1966 Experimental Music Festival Is Coming Back to NYC

1966 Experimental Music Festival Is Coming Back to NYCEXPAND
Adelaide de Menil

For nine consecutive nights in October 1966, Manhattan's 69th Regiment Armory in Rose Hill hosted a performance series unconventional even by Sixties New York standards. Radio-controlled carts carried sound-producing sculptures back and forth across the venue. Audiences performed choreographed movements under the gaze of an infrared CCTV camera. A spiderweb of cables connected specially designed electronic devices operated by celebrated members of New York's avant-garde. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before.

The series was called "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering," and it was an intervention of sorts. It began when Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Labs, teamed up with the American painter Robert Rauschenberg to form Experiments in Art and Technology, or E.A.T., a group that would spend the next three decades facilitating artistic collaborations with engineers. Wary of the popular conception of art and science as antithetical, E.A.T.'s manifesto called to "eliminate the separation of the individual from technological change" by promoting "civilized collaboration between groups unrealistically developing in isolation." Their maiden voyage was "9 Evenings," arming luminaries like John Cage, Robert Whitman, and Yvonne Rainer with technologies that had never before been seen on a stage. It inaugurated a new school of tech-art collaboration, propelled by artists eager to unlock the potential of technologies far beyond their intended purposes.

"It was very utopian. The more I look back, the more I realize that," says Julie Martin, an E.A.T. member who helped produce "9 Evenings," and who now serves as the group's historian. "At the first meeting, [Klüver] said to the artists, 'tell the engineers what you want to do,' and everyone said they want to fly."

Half a century later, this philosophy of cross-discipline dialogue is ubiquitous in experimental music and performance. But, says the New York composer Tristan Perich, "9 Evenings" remains a guidepost even among today's avant-garde. "These were things that the DIY community is just barely tackling now, 50 years later," he says. "And it's more incredible that their approach seemed so DIY in spirit — that, to an actual engineer, everything is, in a way, DIY." Perich releases albums that play directly from circuits and programmed microchips and is one of two dozen performers participating in "9 Evenings + 50," a series beginning on September 16 that marks the original program's semicentennial. (His contribution is a duet for percussion and 1-bit microchip.)

The return of "9 Evenings," co-produced by Fridman Gallery and Martin, in association with Issue Project Room, doesn't attempt to faithfully re-create the collaborative structure of the original series. Rather, it features a cross-generational roster of performers — from legendary composers Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff to contemporary sound artists like Jacob Kirkegaard — who are in many ways products of this pivotal flirtation of art and engineering.

Many of the technologies that Klüver and his colleagues helped design for "9 Evenings" presaged tools that are now essential for experimental artists. Key among them was a modular electronic performance system called the Theater Electronic Environmental Module, or TEEM. One module switched stage lights on or off based on sonic frequencies, the sort of trick now standard in software programming platforms like Max/MSP; another used a light-sensitive grid and pen to trigger instruments on stage — a primitive version of the MIDI interfaces on which electronic musicians and DJs rely.

Each performance used the system differently. In Variations VII, Cage used telephone lines and radios to pipe live sound from throughout the city into the Armory's massive interior, where he had placed light-sensitive photocells that would toggle sound sources on and off as performers moved around the space. For Rauschenberg's Open Score, two people played tennis using rackets equipped with contact microphones and wireless FM transmitters, causing stage lights to go out one by one every time the ball was struck. When the piece's second movement began, audience members found themselves standing in darkness, while flashes of light gave them cues to perform choreographed actions, like removing their jackets or hugging a neighbor. All the while, an infrared camera — then still a classified military technology in the U.S. — captured movements in real time. (Martin says the camera was borrowed from a TV equipment dealer in South Jersey, who had somehow acquired one from Japan.)

Many of those performing at the "9 Evenings" anniversary are either contemporaries or students of the original participants. But ultimately, Martin says she wanted to commemorate "9 Evenings" by inviting artists she admires, ones who continue to explore sound using technology — with an emphasis on the sound.

"[Klüver] said at one point [that] the technology should be invisible," says Martin. "It wasn't as much about the technology as the collaboration between people — this idea that something could happen that would push them forward to a new understanding of what they were doing."

In that same tradition is sound artist Lesley Flanigan, whose Amplifications uses carefully arranged microphones, custom speaker-feedback instruments, and her own voice to create a cascading electronic séance. The waves of vocal resonance hearken back to the work of the venerated Lucier, a contemporary of Cage, David Tudor, and the rest of the original "9 Evenings" performers. Now 85, Lucier will give a rare performance during the anniversary series, along with his former student, the electronic-music pioneer Nicolas Collins.

For newer generations, E.A.T.'s legacy is perhaps best seen not in any particular collaboration or technology, but rather in the artists who now choose to become engineers themselves. "The few times I've tried to collaborate with someone more tech-savvy than me, I got bored really fast," Flanigan tells the Voice. "If there's anything I've learned from this project, it's to strip away more and more, to eliminate the extraneous tech to get to the heart of the sounds and materials that I'm working with."

"That's what I ultimately care most about: the sounds, not the technology."

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