Apologies to Galen for diverting from his intended topic. I’ll start my own post based on the following paragraph from Galen’s post:

“Some pieces of “music” were even more conceptual, from La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 10 “Draw a straight line and follow it,” which he would actually perform, drawing the aforementioned line in chalk on the floor, to Takehisa Kosugi’s Music for a Revolution which simply instructs “Scoop out one of your eyes 5 years from now and do the same with the other eye 5 years later.” I think we can safely assume that Music for a Revolution is still waiting for its premiere.”

Here are the comments:

Comment from Daniel | Edit comment
Time: January 30, 2007, 6:32 pm

I’m all for adventurous explorations in music, but the conceptual “music” in your paragraph regarding the chalk and pulling out your eyeball, strikes me less as music (I acknowledge your quotation marks around the word), and more as conceptual art. I think it’s important to make this distinction. Is it helpful to group a Mozart piano sonata and Takehisa Kosugi’s piece for eyeballs in the same artisitic category? Why not call it “conceptual art” (not music) and be done with it. Art is a much more forgiving umbrella than music. Sorry for diverting the subject matter.

Comment from Evan Johnson | Edit comment
Time: January 30, 2007, 7:34 pm

Is it helpful to group a Mozart piano sonata and Takehisa Kosugi’s piece for eyeballs in the same artisitic category?

Well, for one thing, doesn’t it make one think about Mozart a little bit differently?

Comment from Galen H. Brown | Edit comment
Time: January 30, 2007, 8:51 pm

Well, I don’t entirely disagree with you Daniel, but the relevant thing for the argument I’m preparing is that Young and Kosugi themselves called the pieces music. The fact that Compositon 1960 #7, widely considered one of the first Minimalist pieces, is part of the same series as Composition 1960 #10 is particularly relevant to Part II, which I why I brought it up here.

My position: Is it helpful to group a Mozart piano sonata and Takehisa Kosugi’s piece for eyeballs in the same artisitic category? Why not call it “conceptual art” (not music) and be done with it.

Response to Evan: No, I don’t think differently about Mozart. Nor do I listen to Mozart differently know being aware of this eyeball thing. Should I?

31 Responses to “Mozart and eyeballs”
  1. andrea says:

    daniel, are you the kind of guy who thinks yoko ono is the beyotch who broke up the beatles or do you recognize her as an artist and musician in her own right who was part of an important and influential art/music movement that was happening parallel to what was happening in rock?

    is it helpful to group a mozart piano sonata and a zorn improv in the same artistic category? is it helpful to group a zorn improv and kosugi conceptual piece in the same artistic category?

    this is what subcategories are for. it’s all music and then there are types of music. why can’t we call kosugi’s work ‘conceptual music?’ why do we have to take the music out of it?

  2. Daniel says:

    I don’t know any of Yoko Ono’s work, and could care less why the Beatle’s broke up, so, no, I’m not “that guy.”

    Zorn’s, Coltrane’s, Mingus’, and Corigliano’s improvisations are all fine with me because they involve musicians creating sound. Conceptual music is fine by me, but creating a work of conceptual art and calling it music when it doesn’t require a musician making sound seems absurd.

    I’m a composer. Does that mean that I can write a novel and call it a symphony?

  3. andrea says:

    bob ashley does that, but calls them operas instead. many folks wrote symphonic poems.

    if you call it music, then you will associate it with sound. whether or not a physical sound is made, you can imagine sounds in your head. i think if kosugi wants to call his concept music (something heard) as opposed to art (painted, constructed, seen) or dance (felt) or theatre (acted out), then instead of acting like it somehow lessens the value of mozart (guilt by association), it would be more constructive to think about how it could be perceived as music if you wanted it to be and then (or alternatively) just leave it alone. it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eyeball (and then the other one five years later).

  4. Ian Moss says:

    I’m a composer. Does that mean that I can write a novel and call it a symphony?


