Topless Cellist The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman

Joan Rothfuss
The MIT Press.

By Ken Waxman

A commitment to experimental music of any sort is usually a short cut to obscurity, poverty and disdain. However during her short life (1933-1991), and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, cellist Charlotte Moorman was as famous as anyone associated with non-mainstream music could be. Vivacious and determined, Little Rock, Ark.-born Moorman was a guest on popular TV shows hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson, received regular coverage in major publications and was the guiding force behind New York’s annual multi-media Avant Garde Festival from 1963 to 1980. As author Joan Rothfuss writes: “it would become her mission to bring experimental art to an audience as broad as any that Hollywood could command.”

Eroticism was a large part of Moorman’s notoriety. Once she began performing works created for her by composer Nam June Paik, the diminutive, buxom Moorman, specialized in nude and semi-nude performances. Her 1967 New York arrest for indecent exposure while performing Paik’s Opera Sextronique – she received a suspended sentence – added to her notoriety. As the “topless cellist”, who after 1969 frequented played her cello while wearing Paik’s TV Bra, which strapped two functioning monitors on her naked breasts, she was the subject of prurient world-wide interest.

However as Rothfuss makes clear, although Moorman was apt to inflate her own importance – her deathbed admonition to her husband was “don’t throw anything away”, meaning the voluminous files, art work and clipping she preserved starting with her musical beginnings – no one knit together the strands of New music, Action music, kitsch and Happenings as spectacularly as she. Besides affiliation with Park’s compositions – he created functioning TV glasses, a TV bed and a TV cello for her – she played pieces by composers like John Cage – his “26’1.1400 for a String Player” with its noise-makers and props was long part of her repertoire – and also premiered a composition by Ornette Coleman, always featured jazz musicians in her festivals, and was the first to perform Yoko Ono’s creations such as Cut Piece.

Her notoriety became more pronounced in the 1970s as she specialized in works by Jim McWilliams, which included Sky Kiss, where she played her cello in mid-air while harnessed to helium-filled balloons; and Ice Music, where she scratched away at a cello constructed out of frozen ice until it melted. She of course performed topless or nude. Rothfuss even hypothesizes that Moorman treated her breast cancer diagnosis and eventual death as a performance. She lived with the disease for 12 years.

Some dismissed her as a “crazy girl” who flirted and cajoled powerful men to help get her festivals produced. Some even suggested that continually wearing Paik’s six pound, radiation-emitting TV Bra caused her cancer – an idea medically discredited. In retrospect though, Moorman’s influence was greater than her pseudo-infamy. “Thinking small was not Moorman’s style”, Rothfuss writes. Through her exposure in mass media, not only did she successfully promote experimental music throughout the world, but her avant-garde festivals helped introduce non-mainstream art to multitudes, as it moved to larger and larger locations including Central Park and the South Sea Seaport, ballooning from featuring 28 artists in 1963 to 250 in 1980.

Although frequently on the edge of poverty and often mocked, Moorman was no joke or victim. The Improbable Life of Charlotte Moorman aptly celebrates her numerous achievements.

—For MusicWorks #121 Spring 2015