The Thirteenth Tape
It all started with a puzzle: the German Literature Archive in Marbach am Neckar houses the estate of the Dadaist, psychiatrist and travel writer Richard Huelsenbeck (*1892 Frankenau, +1974 Minusio/Tessin), consisting mainly of typescripts, hand-written records, letters and photographs. The estate also includes a box containing 13 audio tapes. In 1991, I offered to the Archive that I would have the tapes, which were already disintegrating at the splices and displaying other signs of decay, digitalised and catalogued at Bayerischer Rundfunk. The recordings are mainly of lectures and a small number of readings of Huelsenbeck's poems. Then there was this thirteenth tape. The recording did not seem to relate in any way to Richard Huelsenbeck and his works. It was therefore ignored for a long time. A few years ago I came across Ralph Ortiz – or Raphael Montañez Ortiz, as the artist now calls himself (*1934 Brooklyn, NYC) – in a book on video art, and I remembered in this connection that I had read the name on one of the tape boxes. In fact the box bore the following hand-written notes: "Ralph Ortiz performed his piano Destruction concerto No. 2 in Home of Mr. J. Lun(d)smann" "10/10/1966 Destruction in Art Symposium (London)" "Ralph Ortiz Piano Destruction Concer[!] with Interview DIAS 1966".
I set out to locate Raphael Montañez Ortiz, I contacted him, I sent him a copy of the recording, I received details of how it arose and I got his permission to publish it in the series intermedium records. Richard Huelsenbeck, who was living in New York under the name of Charles R. Hulbeck in New York, was a patron and friend of the young artist Ralph Ortiz. In the early nineteen sixties he was even able to arrange the sale of one of Ortiz' works to the Museum of Modern Art. The recording Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert London 1966 – as Ortiz entitled it – was made at the Destruction In Art Symposium, in short DIAS, instigated by Gustav Metzger in London 1966, which was an outstanding artistic event at that time and in which numerous artists took part, including Jean Toche, Wolf Vostell, Hermann Nitsch, Juan Hidalgo, Robin Page, Otto Mühl, Henri Chopin, Al Hansen, Werner Schreib, John J. Sharkey, Ivor Davies, John Latham, Susan Cahn, John Sexton, Kurt Kren, Bryant Patterson, Peter Weibel and Yoko Ono. Ortiz has performed piano destructions since 1962, first in Brooklyn, then, from 1966 on, in front of an art audience. At the Duncan Terrace Piano Destruction Concert London 1966 it was the instrument of Jay and Fran Landesman that was sacrificed. The commentary on the concert was given by Tom Lopez.
DIAS, London, 1966
Three terms which made history, at least in art, at least in the present, at least for some people. I'm one of them. Swinging London, The expression from the daily yellow press ennobled by Richard Hamilton and embodied, perhaps even immortalised, in his graphic prints, made a deep impression the small Viennese avant-garde group (G. Brus, K. Kren, O. Muehl, H. Nitsch, P. Weibel) in 1966. In Vienna we were not invited to any parties, in fact we were even uninvited on such occasions as Fasching (Carnival) in the Viennese Secession. In London we were guests of honour at parties in palaces and cellars. The press in Vienna shunned us, the London press sought us out. Girls called down to us in the street at midnight from open windows asking to come up for a dance. Music was playing day and night, everywhere. The clothes on the street were as eccentric as they were pseud in Vienna. We found the life there idyllic; avant-garde art, otherwise ostracized, was celebrated. Brus wrote home, prematurely, that he would soon be a millionaire.
A remembrance of the 1966 London England, Duncan Terrace Destruction In Art Symposium Piano Destruction Concert
It was a special concert my first in Europe.... The audience was invited.. There were two curators from the TATE in the audience...
Raphael Montañez Ortiz, April 28th 2008
Accelerated Decay. Piano Destruction Concert 1966. Remix
While I was working on this, it was important to me that the documentary character of the original recordings be preserved. The authentic picture of the time conveyed by these "field recordings" seemed to me to be one of the most interesting aspects of the original material.
Every work of art is by its very nature linked to the time in which it is produced and its significance changes with the shifting angle of perception in later periods. To the extent that it loses its time-related (explosive) force, it increases its value as a medium which opens up historical insights for us. Nowadays a public piano destruction would seem to me to be a kind of abreaction folklore. The decision to introduce destruction as a medium in art therefore only had such a radical bite because it was the logical step in the modernity unfolding at precisely that time. On the one hand, one was looking for adequate artistic forms of expression which did justice to the apocalyptic disasters of the first half of the century, and on the other one was standing at the threshold of a liberation mania on all levels. The new anti-authoritarian man, the horizon of a society free of all kinds of constraints, seemed within reach and these hallucinations released formidable energies. Any and every structure was felt to be authoritarian and its destruction seemed to trigger a lust which we can hardly begin to imagine today. I am reminded of the Nietzschean grand gesture, the pathos of Zarathustra's cry:
The Piano Destruction Concert would belong in a cabinet of musical curiosities if it merely exhausted its potential in this context. For me, however, this art work contains motifs which extend beyond the artistic debate of the 1960s. The confrontation with the human potential for violence which Ortiz performs and intends is a timeless constant. The brute intensity of the notes which Ortiz applies to the piano as he violates it can hardly be eluded – they continue to induce even in a modern listener a state of spellbound horror and have lost nothing of their power. I see in destruction art the dilemma of wanting to give a preventive commentary on the apocalypse while at the same time becoming a part of it. The fact that Ortiz so to speak enhances and confirms the structure he destroys is the sublime message of this action and leaves us with the (re-)discovery of the value: piano.
For me as a musician it seems important to distinguish between aggression and destruction. To give artistic form to aggression as a human trait, as Ortiz has done in an imaginably radical way, is in a moderated form a common principle in popular music. The aggressive content of a musical structure can, as we know, lead in the musician and in the listener to a ritual relinquishing of his aggressive potential and thereby occasionally release unexpected feelings of happiness. Raphael Montañez Ortiz has created a monument to this principle of ritualised aggression.
Interview: Katarina Agathos / Loopspool
Edited by Herbert Kapfer / Katarina Agathos
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