Charlotte Moorman

By Audio Pervert - 10/31/2018

Cellist, avant-garde sound-artist and activist Charlotte Moorman known as the "Jeanne d'Arc of new music" died more than 25 years ago. As a composer and activist she challenged many traditional notions of music and performance during her career, which over time had deep repercussions for future artists and boundaries of modern music and art. Today her name and ground breaking contributions have been almost forgotten in popular media. Despite a very talented, radical and critically outspoken career Charlotte Moorman eventually proved to be an effective spokesperson and negotiator for new music. She lead the way for art that was advanced and often looked down upon, challenging and charming the powerful institutions of New York, Chicago and Washington to gradually change their conservative outlook. Yet that was more than 40 years ago. The story of Charlotte Moorman is not so much about populism and present day resurrection of female icons. It goes far deeper on an individual level, which extends through her outrageous (then) and progressive (now) career. Moorman then becomes a source of inspiration today, in this new age of disruption and break down of rules. This lady was eons ahead of any Bjork or Beyonce or Lady Gaga!

Artists (many) today mirror the same concerns as Charlotte did back in the 60s and 70s - the power struggle and inequality inside a male dominated white conservative industry. Charlotte fought institutional bias and patriarchy with her grandiose productions, nudity, noise, video art, anti-war activism and radical ideas based on disruption. She was jailed twice in New York which eventually lead to a widely debated public movement, fighting for protection of artist rights and empowering creative freedom. New York had much to learn from a girl born in Little Arkansas.

She was born in 1933 in Little Arkansas and her interest in music flowered around the age of 11 as she picked up the cello. A decade later she headed to Julliard, New York's leading conservatory of classical music and performance. Soon she got bored of the institutional structures and curriculum however not giving up on a furious regimen of practice. "I was really practicing for 8 hours a day back then" she recalled in an interview for CBS in 1979. "I wanted to change the repertoire for the cello because we as cellists always had to transcribe our parts from the violin or piano score. I asked how would that work as a soloist?" Her pursuit for new music and improvisation in contemporary classical music lead to befriending and performance along-with well-known composers and musicians like Nam Paik, John Cage, Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Joseph Byrd, Carolee Schneemann, and Jim McWilliams. Nam Paik would influence a substantial part of her musicality in the years to come. She was not allowed to play John Cage's compositions for her graduation recital at Julliard, yet her public performances outside the institution won her critics regardless. She 'converted' many previously published classical music scores with the intention to break the compositions down to abstract and or simple elements. She challenged aesthetics. She wanted to engage with public via music. She used everyday objects, domestic appliances, paper, plastic, radio, video and sometimes the cello and other traditional instruments to convey this idea. 'Performance Art' was not born yet? "Forget the definitions, these are like chains around the artist ... sounds must be free ... unlearn the definitions we received in school" said Charlotte in an interview with Art in America, 1981.

Charlotte Moorman's tryst against traditions started out young, as she confronted patriarchy, orthodox feminism and classical music hegemony during her teens at the various schools she attended. "I remember watching police raids on the television which made me worry when i was younger and many years later there were cops at my performances" Charlotte made headlines circa February 1967 with the performance of Nam Paik's Opera 'Sextronique'. She performed cello nude, disrobing in three stages coinciding with the three passages of Nam's composition. TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and Chamber Music (1969) created further sensation inside the art and music world, with Charlotte performing semi-nude with live television monitors and electric bikinis strapped to cover her private parts. On one occasion she fabricated a cello made of ice. Another a cello made of a giant cigar!  New York's petty press quickly labelled her "The Nude Cellist". Offers from TV channels soared. Consequently during one of her concerts she was arrested by police on charges of nudity and vulgarity. She recalls her experience in jail ironically later in an interview " In jail, eventually after strip searching me the cop asked me 'what did you do? I replied by saying "I was playing a cello partially nude" The cop frowned and asked me 'What's a cello? ... In Germany where we (Nam Paik and me) had performed the same piece a year earlier, it didn't bother the audience if i was nude or not and they either liked the music or not "  
The vilification process with the cops, judges and lawyers left a deep impression on Charlotte as well as many artists from the progressive side of New York. Eventually she gained enough public resonance and funds to set up the Avant Garde Art Festival in New York. She was key to facilitate legitimate grounds for controversial and challenging performances to happen in New York in the early 1970s. An era that transformed New York is mostly singing praises about the CBGB punk scene or the Fillmore East (Frank Zappa) or the explosion of nightlife based on cocaine and 130 beats.per.minute disco hits. The decade plus span of the Avant Garde Festival marked a period of unparalleled understanding and good relations between artists, academics, cops and local authorities. Consequently more and more artists and audiences in New York were drawn into a collision of progressive music, art, feminism, activism and politics. The keepers of law and order kept their limits to 'No Fornication In Public'.

"The nudity part is not related to the music. Not like they called me a "topless cellist" back then. Today there are hundreds of porn shows, television channels and abstract art shows which are made to attract audiences inside permissible spaces. That's not art, it's big business" comments Charlotte in an interview for Creem Magazine, 1984. Charlotte's involvement with the legendary ensemble Fluxus in 1972 lead to her friendship with feminist composers such as Carol Schneeman, Yoko Ono, Elaine Radigue and Shigeko Kubota. These artists would influence various spheres of social life and popular culture with their music and activism through the next three decades. " In 1971 i was compelled to speak out against the tyranny of the american army which was killing innocent people in Vietnam. I worked out a cello as a bomb" Charlotte's composition titled "Inhumane" using a cello fabricated from an empty WW2 missile. Carolee and Charlotte eventually criticised and rejected Fluxus leader's George Maciunas dominating outlook - which lead to a divergence amongst some of the artists in the collective. Formation of a new experimental ensemble called Taj Mahal Travellers is linked to this separation. Early 1980's Charlotte's voice and activism would fade against the emerging ruckus of punk and rap mirroring youth dissonance, rising drug abuse, racial and police violence, that would rock New York city through the next decade. Her radical outlook was gradually relegated to academic realms, a topic of conceptual music. Her deteriorating health would slow down much of her creative energy at the end of the 80s. She died of cancer in New York, November 1991 aged 57. Following Charlotte's untimely death, Schneeman created an online memorial for her friend.  Carolee Schneeman continued to advocate the ideas of Charlotte Moorman within her own artistic fabric which covers visual art, gender, sexuality and politics.

"I take the position that I do not ask anyone else to do what I myself would not do and using myself as subject . . . as material (I) want to displace the power and separation of the artist from what's made. In the masculine tradition the director, the producer is always outside of the work because he's above it."[*]

Read Rothfuss’s book, Topless Cellist: The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman (M.I.T. Press),

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