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SUBTERRANEAN BLUES: WORLD REVOLUTION AND THE UNDERGROUND VIOLINISTS DR. ADAM CADELL HIS ARTICLE PRESENTS PART OF AN ALTERNATIVE history of violin performance practices that culminates in what I am terming “radical violin performance practice.” This radical practice is rooted in a legacy of insubordinate, subversive, and forward-thinking musicians, from Heinrich Biber’s scordatura works for the violin in the seventeenth century, to the oppressed African-American bluesmen of the early twentieth century and their working-class white neighbors, to the black power music of free-jazz musicians and the revolutionary psychedelia of the international underground of the 1960s. This alternative history is heterogeneous and is in many ways the polar opposite of mainstream “classical” violin performance, on the other hand it is also, and defiantly so, not a history of popular or folk music practices either. Indeed, put simply, this is a history of unpopular violin performance practices and their presence within the history of subversive underground artistic practice. Through the possibilities opened by recording technology, the rebellious lure of anti-elitist politics, and the mind-expanding world of T 112 Perspectives of New Music non-Western thought, underground violinists in Manhattan during the 1960s began a process of shedding the traditional notions of composition altogether through improvisation and radical ideology. This is a defining element of underground violin performance practice, the expression of distinct philosophies, political ideals, and the radicalization of tradition through improvisation. On the whole there was a strongly ideological undercurrent to the underground violinists’ approach to their instrument, which led them to a unique interpretation of all of these influences and gave birth to a revolution in violin performance practice. What follows here is an introduction to the fertile underground of the 1960s, the firmament upon which radical violin performance practices were built. The decade of the 1960s was a monumental time in the development of Western music and art as a whole. It saw the birth of a culture that existed in the underground of post-war, predominantly Western, society and was, by its very nature, an extreme and often confrontational expression of the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian views espoused by the wider alternative culture of the time. This underground society had its own press, poets, writers, musicians, artists, and revolutionaries, all with an international reach. In Germany Kosmische Rock (what is now commonly referred to as “Krautrock”) musicians rubbed shoulders and shared squats with Red Army Faction commando group the Baader-Meinhof gang; in Japan bands were involved in revolutionary acts, such as the infamous Red Army Faction Japan Airlines hijacking featuring a member of rock group Les Rallizes Dénudés.1 It is, however, the radical and artistically fertile soil of the lower East Side of New York City which forms the backdrop for the central protagonists of this article. The Greenwich Village “heterotopia ,”2 as Foucault dubbed it, became a crucible for the nascent avant-garde scene due to the availability of low rent loft apartments in the context of a rich avant-garde and radical heritage. Underground, downtown New York was a centre for beat poetry, queer sexuality, drug experimentation, avant-garde music and leftist politics. The downtown scene in the 1960s was fertile ground for the creation of new and original music, and the violin, along with other bowed-string instruments, was crucial to many of the new sounds. The violin featured prominently in psychedelic bands and began to feature in free jazz ensembles performing in unconventional spaces such as abandoned lofts and factory floors. In the circles of the avant-garde, the violin was deconstructed by the physical act of destruction or alteration and modification of its parts. Radical underground violinists Tony Conrad and Henry Flynt recorded and performed works for solo violin World Revolution and the Underground Violinists 113 as well as ensembles such as The Theatre of Eternal Music and Flynt’s protest band The Insurrections. The Velvet Underground came to prominence after their 1965, Andy Warhol–produced debut album in which John Cale’s viola brought the sound of New York’s avant-garde underground to the ears of rock music fans for the first time. Underground culture, and in particular the music...


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pp. 111-140
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