About Henry Flynt
Henry Flynt was born in 1940 in Greensboro, NC. He is a philosopher, musician, anti-art activist and exhibited artist.
Flynt’s work devolves from what he calls “cognitive nihilism,” first announced in the 1960 and 1961 drafts of Philosophy Proper. (The 1961 draft was published with other early work in his book Blueprint for a Higher Civilization, Milan, 1975.) He refined these dispensations in the “Is there language?” trap, published as “Primary Study” in 1964. In 1961, Flynt coined the term concept art. Concept art’s first appearance in a book was in An Anthology, release date 1963. In 1962, Flynt began to campaign for an anti-art position. He demonstrated against cultural institutions in New York in 1963 with Tony Conrad and Jack Smith, and against Stockhausen twice in 1964. He wanted art to be superseded by “veramusement” and “brend,” neologisms meaning approximately pure recreation.
From about 1980, Flynt has given a great deal of time to two endeavors which did not achieve the notoriety of the early actions—"meta-technology" and "personhood theory." In 1987, he revived concept art for tactical reasons; he spent seven years in the art world. After that, Flynt began to publish recorded but unreleased musical compositions; over a dozen CDs have appeared as of 2007. Because of his friendship and collaboration with George Maciunas, Flynt sometimes gets linked to Fluxus by unsympathetic reviewers.
Early years, 1940-1957
Henry Flynt was born in Greensboro, NC in 1940. His father was a portrait photographer and his mother was a schoolteacher. His older half-brother Harold worked as a photographer for many years. Flynt attended two public schools in Greensboro, the first being the school at which his mother taught. He was perceived as excessively studious as a child, dividing much of his free time between libraries and classical music institutions. In senior high school, he achieved several youthful distinctions, being inducted into Torchlight (NHS), becoming concertmaster of his High School orchestra, receiving an honorary scholarship to Harvard. However, he was also “difficult”—for example, he quit the orchestra after one semester as concertmaster to practice solo exclusively. Flynt recruited himself as a devotee of Rudolf Carnap in 1957, and became notorious in Greensboro for his announced atheism.
The intense years, 1957-1963
Flynt entered Harvard College at age 17 and attended for two and a half years. For the first time, Flynt had teachers who were (or were considered) world-class. At the same time, Flynt met peers who would be intellectual companions in succeeding years, such as Tony Conrad and John Alten. While taking Israel Scheffler’s philosophy of science course, Flynt began to radicalize empiricism to draw the obvious conclusion that natural science did not satisfy empiricist strictures. At this time, Flynt was also imitatively composing “serious modern music.” Conrad placed Flynt in contact with La Monte Young in 1959. Flynt’s grades were poor; he treated Harvard as an opportunity to sample the most formidable offerings (Quine on set theory, Tate on algebraic varieties, La Drière on literary theory) rather than to build an acceptable academic record.
By the beginning of 1960, Flynt was on academic probation. He concluded that academe had nothing more to offer him as to intellectual leadership, and that he needed to devote his full time to creative endeavors. He withdrew from Harvard, devoting himself first to the monograph Philosophy Proper, which was concerned to refute analytic philosophy and logical positivism with their own means. Completing the first draft in 1960, Flynt thereby announced the “cognitive nihilism” that would give impetus to all of his work.
In December of 1960, Flynt traveled to New York and met La Monte Young in person. This was a tremendous stimulus to Flynt.
In 1961, Flynt continued to reinvent himself, and produced a body of work which gave direction to everything he did subsequently. He appeared in the series of concerts at Yoko Ono’s loft curated by La Monte Young. He arranged an “avant-garde” concert at Harvard at the end of March—for which Young, Richard Maxfield, and Robert Morris traveled to Cambridge to participate. He finished version 3 of Philosophy Proper (the version published in 1975). Flynt gave a private lecture at La Monte Young’s apartment at the beginning of June 1961 in which he argued that a work cannot have newness as its primary value. Later that month, Flynt coined the term concept art to refer to “an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of for ex. music is sound.” As the essay “Concept Art” made clear, this definition was not the whole story. Concept art devolved from cognitive nihilism, from insights about the vulnerabilities of logic and mathematics. Drawing on an exclusively syntactical paradigm of logic and mathematics, concept art was meant jointly to supersede mathematics and the formalistic music then current in serious music circles. Therefore, to merit the label concept art, a work had to be an object-critique of logic or mathematics or objective structure.