  5. andrea says:

    oh, and i remember reading a passage to india in high school and my teacher pointing out repeatedly that forester thought of it as a sonata. (that enabled me to write my one decent essay in that class…). so, daniel, you have my explicit permission to write a novel and call it a symphony. let me know how it turns out. (it’s not like we’re calling apples “oranges.” or nutrients “food” – definitely read the michael pollan article from the nyt magazine this past sunday…)

  6. Steve Layton says:

    Well, that Bach Brandenburg Concerto is a play: a group of people gathered together and made to perform actions according to a script. That they make sounds instead of speak is only incidental. It’s also a piece of kinetic sculpture, that just happens to make sound as well. It’s also a dance, with small but very tightly controlled movements, minutely choreographed, in which the dancers create their own music. A recording of it could be considered a conceptual film; one that provides the soundtrack, through which the listener will create the visual images.

    But though I acknowledge these, I don’t personally accept them. Most art shares the same complex of elements, both as regards concepts and physical media. But the weights and “polarities” of each defines which art it is. Subverting a work’s identity by maginfying the peripheral is really useful sometimes; but then sincerely to call it something other than what it is seems just lazy ignorance or simple juvenile rebellion (of course, calling it something insincerely *is* perfectly good, since there’s clear awareness and intention through metaphor, a strong art-element in itself).

  7. andrea says:

    point taken, steve, but we should take kosugi’s eyeball work in the context of his oeuvre and the fluxus oeuvre. can i just write oeuvre again? such a fun word. anyway… kosugi is not some hack succumbing to lazy ignorance or juvenile rebellion (though i think there is a dash of the latter in the whole fluxus aesthetic). it’s okay not to agree with the fluxus aesthetic or kosugi’s aesthetics but to simply dismiss them as fools dicking around with juvenilia is a cop out. we don’t approach analysis of mozart and zorn or sunnO))) or zimbabwean mbira with the same methods or standards, but we can still call them music, we look at it both in an historical context and in a formal context. just because this particular kosugi piece is one sentence (and a rather graphic one), we think we’ve got it all figured out and can dismiss it as soon as we’ve finished reading it.

  8. Steve Layton says:

    The Kosugi piece *is* serious, and a very powerfully evocative piece of art. But though it references music, it’s not music. The weight and polarity of its elements puts it into poetry, literature or theater instead. Even the act of Kosugi sincerely calling this oeuvre (just wanted to make you swoon a little again, Andrea…) music can only end up being poetic.

  9. I don’t have an issue with Daniel wanting to call this piece conceptual art instead of music — it’s the “and be done with it” that bothers me.

    I usually refer to “King Lear” as theater, not music — but I’m far from being done with it.

  10. Daniel says:

    Don’t take me so literally…I’m conceptual :)

  11. andrea says:

    well, if you’re conceptual the kosugi should be right up your alley! whether we call it music or not, we should still consider its musical possibilities precisely because the composer invites us to by calling it music and we should also – whether we personally consider it music or not – consider the influence fluxus movement/performance art movement on minimalism and postminimalism, which is all galen was asking us to do in the first place. regardless of how fluxus may or may not fit into your personal universe, it still exerted influence on the art/music/etc. around it and following it. in order to understand that influence, it would behoove us to consider these texts/concepts/blahblahblah as music — we don’t have to believe that premise in order to imagine how it could be.

  12. Seth Gordon says:

    this is what subcategories are for. it’s all music and then there are types of music. why can’t we call kosugi’s work ‘conceptual music?’ why do we have to take the music out of it?

    Well, I would say once it ventures out of the realm of sound it’s some other form – performance, conceptual, whatever – but it’s not music-art unless it relates to sound somehow. And I have about as broad a definition of “music” as one will find, from Mozart to Merzbow to machinery. If the instruction was “stick a screwdriver in one ear” – then okay, I’d be with you.

    I love Yoko. Loooooooooooooove. I’ve said it a million times before: Lennon married up. But some of her work was music, some visual, some conceptual, some performance. There’s a lot of overlap, sure, you get a lot of that with Fluxus and Gutai and all that – but sometimes, while it may be difficult to pinpoint what something is, it’s not hard to pinpoint what it is not. Music for a Revolution may have “music” in the title, but it’s no more a piece of music than Paul Auster’s Music of Chance, or Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent an actual season, or the Lord of the Dance and actual Lord of anything.

