U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hapax Americana: Robert Ashley, The ONCE Festival, and the New Left

For some time, I have been fascinated by a technical term from the world of linguistics. The term is “hapax legomenon”: a word that occur only once in the recorded corpus of a given language. As Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman explain, “hapax legomena” (“hapax legomenon” in the singular) is a Greek term meaning “said once”; closely related are “nonce forms” (“nonce” means “a particular occasion”). In Shakespeare’s corpus, for example, “imported” is a hapax (Timon of Athens) as is “disadvantage” (Coriolanus) as is “prohibition” (Cymbeline). The existence of “hapax legomena,” Aronoff and Fudeman continue, constitutes “one type of evidence that speakers create words on the fly as they speak.”[1]

Robert Ashley 2

The sad news of the passing of the American composer Robert Ashley (on March 3 of this year) led me to think again about “hapax legomena,” and about the possibility that the “hapax” might be a useful term for processing the political meaning of American experimental music in the 1960s. I think it is fair to say that we do not yet know how to incorporate the aesthetic revolution that followed John Cage’s embrace of indeterminacy in the 1950s into the broader history of the 1960s and the New Left. The notion of the “hapax” may help.

Consider, for example, a particularly salient detail of Robert Ashley’s artistic biography—from 1961 to 1968, he was a key organizer and performer at an annual event in Ann Arbor, Michigan (where he was born in 1930 and grew up), called the ONCE Festival. The ONCE Festival took the form of a presentation of new works of experimental music and dance over the course of several weeks, in February and March of any given year.

Its paradoxical name (how can an annual festival be called “ONCE”?) and aesthetic orientation seem to have a lot to do with the features of “hapax legomena” singled out by Aronoff and Fudeman above: a devotion to the “particular occasion” (as against the generic, repetitive texture of everyday experience) and a commitment to spontaneity (“speakers create words on the fly as they speak”).

These, of course, strike us as very “New Left” virtues, the passionate attachments upon which the SDS and the student movements would build a radical politics different from the Old Left’s preoccupations with the “iron laws of history” and masochistic relationship to authority and duty.

Ashley’s personal history certainly sounds a lot like that of many founders of the New Left. While he became best known for a series of mind-bending television operas of the 1970s and 1980s, this work built on decades of research in the field of experimental and electronic music. Ashley entered the University of Michigan as a freshman in 1948, graduating in 1952 with a degree in music. He then went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music. He married Mary Tsaltas, a year his junior, in 1954, having met 30 hours prior. Like many of his generation, he then spent some time in the army. In 1956, he returned to Ann Arbor to get a Ph.D. in music, with the intention of getting sufficiently credentialed to get a teaching job and support his young family—without a thought, that is, of gradually evolving into one of America’s most important experimental composers.

As with many members of the New Left, Ashley bristled against the conservatism of the postwar academy (music departments at the time were notoriously hidebound and depressing). The music department had no interest in Ashley’s music, but his early forays in the field of electronic music led him to University of Michigan’s Speech Research Institute, funded by Bell Laboratories. It was thus the rise of Big Science, the state-funded public “multiversity” and its “new class” of white-collar researchers, and the cybernetic revolution, that would allow Ashley to develop his music—this, too, seems a parallel with so many New Left participants.

The Institute was working on developing realistic speech synthesis; Ashley joined as a “special student” while he petitioned the music department for acceptance. For three years, Leta E. Miller writes, “Ashley worked with a doctoral student on the cause of stuttering, aiding in ground-breaking experiments on the microsecond-delay between the impetus to speak and the sound-corrective feedback.”[2]

Interestingly, stuttering was a central concern of a number of key pieces by Ashley (perhaps his most famous piece, “Automatic Writing” [1979] is organized around Ashley’s mild Tourette’s symptoms); Ashley’s close friend Alvin Lucier’s masterpiece “I Am Sitting In A Room” (1969) is a gradual washing out of a paragraph of spoken text by the gathering resonance of “room tone”: its final line is “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have” (Lucier stutters, which is also the subject of “The Only Taking Machine Of Its Kind In The World” [1969]). I bring this up not as trivia, but because stuttering is both a topic of philosophical interest (Deleuze writes about authors who “make language stutter”) and because these pieces demonstrate the quasi-medical, scientific, pragmatic, and therapeutic (but not in the Laschian sense) quality of the music that was developing in places like Ann Arbor in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was out of such biographical trajectories that the ONCE Festival would emerge in 1961.

So here is the mystery: although the ONCE Festival was a DIY, partially underground forum for experimental music, held in otherwise sleepy Ann Arbor, Michigan at precisely the same moment as the formation of the Students for a Democratic Society, it is usually excluded from accounts of the rise of radical politics in the 1960s. This, despite the fact that many ONCE Festival premieres were explicitly “political” in a discernibly New Left way, as in Roger Reynolds’ setting of letters by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, or Gordon Mumma’s “The Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945,” a piece structured around amplified model airplane motors intended as both an antiwar evocation of the destruction of Dresden and as a protest of incipient bombing campaigns in Vietnam.

Without question, our failure to connect these dots can be traced to the fact that the participants in the ONCE Festival and the members of the New Left seem not to have known one other. At a recent conference on the Port Huron Statement at 50, for example, I asked a few of the assembled SDS founders if they recalled the ONCE Festival, and drew mostly blank stares. But whether or not there was any real overlap between the two projects, there were certainly elective affinities and family resemblances that merit further attention. The “hapax” might be a way of helping us reflect upon these mutual resonances.

The “hapax” also helps us to think about American experimental music of the 1960s beyond a narrow focus on “minimalism” (as in the famous ostinati of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley).

