Homage to Jackson Mac Low


In November 2004, the students in my Sound + Art + Language survey of the 20th Century at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design performed Joseph Byrd’s classic Homage to Jackson Mac Low for each other a few times as well as part of a by-invitation performance they presented. Six weeks later we learned the object of our “homage,” the 82 year old Mac Low, was dead.

Homage to Jackson Mac Low is the title of “a poem for readers” by Joseph Byrd that was published in the important collection of indeterminate works titled An Anthology from 1963. An Anthology was edited by poet, composer, performance artist Jackson Mac Low and composer La Monte Young in 1961 and designed by Fluxus founder George Maciunas. The long out of print publication is still a historical reference source for early works that helped propel the art of the early 1960s.

I’ve used Byrd’s work as an exercise with art and design students who were studying the histories of Fluxus and text-sound-poetry. It provides them an introduction to the experience of both constructing and performing an indeterminate “text-sound” work.

Byrd’s score gives instructions for the creation of a poem to be read by any number of people wishing to pay homage to Jackson Mac Low. The instructions provide information on how to use words selected from the instruction text and then read them by following specific directions that treat the words as a sequence of vowels and consonants rather than words. Literal communication is not the object of the homage, but rather it is a playful and ironic language and performance exercise that is offered to an originator and practitioner of the concept of chance-derived poetry.

Vowels or vowel combinations are treated as pure sounds held for the length of the reader’s breath like “oooooo” or “aaaaaa,” while consonants are either voiced with vowels as in “luuuuuu” or “meeeee” or are to be enunciated briefly and percussively like “P!” or “T!” Sound events are separated by brief silences between 2 and 30 seconds that are also determined by Byrd’s rules.

To get a feel for the piece, imagine something like…

H         ooooooo          maaaaaaaaa       G     eeeeeeeee        T        ooooooo         jaaaaaaaaaa    

CK              sooooooooo            N          M           aaaaaaaaaa                  looooooo           W

…vocalized by multiple voices, perhaps using different words, and different spaces between events and varying lengths of held vowel sounds. The resulting overall sound created by small groups of 6-8 people is chant-like and generally sparse.

The performance technique Byrd describes owes much to Mac Low’s own methods of constructing poems through chance methods and then providing rules and directives for performing the poems in what Mac Low described as “simultaneities.” These are structured yet anarchic simultaneous performances that provide a means for sensitive juxtaposition of verbal, musical and visual materials. Each performance of a simultaneity is unique due to performers’ spontaneous choices and real-time chance systems.

We were studying Jackson Mac Low (September 12, 1922 – December 8, 2004) in the context of performances, poems, music and dance created by chance methods beginning in the 1950s while exploring the connections between both the musical and textual arts and the visual arts. In class, we briefly explored and argued about definitions for text-sound and sound poetry activities and how the sound and the art and the language worked together or apart. Mac Low was a major figure involved in the birth of Fluxus and was a major investigator of chance derived poetry and associated music and performance during the Judson Dance Workshop years. Mac Low’s output of radical indeterminate artworks was equal or superior to that of the writer, composer and visual artist John Cage. Cage for his part was both Mac Low’s teacher in theory and student in practice, and generously acknowledged his debt to Mac Low.

Throughout his long creative career, Mac Low explored and employed many methods of composing poetry, but tends to be best known for his indeterminate early works. Although considered radical and unreadable by some, Mac Low was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1999.

Mac Low began using various methods of chance from dice, the I-Ching, random number tables, etc., to create his poetic works in the mid-1950s. He was one of the students in John Cage’s seminal classes on experimental music conducted at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1958. Along with Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Al Hansen, Alan Kaprow and others, Mac Low went on to participate in La Monte Young’s performance series in Yoko Ono’s loft, help found Fluxus, develop Happenings, and generally shake up the art world in the early 1960s.

Two works by Jackson Mac Low that my student’s tackled during class where Stanzas for Iris Lezak (1960) and A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore (1975).

Stanzas for Iris Lezak were composed following Mac Low’s self-developed chance methods during 1960 but not published until 1972 by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press.

The work Stanzas for Iris Lezak is a book-long series of poems composed by Mac Low using a chance process to determine both the structure and actual words of each poem. One of the methods used by Mac Low to write many of the poems is described by him as an “acrostic-stanzaic chance method.” An index string (often the poem’s title), for instance the words “acrostic-stanzaic,” is used to select words or word strings from a source text by using the letters of the consecutive words in the index string to choose words or words strings from the text. If for example the writer uses the index string to determine single words, she must find the first words in the source text which begin with the letters “a”, “c”, “r”, “o”, “s”, “t”, “i”, “c”, etc. Using this paragraph as the source text and the word “Acrostic-stanzaic” as the index string, the writer would generate the following line:

a composed _______ One Stanzas The Iris composed Stanzas The a ________ ________ a Iris chance

Spaces occur where no word can be found beginning with the necessary letter. By adding rules such as not repeating words and eliminating articles, the line would read this way:

“acrostic-stanzaic composed _______ One Stanzas title Iris chance series text “Acrostic-stanzaic ________ ________ “Acrostic-stanzaic is chance

The concrete use of language is both refreshing and disconcerting. This type of poetic composition, like all of Mac Low’s stanzas composed in this fashion, confronts the reader to determine what voice or voices the words in the poem represent since the words or word clusters are clearly cut and pasted regardless of intended “sense.” Writer Charles Bernstein succinctly observers, “In Mac Low, it is never a question of deciphering, since there is nothing hidden, obscure, or purposefully ambiguous. (Charles Bernstein, “Jackson Mac Low: Poetry as Art,” December 2004)

Still, reading all the stanzas outside of performing them can be daunting especially when you find hundreds of them published in the order of composition. However, discovering a few of them in Mac Low’s Representative Works: 1938-1985 lets you relish these gems mounted along with other Mac Low works from before and since.