    I don’t think the title came out of laziness or rebellion (maybe, possibly the latter, given Group Ongaku’s “anti-music” stance) – but really, I suspect the term “music” was just used for poetic reasons. Because it conjures cool imagery. I doubt it had anything to do with classification.

    More importantly, I don’t think that to say it isn’t music is to dismiss the work itself in any way. No one’s saying “that’s not music” in the same sense as, say, 1950s Old Man upon hearing Rock-n-Roll for the first time.

    Anyway, if people don’t know by now that Ringo broke up the Beatles, they’re beyond help.

    I’m a composer. Does that mean that I can write a novel and call it a symphony?

    Sure. Hell, you can call it a “corned beef sandwich” if you want.

  13. “it’s no more a piece of music than Paul Auster’s Music of Chance, or Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent an actual season, or the Lord of the Dance an actual Lord of anything.”

    You’d better watch out, because if you keep this up the Secret Police of the Dance are going to come for you in the night.

  14. Steve Layton says:

    I hear they hold you down and do that dance right on your face; not a pretty sight when they’re done with you…. Come to think of it, I heard they’ve got a guest spot on this season’s “24″.

  15. Jeffrey Quick says:

    ” creating a work of conceptual art and calling it music when it doesn’t require a musician making sound seems absurd.”

    Can you scoop out your eyes without making a sound?
    You da man!

  16. Daniel says:

    It seems that a “conceptual artist” would embrace “conceptual art” rather than “music,” because it’s much less definitive. Or I am seeing a contradiction: anything goes, but be careful what you call us.

    I think Seth makes a good point about overlap. So why should you care if I pull my eyes (in complete silence) and call it performance art instead of music? Especially if I can write a symphony and call it a corn beef sandwich.

  17. Evan Johnson says:

    The point I was trying to make was: consider the ways in which the Kosugi piece and your favorite Mozart solo piece overlap. Both involve: theatricality; physical strain, although there is of course a difference in degree; a sense of arbitrariness, pointlessness, futility, whatever; and so forth. By calling his eyeball symphony “music” Kosugi is locating the essense of that term in a place we don’t ordinarily locate it, viz., everywhere in the tradition of public musical performance EXCEPT the sounding result. (Although I hadn’t considered the inevitable sounds of the eyeball process, Jeffrey – oh so many thanks for putting THAT in my head).

    You may or may not find this worthwhile or intruiging or thought-provoking; to me, despite the somewhat dated and perhaps juvenile sensationalism of the specifics, it’s extremely profound.

  18. andrea says:

    AND, as galen was saying these sorts of things had a big influence on the music that followed it. that’s why it’s helpful to use the same label for mozart and for kosugi’s eyeball piece. keep in mind, too, that kosugi and young are musicians, who were trying to stretch their boundaries; they aren’t theater people making performance art and then deciding to call it music just for shits’n'giggles.

  19. Stefan says:

    “Composer” is a pretty general term. According to Zappa, a composer is simply someone who organizes stuff. I tend to agree with that broad definition. Perhaps our more purist friends should stop hijacking the word “composer” as a substitute for “organizer of pretty sounds, exclusively.” Why do so many try to maintain partitions in the world of art?

  20. Seth Gordon says:

    According to Zappa, a composer is simply someone who organizes stuff.

    Yes, well, according to Zappa formal education is overrated and we’d be better off pulling our children out of school as soon as we’re legally allowed. So, like, I’m not gonna take his definitions to mean much of anything.

    That (and some of his politics) aside, I rather like Zappa.

    our more purist friends should stop hijacking the word “composer” as a substitute for “organizer of pretty sounds, exclusively.”

    Is this comment in the right thread? I don’t believe anyone suggested anything of the sort.


    Anyway, here’s my thing:

    Open any dictionary. Look up “music” and you will find that in every case, the definition includes terms like “sound” or “auditory” or “aural” – the only exception being in the context of “face the music” (hmm… maybe that’s what Kosugi meant?)

    Point is that the piece in question is not, unless we’re talking about the squishy sounds, an actual piece of Music. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the title, mind you – I think there’s something wrong with the literal interpretation, with assuming that that’s how the piece should be approached, just because that word is there.

