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Nam June Paik with Charlotte Moorman and K-456. 

Photo by Peter Moore at Paik’s Lispenard Street studio, Aug 17, 1964

Musik Paik

by Giuseppe Gavazza

A few days ago, I went to the huge and charming OGR in Turin, Italy to explore the exhibit Biennale of Moving Images: The Sound of Screens Imploding. The title and some details of the works presented in the exhibit led me to think about the influence on present-day art of Nam June Paik, starting from the deep relation between music and moving images, passing across the imploding screens and explosive performances.


Thinking about Paik and his relation to music immediately brings to mind the performance One for Violin Solo (Solo for Violin) that, unluckily, I know only from video. I watched Burkhard Schlotauer’s performance (the one I prefer among the few available online) several times, and every time the tension in anticipating the critical point is the same, and the fatal instant always surprise me.


Nam June Paik, Internet Dreams, 1994 Photo © ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Photo: Steffen Harms

I have often thought of performing it myself (maybe in a personal version not with a violin - I am not a violinist - but with my “instrument”: a Solo for Laptop with my MacBook Pro) to finally give myself an opportunity to witness a live performance. This is not an ideal solution, however: as the performer, I cannot surprise myself, and the thrilling factor of the performance will be lost. And anyway, I am not prepared to destroy my laptop for the love of art. 


I consider this Paik work to be as a musical composition not so much because it puts into play (plays) a musical instrument, the violin, as because it creates a temporal tension; and creating tension in the auditory timeline is a major problem of music composition.


Music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the coordination between man and time. Igor Stravinsky, Chronicles of my life.

Exposition of Music - Electronic Televis

Nam June Paik, Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, 1963 Prepared Pianos Photograph: Rolf Jährling

Schlotauer’s recorded performance lasts 02’15’’, not a long time for music: half of a standard song duration. If this video is perceived as being longer than a half song, I suppose this is because of the uncommon and uneasy situation it depicts. Time probably appears to be running slower to the person who has no idea of what will happen. “But will he/she crash it or not? Probably not. O my God he/she will be so crazy to really crash the violin? Probably yes! This isn’t art! This is not music!”


I do not remember if I knew about the piece and its grievous outcome the first time I saw the video but I remember that my attention was totally caught up, and time dilated in a sort of out of time perception.


Paik, likes other pioneers of video art, was originally a musician: he studied music with Cage and Stockhausen and for his first major exhibit (Wuppertal, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, March 1963) he chose the title Exposition of Music - Electronic Television: a fragmentary, polyphonic, kaleidoscopic, disorienting show - in the spirit of Fluxus and Dada - involving an “orchestra” of four prepared pianos, mechanical sound objects, several record and tape installations and twelve modified TV sets.


Nam June Paik, Zürich, 1991. © Foto: Timm Rautert. Courtesy Galerie Parrotta Contemporary Art Stuttgart/Berlin

Video art is a very complex, branchy and kinetic topic but, focusing on Paik, there are, I think, two main reasons that may explain why a musician was/became a video artist: the element of time and the one of performance.


And perhaps the two elements are fundamentally the same.


Once upon a time, in New York on September 11th, 1964,  Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale was performed as part of the 2nd Annual New York Avant Garde Festival that took place from 8 to 13 September. To be meticulous, with the exception of September 10, Stockhausen’s piece was performed every night from the 8th through the 13th. The two takes used by Peter Moore in his 16 mm film Stockhausen’s Originale: Double Takes document two nights of the run. 


As Andy Ditzler observes in program notes for the film, “According to Barbara Moore [Peter Moore’s widow who completed the film] . . . Stockhausen gave his approval for a New York performance on one condition: the piece could not be performed without Nam June Paik. Moorman had never heard of Paik, but as it happened, the Korean-born performer and video artist had just arrived in New York and coincidentally was about to contact her. (This initial contact was the start of a long artistic partnership between the two.)”

Stockhausen's Originale: Doubletakes Peter Moore  1964-94,

30:05 min, b&w, sound, 16 mm film on video

Ditzler explains that Paik’s “reputation as a ferocious and charismatic performer preceded him to New York, and his presence dominates the middle section of Peter Moore's film. Paik is listed in the cast as "action music,” and performed three of his own pieces during Originale, including Simple (1961) in which he covers himself with shaving cream, flour, and rice, and climbs into a tub to wash off, then drinks the water out of his own shoe.”


The titles of the film, as you can see, show Paik as Composer-Actions:

“Action Music” and/or “Composer-Actions”: the element of music seems essential to this major exordium of Paik on stage (and on screen). In the mood of the Sixties Avant Garde, the praxis of music brought Paik to the fore and made him an explicit protagonist. Another example could be John Cage’s well-known (or infamous) piece 4′33. Wikipedia writes that ″4’ 33’’ became for Cage the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music. It was also a reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism, which Cage had studied since the late 1940s.”


Not by chance, I think, Paik set Buddha/Buddhism as the main actor of one of his most renowned work: TV Buddha, premiered in 1974.


Nam June Paik TV Buddha (1974) Closed circuit video installation, bronze sculpture

Once upon a time in the same years in the same place, the so-called New York School worked on time-related art creations joining visual artists, musicians, dancers, poets close-knit by the will to transform relations with space and time through live performance.  Another example regarding one of my favorite composers: Morton Feldman wrote compositions that stretched to lengthier and lengthier durations till the about 6 hours of unceasing music of his Second String Quartet, perhaps best described by Feldman himself as "a fucking masterpiece."


A perception of how things relate in time is also basic to the concept of the avant-garde, which is usually understood to describe art that is ahead of its time. But, as Maurizio Nannucci, an Italian artist who studied both Fine Arts and Music, states in his well known neon installation, All Art Has Been Contemporary.  And, if my memory isn’t wrong, I remember a sentence: “There is no avant-garde, there are only people who arrive late” ascribed to the great composer Edgar Varese, who apparently was among the audience at the New York Originale performance of September 1964.


What I would like to point out – maybe in a dadaistic, fragmentary and disorienting way -   is that I consider Paik to be not so much as an artist in advance of his time but synchronically in time with his time. Marius Schneider writes, “[Man] first builds musical instruments and then transforms them into tools whose power resides in their musical origins. The musical bow becomes the hunting arc, the flute gives rise to the bellows, the harp turns into the boat, the circular drums forms a cart. . . .” Asan experimental artist, Paik inverts this idea by “transforming the new technological device not originally intended for music into musical instruments whose power resides in their musical potentiality.”


In this sense, considering the increasing development of multimedia, multimodal and cross-media intersections in human communication starting from the arts, I like to think of Nam June Paik as a musician who enlarged his “orchestra” of instruments to include electronic tools, opening the technological era and the digital revolution.


Giuseppe Gavazza is a composer,

a teacher and a researcher who

lives and works mainly in Turin, Italy

and Grenoble, France.

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