence of sex from classical music. His first idea was to find a woman willing to perform striptease in a piece he called Etude for Pianoforte, but he could find no one, not even prostitutes, who would agree. In 1962 he tried to engage a female pianist to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata‘ in the nude. Again he could find no one, so instead he did it himself, calling the piece Sonata quasi una fantasia. Later that year, he was briefly hopeful that he had found his partner in Fluxus artist Alison Knowles. He wrote Serenade for Alison for her – a striptease in which she was to remove several pairs of panties of various colours. She performed it twice ( with her own modifications) before deciding it was not for her. ‘(The piece) made me isolate the femaleness of my body and present it as if it was especially important’, Knowles later said. ‘(Emphasising) the ‘objectness’ of woman was not my way.’ Their partnership did not develop, so Paik suspended his search and turned his attention to other things.
Text of Serenade for Alison in décoll/age No3. ’62
SERENADE FOR ALISON
Take off a pair of yellow panties, and put them on the wall.
Take off a pair of white-lace panties, and look at the audience through them.
Take off a pair of red panties, and put them in the vest pocket of a gentleman.
Take off a pair of light-blue panties, and wipe the sweat off the forehead of an old gentleman.
Take off a pair of violet panties, and pull them over the head of a snob.
Take off a pair of nylon panties, and stuff them in the mouth of a music critic.
Take off a pair of black-lace panties, and stuff them in the mouth of the second music critic.
Take off a pair of blood-stained panties, and stuff them in the mouth of the worst music critic.
Take off a pair of green panties, and make an omelette-surprise with them.
If possible, show them that you have no more panties on.
Nam June Paik
panties: in German – ‘Unterhose’
in French – ‘sous-vetements’
In June 1964 he came to New York and learned that Charlotte Moorman was looking for him. She arranged a meeting on 12 June 1964 at a luncheonette in midtown Manhattan. She told him that she was planning a production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s musical theatre piece Originale, and needed Paik in the cast. He immediately said yes. Then he made her an invitation: would she be his partner and perform striptease in a work he would write for her? It was an outlandish proposal, but Moorman hesitated only briefly before she agreed.
Charlotte Moorman’s Own Words
Moorman had been deeply involved with New Music already for three years when she met Paik. Since 1961 she had studied and performed open-form works by Earle Brown, Joseph Byrd, John Cage, Barney Childs, Philip Corner, Morton Feldman and La Monte Young. She was infatuated by what she called the ‘sensuous, emotional aesthetic and almost mystical power’ of their music, and liberated by the performative freedom that required her to make choices – sometimes in the moment of performance – about the nature, duration and sequence of the sounds she played. She also had ventured into the downtown avant-garde scene, taking part in Yoko Ono’s first major solo concert, Works by Yoko Ono, and Judson Dance Theatre’s Concert * 4. In early 1963 she had even begun to organise concerts: for a YAMDAY event at Hardware Poet’s Playhouse, she convinced a group of sceptical classical musicians to play a program of works by thirteen contemporary composers, including Edgar Varese, Luciano Berio, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner, and John Cage.
In other words, when Moorman met Paik at the luncheonette in June 1964, she was already very comfortable with risk and improvisation. Paik later acknowledged his luck in finding ‘maybe the one and only (woman) in the whole world’ who ‘would play classical music semi-nude in public’. The infusion of sex into classical music was a major preoccupation during their early years together and can stand as an example of their collaborative relationship.
Within months of their meeting Paik delivered the striptease piece he had promised her. Pop Sonata was premiered at the Philadelphia College of Art on 16 October 1964 and repeated at the New School in New York City on 8 January 1965. The score (which was probably communicated verbally) called for Moorman to shed her jewellery, clothing and several pairs of panties one piece at a time, alternating the striptease with phrases from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite no. 3 in C Major for Unaccompanied Cello. Pop Sonata is based closely on Serenade for Alison, but it has a new ending: when Moorman had removed everything except her underwear, she lay on the floor and finished the piece with her cello atop her like a lover. With this striking new finale and Moorman as soloist, Serenade for Alison was transformed into a parodic live sex show for the cultivated classes in which a woman holds her lover/cello between her thighs, expertly caresses it as she strips to the music of Bach, and consummates their ecstatic artistic union on the floor.
Pop Sonata (later renamed Sonata for Adults Only) put Moorman’s native talents to brilliant use. It was also the first work on which they collaborated.