    If someone who was primarily a poet wrote an instrumental piano piece and called it “Poem of Summer” – would the academic poetry community treat said piano piece as if it were an actual poem? Attempt to analyze it as if it were free verse? If John Adams threw some paint on a canvas and called it “Symphony of Purple” would that make the painting an actual Symphony, to be judged alongside and in the same way as his musical works? No, no, no. Ity’s no big secret that words – Poem, Symphony, Music, Corned Beef Sandwich, to name a few – are often used not for their specific meaning but for the imagery they conjure, for the feelings they imply. We shouldn’t make the mistake of taking everything literally. We’re (most of us) artists – we’re supposed to be keenly aware of subtlety and metaphor.

    Man, I am so heading straight to Katz’s when I get outta work. Nothin’ subtle about that symphony of meaty goodness.

  21. andrea says:

    but you’re taking the whole thing out of the context in which that piece was written: the fluxus movement. and i’ll say it again, no matter what we think of the title or the sound or lack thereof, the experiments that the fluxus folks were doing were a big influence on the minimalist and post-minimalist movements that followed.

    so the whole question of is it helpful to group fluxus text pieces in the same category as a mozart sonata since there’s no sound involved is the wrong question to be asking. why would a group of accomplished musicians (remember, yoko was going to be a concert pianist, too) even consider making soundless music? why would they choose to continue to call it music? how did these philosophies filter into other people’s aesthetics when they chose to continue to make ‘actual’ music? how did it affect the fluxus folks when they turned back to sound?

  22. Daniel says:

    Purist friends? Referring to me, I assume. Of course, I could be playing “devil’s advocate,” which would then make your judgement of me, and anyone, wrong. I don’t think I was getting personal with anyone. Sorry if your feelings are hurt by this friendly discussion.

  23. Walter Ramsey says:

    Even if you are playing devil’s advocate you have to take responsibility for your words. If someone judges you based on your own words, which you didn’t mean in the first place, it’s hardly their fault, and usually in the end it makes them more right!

    This question about the definition of music seems to pop up periodically around here, and I think it is less a quest to find a universal defintion then an expression of psychogical insecurity, anxiety either about one’s own approach to music, or anxiety over one’s response to the work in question.

    That being said the attempts to make this eye thing into music seem pretty weak but also humorous: “squishy sounds,” and using your “imagination” to turn it into music. Well, that’s not music, that’s your imagination.

    A lot of people also, probably justly, oppose making strict definitions in these kind of discussions. But if you are creating music, and have this anxiety over what it is and isn’t, it will directly affect your output, and you need to find a strict definition for yourself, then ignore all the bullsh!t that people try and shove down your throat about their latest “musical” composition, which contains not a single note or sound. How unoriginal is that? These people can’t even come up with an accurate name for what they are doing, and have to expropriate the name of something totally unrelated.

    (Happy Birthday A.R. :D)

    Walter Ramsey

  24. Kyle Gann says:

    I grew up in the tail end of the Fluxus period – bought La Monte’s Anthology in high school, and The Four Suits by Phil Corner, Alison Knowles, et al came out when I was a freshman, and so on. Between writing relentlessly atonal crap we’d sit around in college making these conceptual art pieces, which now I would be way too embarrassed to ever quote. What seemed exciting at the time was the way the artistic media were starting to blur into each other. Every time someone attempted a strict definition of music or poetry or sculpture, someone would come out with another example just slightly further out, and say, “Well how about this?!” It seemed that if we couldn’t come up with strict workable definitions, then there were no real boundaries between the arts, and finally Robert Ashley famously pronounced, “The best definition of music would be one that made no reference to sound at all.” It seemed like a very deep philosophical principle at the time, like all arts, maybe all human activities, were about to meld and become one. Of course, past a certain limit it began to seem like a post-Wittgensteinian demonstration of the limitations of words more than anything else.

    It’s funny to see that history re-emerge out of context, without the intensely rapid step-by-step nature of its development being apparent. It all made a kind of brilliant perfect sense at the time, given how each new piece was conceptually topping the one before it. Then in the ’80s we went through something similar with the boundaries between pop, classical, and jazz: “Can a bunch of electric guitars be classical?” “Can a string quartet be rock?” And one night at a bar Ashley, once again, said to me, “If it’s over five minutes, it’s classical, under five minutes it’s pop.”

