Anarchiving (in) Ben Patterson’s Variations for Double-Bass


Christopher Williams



Intro I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. XII. XIII. XIV. XV. XVI. XVII. next




I first learned about Ben Patterson’s Variations for Double-Bass (1961) in various Fluxus1catalogues and histories. The piece has something of a legendary aura. Patterson performed it at Mary Bauermeister’s Cologne salon in 1961 and the famous Wiesbaden Fluxus exhibition of 1962.2 Some critics have cited it as a historical contribution to black performance art.3 Composer and experimental music scholar George E. Lewis describes it as going ‘well beyond any previous notion of extended technique then in force in the world of contemporary classical music.’4


So imagine my surprise when, in response to my request for a score in 2001, Patterson sent me the mess to your right: a thicket of typewritten text, handwritten comments, unexplained Xs and arrows, cut and pasted fragments from Verdi’s Rigoletto, editorial scribbles, and photographs from an early performance. The ad hoc presentation is a far cry from the meticulously designed and packaged scores by many of Patterson’s Fluxus contemporaries, such as George Brecht’s Water Yam5 or the La Monte Young-edited volume An Anthology of Chance Operations.6 By comparison, Variations is more a leaky sketch than a polished, autonomous art object.


The provenance of my copy was Patterson’s Black and White File,7 a collection of the composer’s scores from 1960–1999. Unpaginated and bound in a simple two-ring binder, the seventeen Variations sit unassumingly between Duo (1961), for voice and string instrument, and Paper Piece (1960), for an unspecified number of performers playing (with) paper. From 1999, Patterson produced copies of the Black and White File to order and often gave them away for free. He did this up until 2012, when his scores were published together in an anthology edited by Benedikt Stegmayer.8


Patterson’s informal approach to writing, publishing, and distributing Variations grew partly out of practical circumstances: up until my first performance in 2009, he was the piece’s only documented performer. Because the double bassist and the composer were one and same person, there was no need for Patterson to polish the notation and provide systematic performance notes for other players. He could sort things out himself as he went along. This history fits with his declared approach to notation in general:


My pieces, as they appear on paper, have neither material nor abstract value. They achieve value in performance, and then only the personal value that the participant himself perceives about his own behavior and/or that of the society during and/or after the experience. (In fact, any piece is just this: a person, who, consciously, does this or that. Everybody can do it.)9


My own experience of playing Variations, as documented and explained in this exposition, supports Patterson’s statement that his pieces ‘achieve [personal] value in performance’. But that same experience has also shown me that Patterson’s textual informality is not merely incidental. After all, he offered me this unceremonious copy of the score instead of a clean typewritten one (sans handwritten annotations, Verdi, etc., as published in the Stegmayer-edited catalogue). My case is not an exception; right up until his death in 2016, Patterson continued to offer the Black and White File edition to people who requested the score.10 Clearly, there was and still is value in his notation for both writer and reader.


Where and how, then, do the personal value of performance and Patterson’s notation intersect? In my Ph.D. dissertation on notation for improvisers,11 I have characterized Variations as a kind of sketch map, in which Patterson entextualized his own performative engagement with the piece. According to this model, Patterson’s handwritten and collaged addenda12 are not refinements or repairs to a completed work. Rather, they are paths that trace journeys he actually made as an improvising performer. Over time, these paths fed back onto and into the score, thus creating a space for ongoing intervention. I conclude that prospective performers of the piece might continue to intervene in the score — or, in anthropologist Tim Ingold’s words, ‘recursively pick up the threads of past lives, [and] follow in the process of spinning out their own’13 — rather than simply follow the typewritten instructions or attempt to recreate what Patterson did.


I stand by this conclusion. However, in retrospect, the linearity of the model which led me there seems insufficient. Patterson’s reflexive editions of the piece indeed provide a powerful example for other performers. But these traces also carry something more fundamentally speculative and anarchic. There is a force embedded in the score that has propelled performers such as Patterson and me into new kinds of engagement not suggested by the previous traces. It exceeds example or suggestion.


One can sense this in Patterson’s proposal for a new variation in 2009, which he made while helping me prepare my first performance of the piece, where he would be present:


It is now very late at night, and so I am having funny ideas. What do you think about this idea:


You are on center stage… in the spotlight… performing ‘Variations for Double-Bass’, as best you can. At the far right (or left) of the stage, ‘the composer’, sitting on a chair… in dim light…, ‘critically’ watches and listens to your performance.


‘The composer’ holds in his hands a miniature double-bass (25cm long), which he shakes with anger, or waves with delight… from time to time… to demonstrate his approval or disapproval of your interpretation of his work! (Actually, ‘the composer’ would make only a few and limited gestures. He does not want to be a distraction.)