Flynt wrote a script for private experience, “Exercise Awareness-States,” later reconstructed and pubulished as “Mock Risk Games.” (The original text was ultimately retrieved and published.) He presented a selection of current work in lecture-like appearances at George Maciunas’ AG Gallery in July 1961.
Here a misrepresentation needs to be addressed. Concept Art has, had as one of its tributaries Young's "Little Pieces" or "Word Pieces." Flynt's label was immediately appropriated as a synonym for word pieces, which it is not. That denied Flynt the right to say what his own label meant. Other developments contributed to the practice of using Concept Art as a synonym for word pieces.
Resuming with 1961, Flynt created “Energy Cube Organism” (recast decades later as “The Choice Chronology Project”). Flynt’s projects were “cognitively nihilistic” and interdisciplinary. Meanwhile, Flynt had gone through a musical reorientation which brought him to ethnic music, or rather its refinement, as the ideal of music.
In January 1962, Flynt visited New York for a benefit for An Anthology. While in the city, he recorded duets with Young, and read “Energy Cube Organism” to Young and Morris. He followed up by recording new ethnic violin performances, heavily influenced by Young’s piano playing in their duet rehearsals.
All the while, Flynt ceased to consider art-making a justifiable activity. In 1962, he began to criticize art wholesale, in the name of absolute subjectivity of taste—wanting no part of the socially regimenting function of art. In all fairness, the cessation of art had already been proposed by Cage and Wolff (prominently by Wolff in Die Reihe 5 in 1960), but when Flynt turned in this direction two years later, they reverted to the defense of art. Flynt began to give lectures assailing art to avant-garde artists, including a June 1962 lecture in an apartment in Manhattan attended by a number of today’s notables. Art was to be replaced with “general acognitive culture,” later “veramusement,” finally “brend.”
As a student at the end of the 1950s, Flynt had entered the orbit of earth-shattering discoveries in hard science, and absurdism in the arts, to acquire his education. Flynt now proposed to vault over everything that was called “advanced,” and to deliver civilization-obsolescing results. Flynt rounded off his extremism by propounding the “civilization in one mind.”
Flynt’s direction led him to increasing isolation. (As he acknowledged in essays that he circulated at the time, but which do not survive). Searching for a way out, he availed himself of a series of opportunities to learn more about the Marxist Left. On the one hand, there was a global resurgance of the Marxist Left in the 1960s; on the other hand, Flynt quickly concluded that his utopian perspective of culture would be credible only in the sort of utopia Marx promised. (When Marx’s “1844 Manuscripts” became readily available in 1963, Flynt found support for his views in them.)
Sectarian Left, 1963-1967
Late in February 1963 (the second anniversary of his performances in Yoko Ono’s loft), Flynt visited New York for a pilot campaign against the cultural institutions and the art world. Already in the periphery of the doctrinaire Left, he got his idea of a public campaign from them. He picketed two museums and Lincoln Center with Tony Conrad and Jack Smith. The next day he lectured against art in Walter De Maria’s loft. By that point, Flynt had convinced himself that he did not need his own “acognitive compositions,” and he destroyed most of them—In hindsight, he considers this a mistake.
In May 1963, Flynt moved to New York to be closer to the sectarian Left. Shortly afterward, An Anthology, which included Flynt’s “Concept Art,” was released. (The 1963 printing, which was actually the second printing.) For five years, Flynt would be a minor activist in the sectarian Left. His contributions included articles on inflamed situations in Africa. In summer 1966, he appeared on Florynce Kennedy’s radio program with the Zambian Ambassador to the UN.
All the while, Flynt continued to explore his core ideas. Philosophy Proper became the “Is there language?” trap, published in 1964. Flynt wrote “1966 Mathematical Studies” to unfold concept art and other 1961 interdisciplinary projects. His critique of art was reshaped to become a scathing critique of the official Left’s cultural policy. He assailed official Communism’s depreciation of African-American music in particular. In conjunction with his indictment of classical music as a Eurosupremacist ideology, he and George Maciunas led demonstrations against Stockhausen in 1964. Participants in one or the other demonstration included Ben Vautier, Tony Conrad, Marc Schleiffer, and Japanese artists recruited by Maciunas.
Influenced by Maciunas’ interpretation of early Soviet positions, Flynt called for a Communist “contraction” of art. (Rodchenko and Vertov were precedents.) Flynt and Maciunas issued their manifesto “Communists Must Give Revolutionary Leadership in Culture” in 1965.
