She's your guide to the sound world of Fluxus

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She's your guide to the sound world of Fluxus
Gelsey Bell, who has starred on Broadway as well as in conceptual operas, researches Fluxus, an interdisciplinary collective of artists in the 1960s, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Jan. 16, 2020. Bell will lead listening sessions featuring the museum's Fluxus sound archives through April. Nathan Bajar/The New York Times.

by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- On a recent afternoon in the newly reopened and reconceptualized Museum of Modern Art, about a dozen visitors gathered around a table to listen to an old tape recording with singer, composer and scholar Gelsey Bell.

The recording documented a 1959 concert of works by students of John Cage at the New School. Students in that class would go on to become important members of Fluxus, an interdisciplinary collective of artists who — inspired by Cage to focus on open-ended instruction-based text works and the music of everyday objects — created influential drawings, publications and compositions in the 1960s.

While visual artifacts from MoMA’s substantial Fluxus collection have been given a spotlight over the last decade, including in exhibitions of the work of Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann, the sound files in the museum’s possession have not. That’s changing this year, in a collaboration between the departments of education (which operates the new “creativity lab” on the second floor, where the listening session was held) and drawings and prints (which houses the bulk of the Fluxus archive).

When MoMA was looking for an artist to help guide visitors through these sound artifacts — the sessions continue on Feb. 6, March 5 and April 30 — it selected a wide-ranging musician who is, in many ways, a contemporary heir of the collective’s ethos.

Bell, 37, has been celebrated for her performances in the highly conceptual (and textual) operas of Robert Ashley and Kate Soper, including her coming “Romance de la Rose.” She has also starred on Broadway, in Dave Malloy’s “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Her work engages with drone music as well as with free-improvisation textures familiar from the outer reaches of experimental jazz.

“There’s a moment where you discover there’s another way of doing things; it’s freeing,” Bell said in an interview after the listening session, about her first encounter with Fluxus. Though she grew up familiar with the standard repertoire, thanks to a mother who was a classical pianist, Bell said the collective’s work opened her to new paths of creativity.

“My desire to sing in a way that’s appropriate for Broadway, that’s not going to go away,” she said. “But I discovered John Cage and Fluxus at the same time. And it just totally upended what I saw as possible, not just for what I could do but for how I could enjoy anything aesthetically.”

At MoMA, she played Dick Higgins’ “Constellation for Five Performers (No. 1),” which had been performed twice during the 1959 concert. In the first take, a low-frequency buzz indicated radios being switched on. This sound was followed by a synchronized, fortissimo cluster of notes, coming simultaneously from two pianos. Composition complete.

Or was it? The second iteration of the brief work sounded similar. But this time, the quick assault of tones from the pianos issued from higher up in their ranges. The difference between the two versions — together, just a minute long — brought a wave of laughter, more delighted than incredulous, from the listeners around the table.

“The fact that they performed multiple versions is so telling about this aesthetic, that there’s many many ‘right ways’ to do this,” she said. “And the weirder and more creative you get with it, actually, the better it’s going to get.”

Two recent recordings make clear that Bell is a natural guide to MoMA’s Fluxus audio holdings. The first is a spellbinding live recording of “Improvement (Don Leaves Linda),” captured during the opera’s 2019 revival. The collaborative approach that is necessary in Ashley’s operas can be seen as flowing from Fluxus practices.

“Anything Bob made, he talked about how he’ll only work with geniuses on his pieces,” Bell said in an interview, citing in particular Ashley’s early years with the ONCE Group, another 1960s collective. “Even in his later work — which is much more of his single mind — you can tell there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”

And a new album by the Chutneys — the free-improvisation trio in which Bell provides vocals — reveals multiple layers of Fluxus influence. (The trio will perform at Roulette on Feb. 13.) You can hear tendrils of Ono-style vocalizations in Bell’s contributions to tracks like “Protein.” And the same Cage-derived, found-sound aesthetic that fueled Fluxus can also be heard in the range of choices made by the trio’s drummer, Fast Forward.

“The last piece on the album, most of what he’s is playing, all that time, are bicycle handles,” Bell said. “And they’re just the most beautiful, resonant bicycle handles you could ever imagine. I feel like that kind of searching — for getting sound from anywhere — is very much from the Cage tradition, and you can see that connecting with the Fluxus stuff.”

For each of the listening sessions at MoMA, Bell has isolated a collection recording of particular note, which she will tie to subsequent generations of artistic practice. (Future listening sessions will include works by saxophonist and composer Darius Jones, as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.)

“For the next one,” she said, “what I’m most excited about is a recording of this concert from Douglass College, of Dick Higgins’ ‘Thousand Symphonies’ and Philip Corner’s ‘Fourth Finale.’ I think all the people involved thought there’d been an audio recording that had been lost. So when I found this, I started emailing with Philip: ‘You should know, MoMA has it. It exists.’”

Similarly, Cage’s “Class of ’59” tape was one that stopped Bell in her tracks when she came across it, during her dozens of hours of research in the MoMA archive. “That class is so legendary,” she said. “You read and read about it.”

Might there be more possibilities for these Fluxus recordings to be heard after the listening sessions at MoMA conclude in April? Bell hopes so.

“I have dreams about taking some of these recordings and putting them into a form that can be released to the world,” she said. “I’m not a record producer, but I can recognize when stuff is good and when I think other people are going to want to hear it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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