Music historian Brigid Cohen traces the influence of hubs for Cold War-era experimental art, from Carnegie Hall to Yoko Ono’s loft.
The early years of the Cold War may bring to mind historically momentous events like Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 “Kitchen Debate,” the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, or the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
But there’s also a facet of the period that is very much a New York story—one that centers on experimental music and art, two aspects of post-World War II culture that are seemingly distant from the superpower clashes between the United States and the Soviet Union. In fact, says NYU music historian Brigid Cohen, artists such as Charles Mingus and Yoko Ono, along with New York institutions, including the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Hall, among others, helped “to exert U.S. influence abroad” and “wielded power through their transnational connections”—even if many of these individuals, including both Mingus and Ono, were subject to “unequal citizenship status” in America.
“Although the city has long held sway internationally as a cultural and economic powerhouse, its standing in the world increased dramatically after World War II,” writes Cohen in her newly released Musical Migration and Imperial New York: Early Cold War Scenes (University of Chicago Press), drawing on the work of Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen. “During this period, New York emerged as an archetypal global city under the pressure of the Cold War—when the United States asserted heightened economic and geopolitical dominance—absorbing a growing wave of immigration in the wake of the world war, the Holocaust, decolonization movements, and the internal Great Migration.”
Cohen, a professor in NYU’s Department of Music, illuminates the contributions of these artists—many of them underappreciated—through the venues where their creations were displayed, performed, and composed. Some of these sites have similar purposes today, while others offer only architectural whispers of the history made there more than a half century ago.
Below is a virtual tour of several locations (depicted then and now) whose role Cohen chronicles in her new book—along with stories about the artists who made them famous.
AG Gallery (925 Madison Avenue)
The short-lived AG Gallery (Dec. 1960-July 1961), founded by artist George Maciunas, on New York’s Upper East Side was nonetheless notable because it served as a venue for an array of artistic expression—“from its experimental, early music, and electronic music programming to its poetry and film series,” Cohen writes.
The gallery’s final show, Paintings & Drawings by Yoko Ono, while limited in duration, helped both of them to “not only to launch their careers but (also) to fashion for themselves new personae as ways of being in, acting in, and knowing the world,” Cohen observes.
“As countercultural provocateurs, they showed a wry approach to provoking thought and action in their audiences,” she adds. “Ono stood on hand, like a docent, to surround her work with personal narratives, humorous storytelling, and political significance, while encouraging audiences to realign their imaginations with the world through eccentric recipes for action.”
Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Recital Hall)
Yoko Ono’s performance at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961 “(s)ignified “passage of Ono’s creative work from ‘private’ to ‘public’,” Cohen writes. Her work also marked an artistic shift—measured in Manhattan distance—as it “combined poetic text recitation with musical improvisation, bringing a familiar format of the Greenwich Village club and coffeehouse scene into the recital hall.”
But, more broadly, works at the venue—as well as at the Museum of Modern Art—during this period helped mark the broader acceptance of jazz in the United States. “European music-lovers long have accepted jazz as a major American contribution to Western culture. Now, are we going to, too?” music critic and historian Nat Hentoff wrote at the time.
Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (now Columbia Music Center—Prentis Hall, 632 West 125th Street)
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC), the first large-scale studio of its kind in North America, was founded in 1958, supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. More than just a pillar of New York’s “uptown music scene,” CPEMC also had a role in global cultural diplomacy—consistent with the foundation’s mission at the time. It sought to showcase American cultural and techno-scientific leadership in music—a field seen by many as dominated by Europe—and house visiting composers from around the world, especially the Middle East, East Asia, and Latin America, serving as “a global center for pluralist exchange,” Cohen writes, adding that the venue drew Grammy-winning musician and composer Wendy Carlos, whose work helped popularize the synthesizer.
“The founding of the CPEMC testifies to an era when public and private agencies scrambled to provide New York City with a cultural infrastructure befitting its global status as a symbol of ascendant US power,” she observes.
The Music School of Greenwich House (now Greenwich House Music School—46 Barrow Street)
In the spring and summer of 1957, composer Edgard Varèse, a French immigrant, led a series of improvisation sessions at the Music School of Greenwich House in lower Manhattan, resulting in sounds that connected classical and jazz musicians. While Cohen writes that “the sessions were strikingly short in duration and their creative legacy remains elusive,” they brought together jazz saxophonist Teo Macero, who later became a producer for Columbia Records, and, perhaps most notably, jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus, among others.
Of particular significance are a set of recordings, preserved at Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, that “speak to a kind of after-hours experimentation and sociability not usually archived or remembered within official history,” Cohen observes. “They open up novel perspectives on a liminal encounter between downtown concert vanguard- ists and jazz experimenters, testifying to a long and largely unspoken history of mutual fascination, crossed signals, and fraught negotiations of authority.”
112 Chambers Street
The location served as the venue for Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street Loft Series—Ono rented the top floor of the building in 1960 (at $50.50 a month!) and hosted artists and musicians who used the series to showcase work not recognized by traditional venues. Over its six-month run, the series attracted, as attendees or featured creators, artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dick Higgins, and Jasper Johns as well as composer John Cage and pianist David Tudor.
However, Cohen writes, “Ono found herself denied credit for her role in organizing and producing the series, which (composer) La Monte Young claimed as solely his own in the series invitations, programs, and oral history.” Moreover, Ono’s artistic works never appeared on the official series program, “a circumstance she has attributed to gender bias in the downtown art and music scene,” Cohen recounts.