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In 2012, I was invited to take part in a concert of music by an Argentinian composer, Ellen C. Covito. For one of the pieces, called “Composed Improvisation T,” I was asked to get a blank T-shirt and write musical phrases of a measure or two on the front and back. For the performance, for which we had no rehearsal, 13 of us roamed around the performance space in our T-shirts, performing the musical phrases that momentarily came into our field of vision as we passed each other in our individual circuitous rambles. The movement of our bodies was made equivalent with the form of the music, both in how we moved our scores for others to read and how we read others’ scores for our own performances. The actual scored musical phrases that we performed were rendered secondary to the movement of our bodies, realigning our attention to music’s inherent physical qualities and how they play out in the dynamics of improvisation and composition.
Covito is a little-known contemporary composer whose influence has yet to be established. Charlotte Moorman, on the other hand, is an American avantgarde legend whose performances and festivals left an indelible mark on art and performance in the 1960s and ’70s. Moorman is known for taking part in some of the American avantgarde’s most memorable and spectacular performances, and her work was often accompanied by her image, both in performance and in the advertising for the performances. By contrast, Covito, whose compositions begin in 2009, is an enigmatic figure. Rather than making a name performing her own work, her prose scores continue the techniques of mid-20th century conceptual composition and have inspired an international cast of musicians to venture into new territory. Both women illustrate the experimental spirit of the avantgarde in different ways and in different time periods. Though in some ways the two books examined here are far afield from one another — one, a riveting and expertly researched biography of Moorman by Joan Rothfuss, and the other a playful documentation of select performances of Covito’s scores by the No Collective — both volumes exhibit methodologies for navigating the dynamics of performance in terms of ownership, interpretation, improvisation, the visual, embodiment, and sonic materiality, specifically within the frameworks of the experimental music tradition.
Moorman was a controversial figure both to the larger public—for her use of nudity and her 1967 mid-performance arrest for “indecent exposure”—and within smaller inner circles of the art and music worlds that have wondered if she was more of an exhibitionist than an accomplished cellist. Topless Cellist skillfully parses out the many facets of Moorman’s complicated [End Page 169] personality and New York–based career to articulate Moorman’s substantial artistic vision and great accomplishments, as both a musician and the producer of festivals, within their historical and theoretical contexts in experimental music and performance art.
After two chapters outlining her childhood and education as a classical cellist, the book focuses on the organic development and solidification of Moorman’s career in the avantgarde, with the bulk of the book focusing on the 1960s. Rothfuss’s portrait of Moorman reveals that part of Moorman’s power as both a performer and a producer was her charisma. While she never composed her own music, her interpretations were very much her own. She understood the power of the visual (from the spectacle of nudity to costumes made of televisions to playing from a hot air balloon) working in tandem with the sonic and her most successful collaborations were with artists who brought the action and spectacle to the forefront and relied on Moorman’s unique style and charm. John Cage hated the way she performed his work and, alongside his close collaborators Jasper Johns and...