a blog about culture, sound, music, and technology.
updated occasionally by Nick Seaver.
As you may know from casual mentions on the blog or elsewhere, I finished my summer sound class last weekend with an in-class performance of George Maciunas’s “Piano Piece #13 (For Nam June Paik).” In that piece, made more recently popular by a performance by Sonic Youth, the performers nail down all the keys on a piano.
Conceptually, it is a very rich piece, touching on political, social, and compositional issues with an impressive economy of means. To prepare for our group performance, we had a discussion about possible motivations for such a piece. My students came up with a variety of reasons, ranging from “to make room for the new” and “to silence the piano” to “euthanasia for a dying instrument” and “permanent sustain.” One of my favorite constructions took the language of the piano’s mechanism—the hammers hitting strings at the behest of the keys—to create a narrative where, by turning it around and hitting the keys with hammers, we were balancing out the violence inherent in the instrument.
Of course, in the context of a high school summer class, there is also room for the pleasures of wanton destruction. I am glad to report, however, that the predominant feeling in the class as we set to the performance was regret—sadness at the destruction of an instrument that students characterized as “beautiful,” “historical,” and “helpless.” The actual performance of the piece, as opposed simply reading about it, was a very powerful experience.
There are also lovely photos on a student of mine’s Flickr page.
One issue came up in my preparations for the class that I thought might be interesting to share. Since the final day of the class was about “Scores”, I wanted to find some primary source for Maciunas’s piece. These process-oriented pieces (like Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music”) tend to be passed around without scores—the instruction to “nail down all the keys” is not terribly hard to remember. But, looking in the MIT Libraries’ copy of Fluxus Codex, which supposedly is an encyclopedic reference of the “official” Fluxus works, “Piano Piece #13” was nowhere to be found! There are piano pieces #1-12 for Paik, published in 1962, but no #13.
A Google search on the piece turned up varying descriptions and dates, and, interestingly, continuous reference to the Sonic Youth performance and video on SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century. Every reference to the piece I found referred to the Sonic Youth version. One source mentioned that the piece was commonly confused with a similar piece by Tomas Schmit, “Sanitas 151, Fluxvariation 1,” which instructs to nail down all the keys of a “chromatic scale.” This piece, while not in the Fluxus Codex, is in the available-online Fluxus Performance Workbook [pdf link].
So, I’m not saying that Sonic Youth made up George Maciunas’s “Piano Piece #13,” but I’d sure like to know where they heard about it.