Flynt embodied his views on music in new ethnically-based recordings. He recorded “Acoustic Hillbilly Jive” at the end of 1963. In 1966, the tracks now available on the Locust CD I Don’t Wanna were recorded. The sculptor Walter De Maria supplied essential support for this project. At about the same time, Flynt was recording characteristic solo violin pieces.
In September 1966, Flynt played violin with the Velvet Underground as a stand-in for John Cale for two weekends (four days) at The Dom in the East Village. The notice in the Village Voice, 29 September 1966, referred to "the screeching electric violin."
By mid-1967, Flynt felt the need for employment more reliable than pick-up jobs. At the same time, he happened to attend Marcuse’s March 1967 lecture at the SVA in the company of anarchist Benn Morea. That led him to read Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism, and he rapidly became disillusioned with the “barracks” model of Communism promoted by the hard Left. Flynt entered NYU as a transfer student, hoping to make himself employable. Simultaneously he dissociated himself from the sectarian Left. He found himself once again in the social position of a college student, but this time he accepted the role for specific tactical reasons. In the next few years, he would give his anti-art case its final shape, and achieve publication for individual texts created earlier in the Sixties. He began the long process of disconnecting his analysis of social being and his ideas about a hypothetical Communism from Marxist doctrine.
Graduating from NYU in 1970, Flynt worked briefly for an economic consulting firm near the Stock Exchange, then entered the New School as a graduate student in economics. He would be granted a Lehman Fellowship. Aside from taking advantage of the opportunity for expedient reasons, Flynt used his eight years at the New School to re-examine and sharpen the impressionistic positions on economics which had been thrust on him by the sectarian Left. The question of whether an advanced industrial society which was not capitalist was possible was one which had never been answered—or asked—not even in theory. The public’s impression that Marx and his followers had some magic formula in this connection was one of the greatest hoaxes in history. Flynt wanted to answer the question (which he thought would involve abstract technical issues reaching all the way into foundations of science) in insulation from political bandwagons.
At the New School, Flynt’s dissertation supervisor was the planning economist Thomas Vietorisz; he also studied with Michael Hudson, the renowned critic of international financial arrangements. He successfully defended his Ph. D. dissertation on the theory of socialist economic allocation in April 1978, but, eccentric as ever, he never graduated.
Flynt had met the Swedish mathematician, composer, and artist C.C. Hennix at the beginning of the Seventies through La Monte Young. Partly because of dialogue with Hennix and partly because he was immersed in graduate school, Flynt began to try to confront the conventional wisdom with more conventionally researched presentations. Given that his goal was to obsolesce the civilization, it was a formidable, long-term project. Flynt sought to distill irreducible intellectual novelties, and then position them where they could be registered, at least in principle, by conventional thought.
Flynt’s early texts achieved only scattered publication until many of them were collected in his book Blueprint for a Higher Civilization (1975).
The Seventies were the main years of musical activity for Flynt. Once La Monte Young had brought Pandit Pran Nath to New York, Flynt took classes and private lessons with him. To Flynt, Pran Nath was the musician of musicians. It capped off all his thinking about ethnic culture and the project of art—and inspired pieces Flynt would record, some while Flynt was taking Hindustani vocal lessons. (E.g. “Graduation,” 1975.) In 1975, he headed a rock band devoted to his compositions, Nova’billy. Some of his compositions for band have been released, and more are expected. Many of the Flynt tracks which have been released in the twenty-first century were recorded in this period.
1979 was a key year. In February, Flynt and Hennix presented a concert at the Kitchen in New York of pilot projects for illuminatory sound environments, the so-called HESEs or ISEs. Then, in October, Flynt was invited to give one in a series of soirees in an apartment in Stockholm. At his soiree, Flynt presented his perspective as a consummation of the sort of skepticism that had been the bête noire of classical philosophy (Decartes and Hume). Flynt then announced the label "meta-technology" for the instrumental phase of his new modalities. “Meta-technology” means a technology which acts transformatively on shared determinations of reality (presupposing the scientific civilization and high cognitive standards), and embraces the entire spectrum of Flynt’s investigations into contradiction, reality-classification of perceptual gestalts, and perceiver-percept interdependency. In ambition, meta-technology is like an intellectual attack on civilization from outer space.