In early 1965 Paik conceived another erotic number for Moorman. This time it was not a discrete composition but a modification to a work already in her repertoire: John Cage’s 26’1.1499″ for a String Player. Cage’s score gives precise direction for sounds to be made on the strings and body of the instrument, but also includes a line for other sounds, which can be produced in any way the musician chooses. Moorman chose to fire a gun, pop balloons, rub a microphone in gravel and bang on a trashcan lid, among other things.
Hence Paik’s motif, which is known as Human Cello. At a given point in the piece, Moorman puts her instrument aside and Paik stripped to the waist, knelt between her thighs, and stretched a single cello string taut across the length of his bare back. As he pressed his face against her bosom, she thumped, slapped and bowed the string he held – it is clear that privileging actions over sounds was exactly Paik and Moorman’s point.
Human Cello was debuted at the Philadelphia College of Art on 26 February 1965, along with Paik’s second full composition for Moorman: Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens. The piece is based on ‘The Swan’, the best-known movement of Camille Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals (1886).
Paik’s composition uses a structural formula identical to the one he had used in Pop Sonata: take a work from the standard cello repertoire and disrupt it with an absurd intervention. Its sequence is simple: after playing the first several measures of the Saint-Saens, Moorman put down her cello and walked across the stage to a waiting oil drum that was, unbeknownst to the audience, filled with water. With a look of focused concentration, she climbed a stepladder near to the drum, perched briefly at the top, then lowered herself feet first into the water. She returned to her seat, dripping wet, to finish the piece. It was an inspired visual and musical pun – for a moment the cellist stops imitating the swan and becomes the swan – a lighthearted comment on the artifice of program music in general.
Variations on a theme by Saint-Saens was performed at each of the eight concerts on their 1965 tour, which began in Reykjavik and ended in Florence. As they moved through Europe, they changed the piece in response to site and circumstance. By the end of the tour, Paik’s ‘Swan’ had evolved from a broad joke into a complex exploration of sexual power dynamics and voyeurism. Its gradual transformation makes for a constructive case study of their working method.
In Iceland they performed their ‘Swan’ as they had in Philadelphia, but at their next venue, the American Center in Paris, they made an impromptu adjustment. They had come to participate in Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Second Festival of Free Expression. On the night of their concert, 21 May 1966, the gown Moorman wore during ‘The Swan’ was left behind at their hotel, an hour’s taxi ride from the American Center. Since she did not have time to retrieve it, Paik improvised a new dress: he swaddled her in clear cellophane, borrowed from a roll he had found backstage (a prop for Ben Vautier’s concert the next night). When Moorman performed Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens that night, she was essentially nude.
In an essay written many years later, Paik recalled the evening in detail and claimed that it was the first time Moorman had taken the stage in a state of near nudity. In fact, nine months earlier she had appeared in essentially the same costume: a tightly wound swath of sheer gauze, which she wore during a performance of Originale.
As its February 1965 debut in Philadelphia Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens was a simple variation with an extravagantly visual interpolation. It depended on discontinuity, defined by composer Jonathan D. Kramer as a musical device through which ‘expectation is subverted (and) complacency is destroyed’. But as they travelled through Europe, they improvised a more complex ‘Swan’ in which variation was layered on variation, to greater and greater erotic effect. Both Paik and Moorman embraced improvisation as a destabilising activity that kept their work flexible and responsive to local conditions, while keeping them engaged. As they put it in their promotional materials, ‘To Miss Moorman and Mr Paik, the unexpected is not a threat . . . it is welcome.’ Without improvisation, even a Variation can become formulaic.
Paik and Moorman returned to Europe in 1966. They continued to alter their standard works, occasionally making an inspired nod to their locale. In Venice, for example, they performed Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saens in a gondola and used the Grand Canal as a water barrel. (‘My idea’, recalled Paik, ‘but I was shocked when she went in.’) The 1966 tour is notable, however, for two sexually charged additions they made to their program: Yoko Ono’s powerful Cut Piece and Paik’s Cello Sonata Opus 69, the precursor to Opera Sextronique.
Cut Piece is a kind of reverse striptease in which the audience is invited to cut away the performer’s clothing bit by bit. Ono understood Cut Piece as an inversion of the usual exchange between performer and spectator: ‘Instead of giving the audience what the artist chooses to give, the artist gives what the audience chooses to take.’ But the piece is also a broader exploration of the symbiotic relationship between artist and viewer.
