Ideas, findings and inspirations about Charlotte Moorman.
Excerpts from my research grant from the Deutsche Musikrat, March-June 2023.
Known as the ‘topless cellist’ and the ‘Joan of Arc of New Music’, Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) is a person (an image?!) on whom many fantasies and preconceived notions have been projected. Putting aside these reductive titles, I discovered a virtuoso classical cellist, a central and pro-active figure in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, an artistic polymath at the forefront of the most daring experiments of her time. Charlotte Moorman was also a generous, explosive and curious woman, an adventurer, a lover, a passionate person, a unifier and a networker.
For years I have been developing my work as a cellist in the direction of new music theatre, towards a performative language of my own, based on the principle of “visible music”. In this sense, I was able to explore the expressive and performative possibilities of the musician’s body with its instrument during a #TakeCareResidenz at the Theater Rampe Stuttgart in 2020. That’s how I came across Charlotte Moorman. I was immediately struck by her trajectory, in particular her work on the physical relationship between body and instrument, her intense collaborations with composers of her time and her uncompromising, joyful, cheeky and (still) controversial personality.
A grant from the Deutsche Musikrat (German Music Council) gives me the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Charlotte Moorman during the period from March to June 2023.
March 1, 2023 – First day of research
Readings, articles, purchase of (the only) biography, video documentation.
It looks like Charlotte Moorman is going to be my roommate for the next few months. So from now on it will be Charlotte, without Moorman.
Charlotte, Céline – Céline, Charlotte
Nice to meet you, you brave crazy fantastic lady!
15 March 2023 – First impressions: Digital research.
On the internet, I quickly stumble upon photos and videos showing Charlotte. In these colourful and impressive photos of her performances we see her playing either a “traditional” cello in improbable contexts or objects reminiscent of the instrument’s shapes and made out of ice, plexiglass, TVs, chocolate etc. She is beautiful and has a very expressive face: smiling, laughing, pouting or extremely focused. She is almost systematically dressed in a long taffeta skirt and mostly topless. Sometimes even the skirt has disappeared. The photos are mainly from the 1960s. One can imagine the scandal.
The story escalated to her arrest in 1967 by the New York Police and her trial for “indecent exposure while performing on the cello”. It seems Charlotte has never been able to shake off the title “The topless cellist”, which the press quickly called her in derision. Press, artistic partners, audience… a small, mainly male, chatty world when it comes to Charlotte… I find a lot of opinions “about Charlotte”.
Note to myself: it would be interesting to know how Charlotte spoke about herself and her work…
March, 31 2023 – Discussion with Hudda Chukri
Discussion with the fantastic theatre designer Hudda Chukri. We share the fascination for this woman, her energy, her up to the edge way. But something puzzles us: what is the role of all these men around Charlotte?
George Maciunas who excluded her from the Fluxus movement because she was too kitschy and stole him the show by organising her New-York Avant-garde Festival; John Cage, who found her too enterprising and hated her interpretation of his piece 26’1.1499” for a String Player. And last but not least: Nam June Paik, her long-time partner, who made her famous but also greatly contributed to the creation of the “topless cellist” persona.
Feminists seem not to have wanted to claim her, whatever their idea of feminism was then and even now. She was too sexy, too flirtatious, too obviously in cahoots with men, even if the men she collaborated with generally took credit for the outcome.
Dear Charlotte, I wonder… have you been a real artist, creating and navigating your own work, or a female interpreter at the disposal of male composers’ (and audience’s) desires, a projection for men fantasies?
April, 4 2023 – Archiv Sohm – Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Following in Charlottes (initially digital) tracks, I discover that the largest Fluxus archive in the world was on my doorstep in Stuttgart: the Sohm Archiv in the Staatsgalerie. I go there hoping to find more personal documents or at least documents coming directly from Charlotte… and Bingo!
Here is what I was looking for: biographical material for the press, written by Charlotte herself for the New-York Avant-garde Festival 1974: “Moormans work has excited or incited the press of the world to such controversial reactions as: “… artistic originality… genius of the 21st century… liberated cellist… pioneer work… bravery… daring… artistic… imagination… indomitable… one-woman vanguard… a virtuoso performance, legendary in proportion… etc., etc.” to “stupid… talentless… most shocking of absurdities… obscene… stuntman… childish noisemaker… affably amateurish… an active menace to music… etc., etc.“
April, 20 2023 – Archiv Sohm – Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
The more I investigate, the more I see the big question of the autorship by co-creations coming. Today, at least in the context of contemporary music, the cursors have shifted. The composer/performer hierarchy is no longer so clear and it is no longer at all rare for pieces to be co-written in tandem. A work is thus the sum of the ideas and decisions of both.
In the context of the 1960s, this was not so clear and conscious. And while Charlotte sometimes appears to have been used by composers, she also inspired, co-created and reinterpreted works. In the early years, she might have been naive and just went for the fun. But at some point she just became the works she performed. Being loved or hated for doing so.
Hommage von N.J. Paik in a Programm note in 1980 : “I consider her to be a great video artist. Video art is not just a TV screen and tape — it is a whole life, a new way of life. The TV screen on her body is literally the embodyment of live video art…TV CELLO and TV BRA are interesting because Charlotte did it. If any other lady cellist did it, it would have been just a gimmick.“
Note to myself: no matter where this research takes me, what format I decide to adopt, there is no point in reproducing Charlotte’s character, replaying her repertoire. It would be doomed to failure. Because her art lives on her personality. Even a tribute is perilous. Using rituals, fetish objects, scenes that are recontextualised is more interesting…
Mai, 1 2023 – Charlotte on Midjourney
Artificial Intelligence is a big topic today. Paik and Charlotte played like children with the technology of their time and what it says about us.
Today, I am cobbling together a prompt that mixes visuals of Charlotte and myself, in a context that remembers Paik’s TV Cello… fascinating results that bring Charlotte back to life in 2023. The result is at the top of this post!
…to be continued…
Dieses Stipendium ist gefördert von der Beauftragten der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien im Rahmen von NEUSTART KULTUR