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The Butterfly Effect: Music for Non-Performance



The fifth piece in La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 collection begins by instructing a performer to ‘Turn a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) loose in the performance area’.

The piece was composed while journeying through the mountains of North California, as Young considered the humble InsectaLepidoptera.

‘Alone, it made a very beautiful piece. Being very young, I could still take something so highly poetic and use it without the fear I would have now – that it would be trampled on. Now, I would offer something quite a bit more substantial than a butterfly – something that can’t be so easily walked on. After all, a butterfly is only a butterfly. No matter how much I write about the fact that a butterfly does make a sound – that it is potentially a composition – anyone that wants to can say, “Well, it’s only a butterfly”.’

Unfortunately, at the time, Young’s butterfly was trampled (figuratively, if not literally).  It was argued that for music to be music, one ought to be able to hear the sounds of a piece, the implication being that ‘one’ must be human.

A less young Young, though a Young slightly irked, rebuked this criticism as he burst forth from his silky cocoon.

‘I said that this was the usual attitude of human beings that everything in the world should exist for them and that I disagreed. I said it didn’t seem to me at all necessary that anyone or anything should have to hear sounds and that it is enough that they exist for themselves.’

As the young Young’s composition aged, and a multitude of pupas spread their infant wings, a metamorphosis also occurred in the sway of the piece’s perception. Nowadays, as composers flutter along the breeze, past cascading, shimmering streams of socio-political egalitarianism, many are comfortable letting sounds be sounds. Music may no longer need to be heard, but does it still need to be performed?

Clearly, even the term ‘non-performance’ can be ambiguous, and the phrase is often used to describe performance conditions which intentionally act in opposition to orthodox, accepted, performance practices. For example, a ‘non-performance’ of Beethoven’s 5th may permit an orchestra to wear casual clothes, may allow an audience to talk amongst one another during the movements, or may request that all the string players perform their parts as they dance around a Maypole while reciting the works of the Stuart dramatist Ben Jonson. Although these kinds of concerts are certainly not without their value, the distinctions drawn between them are generally arbitrary when contextualised within the pursuit of non-performance; all these ‘non-performances’ result in gestures and performances which are still wholly performative.

There are however, instances of non-performance which discard the notion of an audience altogether, rather than simply asking them to come wearing party hats. Or to bring along a Papier-mâché replica of the Taj Mahal.

Many scores simply prescribe the observation of an action or a subject, and nothing more, which goes some way to befuddling the relationship between performer and audience. In Annea Lockwood’s beautiful River Archive (which instructs a reader to discover and record the sounds of various bodies of flowing water), it is unclear where the performance occurs. Is it performance when the reader carries out the instructions? Does the river perform as the reader records its sounds? Or is it a performance only when the reader plays their recordings to an assembly of listeners?

The American Minimalist Tom Johnson’s collection – Private Pieces, presents an equally intimate exploration of introspection. His piano pieces for self-entertainment are ‘intended to be read, played, and heard by individuals, in private, and it is doubtful whether the music could ever be presented effectively as a public performance’. However, even self-entertainment is perhaps a performative act.

So where does this leave us as we try to define non-performance?

Is every composer with a draw stuffed-full of unperformed works in fact an avant-garde artist actively engaged in the performance of non-performative performance art – tearing down the last vestige of Western performance practice? Or must non-performance pieces be composed with a prior intention for the music never to be performed? If this is the case, non-performative music really does require that no sound be heard, not even by a butterfly.


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About the author

Aaron is an MA composer currently working under the supervision of Roger Marsh. His most recent work explores unconventional instrumentation, and has been underpinned by the dialogue between organised music and indeterminate sounds. His musical language makes use of anything minute, infirm or tactile. He has previously studied music with the British contemporary-composer Matthew Bourne,…

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