In 1980, Flynt concluded that existential phenomenology needed to be radicalized to become a devolutional non-intellectual epistemology, which he called "Personhood Theory." It would allow the explication of “high-level affections or qualities” such as dignity. Personhood theory is evisioned to support meta-technology in addressing the interplay between the reality-picture and the whole person that allows one civilization to employ instrumental knowledge which seems insane to another civilization.
In the early 1980s, C. C. Hennix and Flynt's niece, Libby Flynt, moved to a residence near Woodstock NY. What was expected was that the Woodstock location would be the site of a cultural collective of which they would be the core. Pandit Pran Nath and A.S. Yessenin-Volpin visited the house. The expectations went far beyond the results. Libby Flynt returned to Greensboro after a year an a half, and when she returned to the north in 1987, it was to Manhattan. The main result of this decade of activity was a more intense dialogue between Flynt and Hennix, which brough Flynt to a much sharper confrontation with academic science, as refracted through Hennix’s involvement with Yessenin-Volpin. Music was also a part of the Flynt-Hennix collaboration, and several live sessions were recorded. The “New Paltz” years had one tangible result in particular, the publication of Io #41, ed. Charles Stein, a book mainly devoted to Hennix with a long section on Flynt.
In the art world, 1987-1993
In 1987, in consultation with Hennix, Flynt made the decision that concept art needed to be revived and promulgated for tactical reasons; Flynt felt it was the only avenue by which to get a body of significant work on the public record. Flynt resumed making and showing concept art as a tactical move. In fact, the works he made at this time unfolded concept art, or fulfilled its promise, in a way the 1961 pieces had not. Without this second chapter, even a sincere student would have had little chance of grasping what concept art was about.
Flynt joined the Emily Harvey Gallery on Broadway and began to live as a career artist. The Emily Harvey Gallery was basically devoted to Fluxus. Flynt’s decision to show there was a difficult decision, given that he had been mis-labeled Fluxus in the past.
At the Venice Biennale in 1990, Flynt showed a concept-art room, involving no text, namely “Logically Impossible Space.” Later that year, Flynt and Hennix appeared together at the Fodor Museum in Amsterdam. Flynt showed his photographic portfolio “The SAMO© Graffiti” in Donguy Gallery in 1991 and at the Lyon Biennale in 1993. The portfolio can be seen on Flynt’s web site.
In conjunction with his dialogue with Hennix, Flynt intensified his efforts to engage academic science. He visited the mathematical physicist John Baez in Cambridge and New Haven—both to be tutored, and for dialogue.
Flynt continued refining his challenge to academic science. In 1999 and again in 2005 he would receive informal tutoring from logician Graham Priest and physicist Jacques Mallah. The exchanges were quite valuable to Flynt. The bridge Flynt was trying to build to “authorized content” had one visible success; Priest mentioned Flynt in “Perceiving Contradictions,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, December 1999.
Flynt’s decision to approach the question of a post-capitalist economy in insulation from political bandwagons saved him from following the Left to its present intellectual fate. All the while, Flynt announced that a socialist utopia which could give meaning to the Left’s critique of the status quo was not the order of the day. (Flynt’s Internet musings aside, no proof has been published that such a utopia is possible.) Workers could not be the protagonist of history, Flynt now avowed; the notion of a workers’ economic system, a system issuing from the consciousness of the shop floor, was nonviable syndicalism. By this time, Flynt had little respect remaining for Marxism.
Flynt always meant to bring social-objectivism or social reality within the range of his extremism. That led to the proposal of the enchanted community in personhood theory, and to texts such as "The Abolition of the Universe and Time."
By Che Chen (2008)
Of all the artists working in the somewhat dubiously named category of “experimental music,” there are few whose releases are as highly and consistently anticipated as those of Henry Flynt. His biography is so full of ideological turns and unexpected syntheses that pinning him down has proven to be just about as impossible as it has pointless. But the myriad forms of Flynt’s intellectual output over the last half century—which have encompassed everything from philosophical tracts to North Indian influenced solo violin pieces, from country rock to “concept art”—are by no means indicative of a casual, flippant temperament. Instead, they point to that far rarer thing, an uncompromising insistence on the intellectual integrity of his project. It might seem incongruous for such a stubborn vision to accommodate so much variation and change, but this can be accounted for in the fact that Flynt’s worldview has always been a holistic one. His artistic pursuits have always been interwoven with the serious study of mathematics, philosophy, spirituality, politics and economics. The upheavals that characterize Flynt’s body of work are less the product of whim than of the constant and unsentimental reappraisal of his own ideas. Renewal, as I learned when I sat down to talk with him one afternoon this October, is a central tenet—one of the main characters, in fact—in Henry Flynt’s story.