To me, one attractiveness of Mac Low’s use of systemic techniques to create the text to be performed as well as the manner to perform it, is that performative readers can conduct the exercise without expecting more than to be surprised at the results. Aesthetic considerations have been stretched. Some results may be different than expected or desired, but they would never have sprung together without the patient carrying out of the tasks set before the writer or performer. Carrying out the tasks is such a satisfying busywork type of exercise, and the result is generally a surprise. In a pedagogical environment, this freedom to do without judgment is especially important. And as Mac Low has reported about his work, “They often surprise me, and they almost always give me pleasure, and seem to give pleasure to others.”

To conduct a performance of Stanzas for Iris Lezak, performers follow Mac Low’s rules for performing a simultaneity which are published in the book. Mac Low wrote, “Any number of persons may perform Stanzas for Iris Lezak as a simultaneity. I use the term “simultaneity” to designate each of my works (or in this case, versions of works) in which each of a group of people perform a relatively independent series of actions (reading, producing nonverbal sounds, or doing predominantly visible physical actions) & all of these series of actions take place simultaneously, that is, during the same period of time, the duration of the performance.”

Mac Low gives detailed instructions on the performance of the stanzas beginning with the purchase of two copies of the book which are then cut into pieces so that the poems can be pasted onto index cards, shuffled and distributed among the performers. In the heady days of the 1970s when copies of Stanzas for Iris Lezak were readily available in Milwaukee for $10 at Boox-Books, the predecessor to Woodland Pattern Book Center, I did just that in preparation for a performance of the work in 1978. Retaining those cards and the other items Mac Low specifies all these years, it was easy for me to have students perform brief versions of the work in class.

Poet and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg describes performing Mac Low’s work as one of Rothenberg’s own “entries” into it. The “resistance” Rothenberg reports that he initially experienced toward Mac Low’s work mirrors my student’s initial response to much of the art they encountered in my history surveys from Futurism and dada up to performance art in the 1980s. What better way to provide them entry into this performative art but through experience? Rothenberg writes Mac Low is, “undoubtedly one of those who has contributed most to reviving a poetics of performance…” (Jerome Rothenberg, Pre-Face, Paper Air, Volume Two, Number Three)

Echoing Rothenberg, Bernstein suggests that Mac Low’s texts “only become alive in an active reading of it (in a performance, or silently, by a reader).” (Bernstein, Charles, Jackson At Home, Paper Air, Volume Two, Number Three)

Another important aspect of Mac Low’s simultaneities that I tried to impress my students with is the anarchic but cooperative situation they call for. In my experience, art students are pretty insulated from each other since they have been trained to work solo. The concept of cooperative art making is unknown with the exception of people in the performing arts. Even designers aren’t trained to work on teams, and so collective art making is both to be feared and resisted. Yet, as the writer and publisher Karl Young says of Stanzas for Iris Lezak and other works by Mac Low, they are “opportunities for people to get together and work in the spirit of cooperation.”

The other Mac Low work we explored in our class was A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore composed between February 1974 and July 1975. This work stands in stark contrast to Stanzas for Iris Lezak and consists of one large sheet filled with hand-lettered words presented in 360 degrees. The 960 words, all composed like a poetic game of Boggle from Moore’s name, make up a “vocabulary” ranging from “spite,” “met,” ”serpent,” and “mister,” to “operos,” “finis,” “mise,” and “Eos.” Each is hand lettered in different pen weights and arranged, through chance operations, in all directions on the sheet. Readers are instructed to move freely from one word to another by looking first at the entire word field from any of the four sides of the text and then choosing a word or string of words to read aloud in a clear, nondramatic way. In order to read all the words of the text you must rotate the page. Mac Low also provides instructions for using the text musically so that singers and musicians can play notes also derived from Moore’s name.

A text like this, especially as viewed by an artist or designer, is a visual object that defies our ideas of “sense.” Yet, through carefully following of instructions and cooperatively reading the work with others, you begin to relish the babble of language that surrounds us much of the day. The genius of Mac Low is to have created a visual object for contemplation that can be released into aural existence through reading that tends to surprise both the listener and reader in equal parts.

These introductions to Jackson Mac Low’s work will hopefully serve the interested student or reader in discovering the unique contributions to poetics and art-making that Mac Low initiated through is work. His contribution and influence can be seen in the works of many artists who have explored the beauty of language in its concrete forms and in the serendipitous relationship of works not always driven by ego or traditional communication sense. Like Byrd’s Homage, we can encounter Mac Low’s work as refreshing and surprising events and experiences.