Moorman had seen Ono perform Cut Piece in New York in March 1965, and had been impressed by ‘the elegance, the drama, the seriousness of the whole thing’. A photograph of Moorman performing Cut Piece in Aachen on 25 July 1966 suggests the work’s emotional hazards. Two men go at her dress from behind while Paik, who had issued the invitation to cut, stands over them, watching. Moorman’s face is hard and masklike, her neck tense. She understood the real possibility of violence that was implicit in Cut Piece. It was a risky piece to add to their program, and the idea was almost certainly Moorman’s. She had known Ono since 1961 and had enormous respect for her work. Still, after a performance in Frankfurt on 26 July during which the audience cut away almost everything she wore, she retired it from her repertoire for two months.
Moorman made the most extraordinary and perhaps the most fateful performative decision of her career during the 1966 tour. She and Paik travelled to Berlin for a series of concerts organised by the Galerie Rene Block. On 17 July Paik had arranged to present the European premiere of Erik Satie’s Vexations, a highly eccentric work for piano with a single musical motif that is to be repeated 840 times. A full performance takes about eighteen hours and requires a relay team of pianists. Moorman was one of them. About two hours into the evening, when she came on for her second shift, she was topless.
The sight of her must have been a jarring interruption for an audience nearly hypnotised by the gentle repetition of Satie’s motif. It was also a discontinuity for which Paik took credit. In a tongue-in-cheek essay entitled ‘The Confession of a Topless (?) Cellist’, he claimed to have encouraged Moorman to bare her breasts in order to compensate for her poor piano skills. Whether or not this jest is true, it is easy to imagine that ‘topless Satie’ was Paik’s idea. If interrupting Bach with a striptease was a poke at the bourgeoisie, adding nudity to Vexations was an impertinence aimed squarely at the avantgarde. More precisely, it was aimed squarely at John Cage, a Satie enthusiast who had uncovered the long-forgotten score for Vexations and arranged its premiere in New York in 1963. The genesis of ‘topless Satie’ is ambiguous. A few days after the performance, when a reporter from Die Ziet asked Moorman why she had thought to play Satie while topless, she told him a story that suggests the idea might have been hatched between herself and Cage. Before she and Paik left for Europe, she said, Cage had made her a bet that she would not have the nerve to do it. ‘Now he owes me a hundred dollars’, she concluded.
Whatever the origin of ‘topless Satie’, Paik was astounded when Moorman did it, and her performance once again inspired him. He recalled, ‘Passing through East Germany’s grey buildings and quiet ‘car-less’ streets, (I) pondered, ‘If there is progress in society and progression in mathematics, then why not the progressive progression in music???’ Thus the Opera Sextronique was born.’ A preliminary sketch of that fateful work, with the crudely suggestive title Cello Sonata Opus 69, was debuted in Aachen two days after the Satie performance. It was a variation on the popular German Christmas carol ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’; Moorman played the tune topless while wearing a series of cheap masks. The revised and expanded version was performed in New York on 9 February 1967 as Opera Sextronique. During the concert Paik and Moorman were both arrested. He was quickly released, but Moorman went to trial and was convicted of indecent exposure.
Opera Sextronique and its aftermath brought Paik and Moorman face to face with the real consequences of their playful efforts to sexualise music. Deeply shaken by the experience of the trial, Paik never composed another piece of erotic music for Moorman. Instead, he made her the chaste TV Bra, debuted in 1969, which carefully concealed her breasts behind tiny television tubes encased in plastic boxes; two years later he created (on her suggestion) the magnificent but nonsexual TV Cello. They continued to improvise with both bra and cello. As Moorman was playing, Paik often scanned the audience with a video camera, feeding the live images to the monitors. Moorman became a virtuoso at extemporising amazing sounds on her electronically enhance instruments. Their working method, developed at the very beginning of their relationship, would never change. As they wrote in 1966: ‘It is artistic dedication that compels Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik to create new art forms rather than to work in and improve on the existing traditional art forms. They know what they’re doing, where they’re going, and what the things they are creating mean and could mean.
Beneath the hyperbole and the imagery, there is a strong and clear assertion: they were peers. They were ‘doing, going and creating’ together, as a team. Nam June Paik never claimed that he was the artist and Charlotte Moorman merely his interpreter; the claim has been made on his behalf by others. Their work together tells a very different story.
Pixel Reanimator is a virtual performance artist. He studies and writes about art & ideas.