That story begins in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Flynt was born to middle class parents in 1940. It might make sense that he was born in the American South, given that much of his musical project has been devoted to the radical reinvention of Southern music, but in actuality, Flynt spent most of those formative years immersed classical—not country—music and arrived at Harvard at the tender age of 17 with aspirations of becoming a mathematician-philosopher. After a brief undergraduate sojourn there where he studied mathematics, tried his hand at composing “serious modern music” and befriended Tony Conrad among other things, Flynt concluded that the academies had little to offer him intellectually or otherwise and dropped out of school to focus on his first major monograph, “Philosophy Proper.” It was to be a decision that would set a precedent in Flynt’s life for opting out of what he saw as intellectually bankrupt structures, the first of many refusals in what would amount to a career—if one can really use this word when talking about Henry Flynt—full of refutation.
Heading to New York—where he has been ever since—Flynt met the composer La Monte Young and through him entered into the epicenter of the New York, Post-War Avant-Garde. In Flynt’s words, Young was “running the scene in New York” at that point, and Young included Flynt in An Anthology. Through Young, Flynt was introduced to George Maciunas and the Fluxus group, which Flynt would be more or less associated with because of projects with Maciunas. Flynt and Maciunas shared a radical political agenda at the outset—the two staged protests against “cultural imperialism” at Stockhausen concerts in 1964—but ultimately the absurdist-utopian antics that would become associated with Fluxus did not appeal to Flynt’s more rigorous sensibilities, and he characteristically went his own way. The 1960s was a period of rich ideological cross-pollination for Flynt, who was actively recording with Young, participating in doctrinaire Left activities, hashing out the principles of a new type of art he called “concept art” and hard at work formulating a new musical language outside of any of the established genres, which he called ‘Audact’ (short for Auditory Acognitive Cultural Activity (see ‘Raga Electric,’ Locust 06)).
Flynt also rubbed elbows with the circle that would eventually close in around Lou Reed as the Velvet Underground. He took some guitar lessons from Reed in the mid-1960s which would lead to the formation of Flynt’s agit-prop protest band, The Insurrections (‘I Don’t Wanna,’ Locust 39), which featured the now world-reknowned minimalist sculptor, Walter de Maria—who was incidentally also in an early incarnation of the Velvets—on drums. Flynt also sat in for violist, John Cale, for a handful of Velvet Underground concerts in 1966.
But despite these associations, Flynt has always remained a bit of a loner. One of the things that has always set him apart from his peers is his earnest—if sometimes one-sided—dialogue with popular music; his refusal to remain within the esthetic—or political—confines of the avant-garde. From his early conversion from “serious modern composer” to Bo Diddley fan or his admonishment of the sectarian Left for their lack of appreciation of African-American music, or his embrace of American Southern roots music, Flynt has always striven for a certain universality in his music, be it through his radical reinvention of popular forms or in his embrace of transcendental ethnic music or through an intriguing and unlikely combination of the two.
“I have always wanted to do an affirmative and sort of exalted music,” Flynt says, though if he ever made overtures to the populace they were certainly always on his own terms and, as a consequence, often went unheard. Aside from a single cassette issued by a German gallery in 1986, none of his music would be commercially released until the early 2000s on the labels Recorded, Ampersand, and Locust. With perhaps the exception of some of his ‘Audact’ pieces, Flynt’s aforementioned statement is remarkably easy to reconcile with the music in his catalog. This is not to say that his music isn’t challenging at times in the elements it brings together—scathing political critique and primitive rock music, hillbilly figures and minimalist repetition—but Flynt’s musical delivery always possesses a certain emotional quality, a grit that I would say has more to do with ‘folk’ feeling than the clinical coolness one generally associates with the ‘avant-garde.’ In fact, his sixties recordings, especially those compiled on Backporch Hillbilly Blues volumes 1 & 2 [Locust 14 & 16], can come off sounding like lost sides from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. And it turns out this connection to Southern roots music, as is always the case with Flynt, is as philosophically and politically well-positioned as it is intuitively and emotionally gratifying.