  25. andrea says:

    using your “imagination” to turn it into music. Well, that’s not music, that’s your imagination.

    where else does music take place but in your imagination? there is an affliction called amusia in which one cannot make sense of music; ravel suffered from this, which i find far worse than going deaf. music depends on imagination for its existence; otherwise it’s just vibrations, whether heard or imagined.

  26. Walter Ramsey says:

    I would say that music takes place in reality, and the role of imagination is to create music, and to interpret when you hear it. Your sense of hearing functions to percieve reality.

    Walter Ramsey

  27. What about this.

    If you call something that doesn’t seem like music music, then you’re committing a very interesting poetic act. If you’re interested in music, you may want to think about such a naming or decide not to do so. If you’re interested in the thing suddenly named as music, you may want to think about such a naming or decide not to do so. Such thinking might be productive in some way or other.

    The whole quasi-legal, quasi-philosophical de0finition game strikes me as utterly pointless. What is gained if we establish that something is “not music”? Is it somehow musical to be waging arguments of that type?

  28. Walter Ramsey says:

    I agree, I think every time this argument comes up, it is more about a person’s anxiety over what to do, or how to react, then to find that universal, objective definition. But I suggest to those who are afflicted with anxiety, to find that definition, mark your creative boundaries, and refuse to accept what appears to be other people’s whims in what they designate to be “music.”

    What does it take to establish these boundaries? It may take experimentation – perhaps you want to “write” a “piece” where the performer’s fingernails are pulled out one by one, and the resulting screams of pain and torture are the beauteous strains of gloriously unnotated, aleatory music. Then you may realize where your boundaries are, that they are necessary to create the kind of works you want to create.

    It takes self-esteem to say, no, I will not accept this as music, no matter how much the person insists it is. Some will say this is close-minded but I disagree. It is one thing to accept another person holds an opinion, it is quite another to accept that opinion as valid.

    Walter Ramsey

  29. Jeff says:

    So what kind of training do I need to become a conceptual artist? Are there any degrees involved? I just this moment had a concept of a toothbrush that also takes you to other

    dimensions(tartar-control toothpaste takes you to good dimensions, whitening toothpaste

    takes you to bad dimensions). The problem is that I have absolutely no way to realize this

    concept and make it functional. Everyone comes up with concepts. I think we need to face

    the reality that most concepts in conceptual art don’t really mean anything and are simply a

    way for over-educated intellectuals to feel that they are contributing to the world without ever

    having to roll up their sleeves and do any actual work, research, performance, etc.

    Furthermore, there really needs to be an accurate descrption of music. If music is any kind

    of sound, is me eating my breakfast music? Is a football game music? Should George

    Halas(founder of the National Football League, for you over-educated intellectuals) be

    ranked with great composers such as Mozart, Shosatkovich and Kosugi? Why am I

    spending thousands of dollars on a composition degree when I could sit at home, smoke a

    lot of pot, come up with irrational, un-realizable ideas and be just as qualified as any other

    conceptual artist? This is why I am leaving the music profession, because contemporary

    music has become a very small group of snobbish, self-indulgent, uncaring egotists who

    have insulated themselves from the real world so that they don’t have to deal with reality.

    Had Kosugi at least performed the piece himself, I would have given his idea quite a bit more credence. Bottom line is, anyone can come up with concepts. An artist is someone who specializes in bridging the gap from concept to reality in order to communicate something. Until Kosugi scoops out his own eyeballs, he’s a hack, and so is anyone else who buys into it. It’s a scam, folks.

    Let my indictment at the hands of over-intellectualized snobs with too much time on their hands begin:

  30. Sounds like Jeff is having a rough toothpaste day.

    No one is going to convince anyone else on the value, utility, or meaningfulness of art. But it may be that the heart of any such discussion goes to which people ask “why?” and which people ask “why not?”