In the end, of course, ‘the composer’ is very happy and applauds your performance… MIGHTLY [sic]!


Well; that is my funny idea for tonight. What do you think? This could be the ‘first performance’ of an extremely new variation!14


Patterson’s caricature of the overbearing composer here is revealing. By reinserting himself into the piece in quotation marks, he shows that the ongoing (re)composition of Variations is itself a performance. That meta-performance deconstructs Patterson’s position as author, ‘interrupting the working of the work congealing into a work’15 as philosopher Gary Peters would put it, and thereby definitively unfixing the already barely fixable written text. This new variation reflects far greater potential for reinvention of and in the score than one might encounter by only taking up Patterson’s threads and spinning them anew.



Enter the Anarchive


In this light, what I think characterises Variations more aptly than a sketch map is the notion of the anarchive, coined by process philosophers Erin Manning and Brian Massumi in the context of the SenseLab project.16 The anarchive resists succinct definition, but one may get a flavour of it from the structure of the word itself: an elision of the words ‘anarchy’ and ‘archive’, or ‘archive’ proceeded by the prefix ‘an-’ (meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’). It grows from the tension between documentation and event. Or, as Manning and Massumi would say, it is ‘a repertory of traces of events’, traces whose reactivation spin out ‘lines of creative process, under continuing variation.’17  

Where the archive orders, taxonomises, and systematises existing knowledge, the anarchive is an ‘excess energy of the archive: a kind of supplement or surplus value of the archive.’18 It comprises ‘the formative movements going into and coming out of the archive, for which the objects contained in the archive serve as springboards.’19 It concerns itself with the act of research-creation before it freezes into archivable knowledge, and with the way that knowledge mutates anarchically back into new research-creation.  


The language of the anarchive resonates richly with my previous descriptions of Variations: 'lines of creative process, under continuing variation’ or ‘movements going into and coming out of the archive’. Furthermore, the anarchive’s focus on process and event bears an almost-too-obvious resemblance to the non-form of the Fluxus event score — ‘short instruction-like texts proposing one or more actions’ as art historian Liz Kotz describes them.20


Moreover, the concept of the anarchive highlights the mutual influence, rather than the linear causality, of different phases in the performance, reflection, and documentation of Variations. It provides a way to connect my collaboration with the notation, Patterson, and you, the readers of this exposition, more directly than my previous work in ‘Tactile Paths’.


In the rest of this exposition, then, I will explore the process of anarchiving (in) my performances of Variations, followed by its analysis. It is not my intention here to elaborate the mutual relevance of the concept of the anarchive and Variations, or experimental music notation in general, per se.21 Rather, I will perform an act of anarchiving for and with you, passing through Variations, documentation of my performances, and ‘Tactile Paths’.



Exposition Structure


The structure of the exposition revolves around the seventeen variations in Patterson’s piece, with each page corresponding to a specific variation. There the viewer will find video documentation of the variation in question, extracted from three separate performances (in 2009, 2014, and 2015) that are shown in their continuous entirety on this introductory page. (Pages corresponding to variations that I did not play in concert contain the notation instead.)


The videos all play automatically and overlap each other. This is meant as a way of drawing attention to similarities and differences between multiple performances that might ordinarily escape notice if the videos were presented one-by-one. The ensuing polyphony of incidental sounds, acts of ‘preparation’22, temporal differences between performances, things going ‘wrong’, I hope these help the viewer to make new (non)sense of the documentation in a way that exceeds my own engagement with the work. While the excess of material here may seem daunting, I encourage the viewer to take in the ensemble in its entirety at first, without trying to parse individual sequences or relate them immediately to the score. A concentrated viewing of each video is not necessary for a complete experience of the exposition. However, the occasional repeated viewing of individual videos or moments with the others on PAUSE may be of interest, particularly for specialists. 


Each variation also contains verbal texts that move between analytical reflections and performance instructions for the reader. These intersect, both within and across variations. Some lines of thought begin and end in a single variation, others begin in one variation and reemerge in other variations. 


The analytical texts consist principally of reworked fragments from my chapter on Variations in ‘Tactile Paths’. As I explain above, that chapter proceeds in a linear fashion. It develops an entextual view of Variations by abductively examining the granular content of the score, the historical context of that content, the instructional value of the context, and the performer’s preparatory work. My intention was to present a kind of analogue to what, in my experience, a critical performer might deal with when finding her way through the piece, and so carrying forth Patterson’s threads analytically. Here, however, I have no such pretensions. Instead, I wish to fold these lines of inquiry back onto themselves, using them as a ‘lure for further processes’ in tandem with the videos.