New American Ethnic Music
One of the ideas that helps form the basis of Flynt’s musical world is his conception of “Ethnic Music,” a term he has been using to describe his own music since the early 1960s. When I asked him explain the label, he offered this: “This is a very musicological question that invites a very musicological answer. There is a sense, which is strongest in the musicology departments, that Europe is a unique civilization that has an art music that somehow is not ethnic…I’ll just put it out there without mincing words—what is called musicology was an ideology for European art music. That’s why this so called academic discipline exists. I mean it was created to lionize Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. They took the position that European art music was the music of all music and they say that. In other words that it is the only music that is done correctly by the correct rules. All of the music that I like has these regional traditions. I have very little interest in anything outside of that even though I was trained as a serious modern composer. My first piece from 1959 is very post-Cagean, and some of my so-called “Audact” has been published, like the ‘Central Park Transverse Vocals’ and so on [Raga Electric, Locust 06]. So, in other words, I can do the other stuff, and I have done it, but I am now dedicated to what you would call “Regional Traditional Music” and its refinement and its renewal…For some reason, the stuff that interests me is all these regional traditions, usually where notation plays no important role. And that’s not because there is anything intrinsically wrong with notation, but just because the existing notation is also the ideology of European domination—I mean it’s all the same thing.”
North Indian Classical Music is one such “regional tradition” that has proven to be a wellspring of ideas for Flynt, whose principal teacher was the Hindustani singer, Pandit Pran Nath. Pran Nath, a master of the Kirana school of North Indian singing, came to the United States in the early seventies and left an indelible mark on everyone who studied with him. His rather illustrious roster of former students includes Lamonte Young, Terry Riley, C. C. Hennix, Charlemagne Palestine, Don Cherry, Simone Forti, Jon Gibson and Yoshi Wada among others. The influence of Pran Nath’s teaching can be heard most ostensibly on Flynt’s long form pieces like C-tune [Locust 03] and Purified by the Fire [Locust 67] which find his amplified violin exploring the all the permutations of finely tuned scales that reflect both hillbilly fiddling and Indian ragas, backed by Indian tamboura drones provided by Pran Nath disciple, logician and frequent Flynt collaborator, C.C. Hennix. But a more subtle influence can be heard in both Flynt’s country rock music and singing style on pieces like ‘Graduation’ [Graduation and Other New Country and Blues Music, Ampersand 08] and ‘Marines Hymn’ [Raga Electric, Locust 06]. “In India…you have this very strict and highly developed, extremely clear cut [music]—it’s sort of the idea of an aristocratic music that doesn’t know anything about Europe and doesn’t care, that’s what makes it so interesting. That’s been extremely important to me.” But unlike Young, who entered into the ancient guru-student relationship and became a full disciple of Pran Nath’s, Flynt has always felt compelled to experiment and fuse lessons from Indian music with other ethnic forms. “That’s one of the oddities of what I do,” he says, “I mix traditions in a quite casual way and I may also carefully establish the scale that I want to use and then as I continue to work with it I just break my own rules more and more as I start throwing in phrases from other parts of the world and so forth and so on. My own rules end up just having a kind of shadow presence in the piece. In Indian music…maintaining the purity of the ragas is of the highest requirement. To me it’s not much of a requirement.”
If Indian music provided the model for Flynt’s opening of country blues music to extended melodic improvisation, then it was African-American music that provided the model for an ethnic music capable of constantly revitalizing itself in the face of the stresses of industrialized society.
“You have a unique historical situation—African Americans in the United States—where they entered the society at the bottom of the social ladder. They create—I don’t know what to call it—a national culture or a national culture in exile at the bottom of the social ladder which is this very rich, I mean, it’s a complete musical language. Complete originality, I mean every instrument they took up, the piano, the guitar, they made it into a completely new instrument. I guess it’s most obvious with the piano because there is so little that you can do with the piano, I mean, all you are doing is pushing buttons. It’s the only thing that a piano allows you to do. The difference between a piano player like Memphis Slim and a white—you know like Boulez or something like that—I mean, if there was a real musicology then they would want to talk about that because they are getting two completely different languages out of the same—it’s just a machine—that’s all it is. They’re getting two completely different languages, two completely different spiritual worlds if I may say so—out of one machine. That amounts to a miracle. But apparently nobody in the musicology world even realizes that there is anything going on here, they just walk by without hearing anything. But another thing that is unique about African-American [music] is…the fact that, sociologically, it was an outsider language—that means it had no academic norms, which may have been very important for this, I mean there were no academic norms for country music either.”