    Money encourages asking “why?” because a cost-(“value”-)based choice is made. When a culture as a whole is based on assigning value, the question of “why not?” is suspect. “Why not?” in economic terms is that moment of taking risk not with questionable reward but without considering reward at all. It’s the moment that, in fact, marketers count on when they have little of value to offer. As far as musical commerce goes, the number of people listening to (much less involved with) any niche of music (or art) is a small part of the general population, sometimes vanishingly small. Sell a million CDs and you’ve still only put one in the hands of every 300th person in America. So popularity is a kind of smokescreen anyway.

    But “why not?” has another dimension outside the capitalist model, and it opens the door to invention and creativity and challenge. Challenging perceptions is inherent in music, even in something so simple as a deceptive cadence in classical music. Why do it if not to set up a question? Why would Beethoven start a C major symphony on a foreign dominant seventh? Why would Respighi add bird sounds or Antheil a propeller? Or Varese use only percussion? Why would Cage prepare a piano? Why would Gosfield create a mechanical illusion with live musicians?

    Those are all clearly musical from our perspective, and the work of relatively mature artists. It crossed arts across the past 150 years. And by the time the chaos of the Twentieth Century reached its peak, the search for an alternative — any alternative — was widespread.

    (And, as an aside to your complaint, it was far from academic. Fluxus wasn’t academic. The arts cooperative that I helped found in the early 1970s wasn’t academic. Whatever the academy contributed, I don’t think it inspired Nam June Paik’s “Danger Music for Dick Higgins” 45 years ago.)

    For example, you ask for an accurate description of music. This is a “why?”-class question. The “why not?”-class question asks the critic to shift perception, to wonder and to be confounded by the question “why is it not music?” The implicit and irritating answer is that it *is* music, and that leads to a sometimes generation-defined response — a confounded or angry response in old folks like you & me, and an oh wow or cool response in younger folks.

    Once our perceptions are set, you and I, it’s very difficult to shift them — but the act of performance art challenges them and makes us spurt out things like it’s “so that they don’t have to deal with reality.” Your reality, or mine.

    And for old guys like you & me, there’s also the “been there, done that” response. How could it be that these same, tired confrontational ideas are coming around again? Didn’t we do those as young artists? (Didn’t Breton?) Didn’t we live through that? Well, no, we didn’t. The threshold of challenge to perception was much lower then; faced with so much of our art and that of our absurdist or surrealist predecessors coming into the commercial mainstream (by which I mean television commercials with non-linear story lines, absurdist content, and scenarios that would out-fluxus Fluxus), the challenge shifts to other areas.

    Now it could be you’re old and tired of challenge. I get that way a lot. Right now with my productivity project I’m finding it incredibly difficult to drag myself out of the perceptions, techniques and history that have accreted as my source of ideas. I finished my 23rd piece of the year last night, and though many are attractive or demanding on performers or ears, I’m hard pressed (from this close distance) to find anything that truly offers the challenge to existing musical form that so infused my youth. My stuff is good, but it’s me — older, mature, sometimes cautious because I’ve forgotten how to ask “why not?”

    You call it a scam. As Mary Jane Leach wrote last week on the topic of serialism, “I happen to like Babbitt’s music. The problem is (and was), that it’s just easier to talk about the objective things in music, and that is a handle on his and other’s like him that is easy to grasp (easy, that is, if numbers are easy for you). Unfortunately, not everyone had the subjective/artistic side together as well as he did, so that type of music suffered in reputation (to say nothing of suffering from bad, inflexible performances). If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, perhaps dodecaphonic music was the refuge of unartistic composers. ;-)”

    Her point is well made, and applies also to performance art, conceptual music, and other related genres. Not only is the creation a risk, but it’s a compound risk to accept it at face value and then discover you’ve been had. The alternative, of course, is to be like the dead narrator of Edgar Lee Masters’s “George Gray,” who says from beyond the grave, “It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

    But then, when you run out of ideas in the face of a perceptual challenge, what do you do? Reform your rock band and play at the Grammies and sing Dowland on the side?


  31. Samuel Vriezen says:

    Until Kosugi scoops out his own eyeballs, he’s a hack, and so is anyone else who buys into it. It’s a scam, folks.

    This is assuming that the purpose of musical composition is to be considered a composer, which is not correct. The purpose of music is to make a lot of money. Since Kosugi hasn’t been making much with this work, I don’t really see the problem.