I encourage the reader to take some of the performance instructions literally, paying close attention to the empirical particulars of the process. They hint at the questions I worked through in realising Variations, questions that may help non-performers to reimagine this process of discovery for themselves. Performing the instructions mentally can also act as ‘preparation’ for viewing the videos, transforming the viewing process and encouraging an exploration of contingency — much like an object placed onto a bass string.


In a nod to Manning and Massumi, I imagine that the interplay between these three sorts of anarchives — videos, texts, and score — constitutes a meta-performance, an anarchive in itself:

the anarchive is by nature a cross-platform phenomenon. It is activated in the relays: between media, between verbal and material expressions, between digital and off-line archivings, and most of all between all of the various archival forms it may take and the live, collaborative interactions that reactivate the anarchival traces, and in turn create new ones.23


I hope the reader-viewer-listener's live, collaborative interactions with this exposition will not only reactivate anarchival traces in Variations, but also show how documentation and analysis in the spirit of the anarchive can animate experimental (musical) practice beyond the immediate platform in unexpected ways.


  1. Fluxus is (or, according to some, was) a heterogeneous network of artists including Patterson, George Brecht, Geoff Hendricks, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, and many others, and was ‘founded’ in the early 1960s by George Maciunas. Fluxdaughter and historian Hannah Higgins states, ‘Since Fluxus artists never seem to agree on anything, Fluxus has become “a pain in art’s ass,” in the words of Fluxus artist Ben Vautier. Neither the style nor the substance or significance of what they do produces consensus among the artists. Production ranges from minimal performances, called Events, to full-scale operas, and from graphics and boxed multiples called Fluxkits to paintings on canvas. The artists come from almost every industrialized nation, they span several generations, and many even dislike each other. Accurately portraying Fluxus therefore requires thinking about art in a way that forgoes the normally definitive terms of style, medium, and political sensibility.’ Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. xiii.

  2. See Fluxus Festival neuester Musik, Wiesbaden 1962 [accessed 5 September 2017].

  3. See Performa 13: Artists, [accessed 5 September 2017].

  4. George E. Lewis, ‘Benjamin Patterson’s Spiritual Exercises’, in Tomorrow Is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, ed. by Benjamin Piekut (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), pp. 86–108 (p. 95).

  5. George Brecht, Water Yam, (New York: Fluxus, 1963).

  6. An Anthology of Chance Operations…, ed. by La Monte Young (New York: La Monte Young & Jackson MacLow, 1963).

  7. Ben Patterson, Black and White File (Wiesbaden: self-published, 1999).

  8. Ben Patterson, Ben Patterson – Event Scores, ed. by Benedikt Stegmayer (Berlin: Verlag für Zeitgenössische Kunst und Theorie, 2012).

  9. Patterson, as quoted in George E. Lewis, ‘In Search of Benjamin Patterson: An Improvised Journey’, Callaloo 35 (2012), 979–992 (p. 988).

  10. ‘Which version of “Variations” do I now send to interested parties? Generally, the annotated one I sent to you. And yes, the “Black and White File” is more or less history, since Benedict Stiegmann [sic] wonderful effort.’ Patterson, personal email to the author, 20 April 2016.

  11. Christopher Williams, ‘Tactile Paths: on and through Notation for Improvisers’, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Leiden, 2016),

  12. Everything in the score besides the typewritten text is such an edition. As I detail in ‘Tactile Paths’, these marks run the gamut from practical reminders and minor content alterations, to additions and omissions of entire variations, and more than a few mysterious cases in between.

  13. Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 70.

  14. Patterson, personal email to the author, 28 April 2009.

  15. Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), pp. 94–95.

  16. The SenseLab is a global network of philosophers, artists, and activists exploring what might be very roughly summarized as ‘thought in motion’. For more information, see

  17. Brian Massumi, ‘Working Principles’, in The Go-To How-To Book of Anarchiving, ed. by Andrew Murphie (Montreal: The SenseLab, 2016), pp. 6–7 (p. 6).

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Liz Kotz, ‘Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the “Event” Score’, October 95 (2001), 55–89 (p. 55).

  21. I encourage readers to pursue this line of inquiry themselves, however. See The Go-To How-To Book of Anarchiving, ed. by Andrew Murphie (Montreal: The SenseLab, 2016).

  22. My use of the word ‘preparation’ throughout this exposition has a double meaning: first, in its everyday sense of ‘getting (something) ready’; and second, in the musical sense of applying objects of different materials to string instruments (e.g. John Cage’s prepared piano music), so that the strings resonate in complex and unpredictable ways.

  23. Massumi, p. 6.