“African-American music was continuously renewed whereas in Indian music… improving the music by making a new move was less urgent. When you get into Indian music, you want to study with the oldest teachers that sing in the oldest way, because that’s the highest musical quality…Whereas African-Americans have been in a situation where it is actually necessary and valuable to keep renewing the music. And to me that is absolutely the model of how you keep ethnic music alive—in other words, how you make it new without selling out. Without simply producing some kind of pastiche as in Indian film music, just for commercial purposes. There were turning points in African-American music, from the country blues to the Chicago blues, the arrival of Bo Diddley…totally changed my thinking about music. He had the most “African” sense of any black musician in the United States. I mean a genuinely African sense, it wasn’t hokey, it wasn’t fake; he really had the intuition for it. Some of the other things: Ornette Coleman, immensely important to me, obviously Coltrane—you can just give example after example after example where they just turned their own tradition around.
So what I wanted to do was to take the African-American example of renewal and apply that to Southern Roots music but also with free borrowings from Hindustani music and so forth and so on.”
Flynt’s radical reconfiguration of Southern music has taken many forms over the years, but the incarnation that comes closest to his ideal of an “affirmative and exalted” music has to be Henry Flynt and Nova’Billy [Locust 101]. Recorded in 1974 and 1975 but not released until 2007, Nova’Billy makes the thematic poles of Flynt’s project—Southern music and radical politics, Indian tonality and African-American rhythm, free jazz and rock and roll—seem like one effortless whole. And what’s more is that the record is an imminently joyous—even danceable—listen, and all without a shred of irony. “The idea,” Flynt explains, “was to have a recognizable country rock band and I wanted to have songs and I would’ve done more if it hadn’t fallen to pieces after six months. I would’ve tried to turn it into a legitimate country rock band that had a lot of songs and a few instrumentals in the repertoire. That was the goal. It didn’t happen. I also wanted to have flexible musicians…to have a country rock band with the ability to play funk, to play this and that, to move freely among many different Southern roots styles.”
However fresh Nova’Billy might sound to our ears, it was far from accepted in its own time. “There was no way people were ready for it. It fell flat on its face. I picked a particular moment when I got slammed by the punk invasion from Britain and at least two of the musicians I was working with sort of ‘defected’ to punk. But even if there had not been that problem, the problem is that…what the audience wants is oblivion. They want an entertainment experience equivalent to hitting their head with a mallet or hitting a bottle of booze. In that sense it was just the wrong moment for me. I actually hope that for what I am doing now, enough time has passed that it will be more possible.”
Right or wrong moments not withstanding, there can be little doubt as to whether or not Flynt will continue. Dharma Warriors, a pair of side-long improvisations with Flynt on guitar and C.C. Hennix on drums from 1983, has just been released on Locust and he has also recently started playing live again after more than two decades away from the stage. The handful of performances so far—in Lisbon, New York, Chicago and London—have consisted of a new, hour-long bout of dueling guitars called Rockin’ Midnight. Playing in tandem with his niece, guitarist Libby Flynt, over a looped backing track, Rockin’ Midnight once again finds Flynt stretching the boundaries of rock to accommodate various “ethnic” concepts and, in somewhat predictable keeping with Flynt’s historical relationship to the public, audience reactions have been mixed. “You’d hit one of these rocking licks and you’d get more of a rise out of the audience at Glasslands [the venue the Flynts performed at in New York]…But having said that I also have a sense that a lot of the audience may not be getting it and I may also be playing to audiences from time to time that are not especially with us…I’m taking the raga concept of form and applying it to rock and that is a vast departure. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised if not everybody gets it or was waiting for this particular departure.” If Flynt has historically faced an indifferent public, this time around he may instead have the problem of being met with an audience wanting him to recreate the sounds on recordings he made twenty or thirty years ago—an expectation I suspect he will be reluctant to satisfy. For as much as Flynt has dwelled upon and tried to clarify the past—one need only look at the voluminous writings on his website for evidence—his return to live performance, the continued releases from his archive and his embrace of forums that include a myspace blog that talks about everything from spirituality to the financial crisis and a series of Youtube videos about his history in the New York avant-garde all make it strikingly clear that he is a resolutely forward-looking man concerned chiefly with the problem of how to continue. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another twenty or thirty years for us to catch up to where Henry Flynt is today.