Minimalism––and its methodology of cellular repetition––was certainly a central tendency in the experimentalism of the 1960s. It colored, in one way or another, almost every work featured at the ONCE Festival, and was certainly foundational in the music of Robert Ashley. But “minimalism” in music (a time-based art) works differently from, say, the “multiple” in visual art. Its point is not, typically, to comment upon redundancy and reduplication (as, we might argue, Andy Warhol’s xerographic repetitions attempt to do), but to summon the affective forces of the “hapaxic,” in two different ways.

First, repetition in music is a means of creating (at least temporarily) a “hapax”—each new minimalist work of the 1960s could be plausibly said to have been, for audiences, like nothing anyone had heard before, and for performers, like nothing that they had ever played before (often, this music required the development of new techniques or the sharpening of old skills in ways that most musicians would have regarded as pointless or dangerous). Second, music is cumulative and plastic—hearing a note repeated twice is different than hearing it repeated ten times, which is different than hearing it repeated one thousand times.

Here, the question of technological mediation becomes crucial, in the sense that Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch wrote about—a given regime of technological reproduction gives any age much of its character, because it measures the distance between the work of human hands, and the supplementation or replacement of that work by machines. In the 1960s, the development of tape music and electronic synthesis made certain kinds of “inhuman” musical gestures possible (as had the player piano, and indeed the technologies of the metronome and fixed systems musical notation before it). This, I would argue, was not a displacement of the human performer from music’s imaginary regime, but rather a new perspective on the limits of human endurance and technical capacity––like the “parallax” experience of epistemological estrangement that Kojin Karatani describes as having taken effect in the first decades after the invention of photography. (One might well be reminded of the tremendous consequences of automation on the labor thought of the 1960s).

From another perspective, perhaps closer to the notions we are pursuing here, the advent of tape music and synthesizers in the 1960s might be seen as having reaffirmed a kind of “hapaxic humanism”—a special investment in what is unique to human expression and collective aesthetic experience (this, certainly, would qualify as a thoroughly New Left sort of perspective).

Or, at a deeper level, we might say that the archive formed by the ONCE Festival over the course of its lifespan testifies to a profound sense (shared with the New Left) that enjoyment of the “now” and the workability of an autonomous politics first needed to be rescued from beneath the rubble of common sense. The programming of the ONCE Festival spoke not only to commitments to singular experience and the extemporaneous as opposed to the pre-arranged (or, in Nelson Goodman’s phrase, the musical score’s demand for “compliance” on the part of the performer), but to the desire to challenge a more generalized skepticism about these values.

The surprise of the “hapax” is that although we presume that we live in the world of the generic, the clichéd, and the automatic, we discover instead that the odd, the eccentric, and the one-time-only is actually the dominant stuff of experience.

This is the remarkable thing about the “hapax” (as per Wikipedia): they are quite common, as predicted by something called Zipf’s law, which states that the frequency of any word in a work is inversely related to its rank in the frequency table. For large sets, “hapax legomena” make up between 40% to 60% of the words—in the Brown Corpus of American English, for example, about half of its 50,000 words are “hapax legomena.”

The opportunity presented by thinking about “hapax legomena,” then, would seem to be the possibility of a perspective shift. Instead of thinking about culture and politics as the domain of capture by endless averaging out, we might recognize that the apparent triumph of the mundane, the roughly equivalent, and the fungible is built, in fact, upon a foundation of quiddities.

(More to follow next week).

[1] Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman What Is Morphology?(Second Edition), Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, 114.

[2] Leta E. Miller, “ONCE and Again: The Evolution of a Legendary Festival.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. While much attention had been lavished on experimental music and the Brit New Left (AMM, Cornelius Cardew, etc. ), this is a major contribution to our understanding of the avant-garde aesthetic of the American New Left.

    Ann Arbor, as you rightly note, is a central place to this story. Legs McNeil in Please Kill Me tells a parallel tale with the proto-punkers in the MC 5 and Stooges getting seriously into free jazz while residing in the campus environs of U Mich in the late 60s. How should we contextualize ONCE in community where the radicalism of the day tended to be determined not only by SDS, but also John Sinclair’s spaced out White Panther Party and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz fests he sponsored where Sun Ra held court?

    • Thanks so much, Kit.

      Absolutely, the later emergence of the MC5 and The Stooges should no doubt be looped back to the ONCE Festival as primal scene; so, too, should Akron’s Devo a little later on.

      Sun Ra, at the time, if I am not incorrect, was residing in Philadelphia and playing often in Chicago… so, in one way, what we see here is a Rust Belt avant-garde (later to include Cleveland’s Pere Ubu and the early harbingers of Chicago and Detroit techno)–perhaps a new area of research to be initiated by cultural historians?

      The whiteness question becomes far more explicit with someone like Sinclair–although one should probably see this late-60s oppositional whiteness as a sort of Maoist protest against history, rather than a reveling in white affect (as, say, southern rock would do).

      What unites all of these projects–say, the psychedelic immersion in free jazz that produced Raw Power, and the energies behind ONCE–is what Badiou calls the “passion for the real.” These Midwestern bohemians hungered for, yearned for, the “real”: the inaccessible unmediated core of experience, covered up by capitalist “reality.” (Also, a very New Left sort of thing to do).

      That this often took the form of white young people turning with intense interest to the cultural productions of African Americans is an old story (and, as Grace Hale shows, a story that is not innocent, no matter how virtuous the New Left’s self-conception).

      I do not think, for all that, that the whiteness politics makes it instantly knowable–there are many contradictions and paradoxes (as well as a lot of good art) mixed in this mess that await proper historical contextualization.

      Thanks again for this great question!

  2. Very intriguing. I sent this piece to Michael Kramer. Hopefully he’ll have time to take a look and comment. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to the follow-up next week, Kurt! – TL

Comments are closed.