In September 2016, I conducted an interview with Alvin Lucier, the American composer, and Julie Martin, director of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the nonprofit organization co-founded in 1966 in New York by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver (Martin’s late husband) and Fred Waldhauer. Amongst the variety of peak New York reminisces and anecdotes told between the two — and through Lucier’s inimitable, profound stutter — a peculiar instance happened.
As conversations tend to do when recounting these old mid-century composition stories, the two broached on the subject of John Cage and David Tudor. In his storytelling, Lucier’s seriousness deepened. He recalled that “all of my composer friends were trying to get their pieces performed by the Boston Philharmonic, while Cage and Tudor filled up their cars with electronics and drove out in the snow.” He told the tale solemnly and with humor. Referring to Cage and Tudor as “these guys,” Lucier pushed on about “Tudor with all his wires, [how] things didn’t work… [how] 10 or 11 people were in the audience… [how] they were traveling through snowstorms, playing their own music while my friends were waiting to have their pieces performed once in their lifetimes.” As he recounted his admiration for the two, his story halted. He recalled the poet and Fluxus co-founder Dick Higgins (who died in 1998), proclaiming that he knew, before anyone else, how important these two musicians were. Lucier mused, moved to tears at the thought — “How Dick… how he knew that they were something… How did Dick have the insight?” The man held his hands to his face and broke down, still flabbergasted how anyone could have.
Given the meme-able and comic ease many compare John Cage with shitty noise music, Lucier’s driving-through-the-snow-to-play-a-show story may sound redundant and unimpressive to younger ears. Yet, the fact that composer and curator Sean McCann sees affinity with Dick Higgins shows a less-than-obvious but necessary consideration of their contemporary kinship to the D.I.Y. “snow-driving” aesthetic. Higgins’s sensitivity to Cage and Tudor in the mid-20th century is traced by McCann’s compositional interest in musicians like Matthew Sullivan, Gabi Losoncy, Eric Schmid, and the younger members of the Recital program (including McCann himself), who perhaps can’t really relate to Lucier’s problem of “waiting for the Boston Philharmonic.” This newer archaeology is mapped in McCann’s label curation by positioning these fragile forms alongside the fragile works that Higgins’s watchful eye would have seen clearly, before anyone else. McCann’s own eye is sharp in his ardent support of the work of young composers as well as the narratives of composers like Loren Connors and Annea Lockwood. Higgins’s role as a champion for Fluxus art, his founding of Something Else Press, and his position as a critical theorist who shaped the concept of Intermedia all develop an important ecology that substantiates his position as “a hero” for McCann.
It is in this context that McCann’s Recital Program deservedly releases Higgins’s first-ever vinyl record, Poems & Metapoems.
Poems & Metapoems is a series of recordings of Dick himself reading his own poetry, readings McCann describes as “alike a cantor, [as] each word is delivered perfectly with strong warmth.” Surely, the record opens with the warmth of “REQUIEM FOR WAGNER THE CRIMINAL MAYOR,” a voice/tape manipulation piece from 1962 that could sit within any contemporary noise continuum — all the more impressive in that all the sounds are voice-generated, “even those that sound like sine waves.” The rest of the album consists of language shapes, per se, from the minimalist Kangaroo free-love musing of “Long Tail for Jessie” to the object-oriented semantic wheeling of “Meta-,” “Gentle Talk,” or “ψευδώνυμο.” As McCann notes, Higgins demonstrates an utterly impressive ability to relay pattern-based poems into sonics; his poems can get stuck in your head like bird-song, rhythmically carving out maps and scores of a profound musical character. They gleam and dangle as his recitations detail Boris Blastoff finally dreaming about life — toying with cauliflower; of crap shooting songs, frigid angles, and the lord’s bad penny; of peonies and pseudonyms and garlic; objective about objectivity — as if to say “yes to this elbow here.” The result is a visual, musical, narrative/non-narrative poetry spoken in Higgins’s magnificent and temperate reading voice.
Originally published by composer/poet Charlie Morrow’s New Wilderness Audiographics as a cassette, the album was recorded in 1982 and contains Higgins reading of poems he wrote between 1958-1980. When taken in one sitting, the album stands as a powerful reminder of how our more abstract, colder forms can ritornello back into colloquialism. Higgins’s understanding of the warmth between human words gives his poetry a casual intimacy “as the crow flies;” he expresses them as a deeply personal, serene sandwich-making music. How he wrangles words, repetitiously and intensely, into casual forms, is a lifelong project that sought to render the often esoteric strands of mid-century Fluxus work and Intermedia into a table-top, “common to farming” style. Here, one can easily see Higgins’s keen understanding of the “snow-driving-aesthetic” — a sensitivity that drove Lucier to tears. Higgins was able to understand and compassionately support Tudor’s folkloric piles of wires, celebrate how Cage plugged them into circuits improperly and gleefully, and curate around the potential failure of their careful cartography and apparatus. McCann’s and his Recital Program’s relationship to this lineage is succinct; the two intersect at their love of the project of composition as the arbiter for a deeply complex, serene musicality. As the artist Ken Friedman notes, behind Higgins’s abstract inclinations stood a deeper, more complex figure. “He was cut of the same cloth as the great humanists […] Higgins was a quiet, tireless contributor to the world of ideas.”
Writing in 1981 from Barrytown New York, Dick Higgins casually, and with complete smartness, blows minds:
For all my fondness of patterns, structures, and puns, I do not consider myself a formal poet as such, but try to stay close to the principles of Romanticism set forth by the Schlegel brothers and Novalis in the early days of German Romanticism. I reject poems which lack emotional content, and I choose works according to the expression which they suggest to me as an ordinary reader. What is expressed is, therefore, not my personal feelings which are inherent in the experiences to which the poems refer. The poems are then notations for emotional experience in the same sense that musical notations are notations for musical experience.