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Music

The Return

Legendary Avant-Garde Musician and Philosopher Henry Flynt Starts Performing Again After Nearly 25 Years Away

Derek Morton
HILLBILLY MUSIC, THANK GOD: Henry Flynt performs with niece Libby Flynt at one of the two live shows he's played since 1984.

By Marc Masters | Posted 6/18/2008

The Flynts

Floristree June 21.

"Music is very demanding," Henry Flynt says when asked why he stopped performing in 1984. "I felt at that time that it was not rewarding enough to justify those demands."

That's understandable, considering how busy Flynt was before his departure. The daunting résumé of this 68-year-old composer, musician, and philosopher includes studies in classical violin, ethnic music of the South, and Hindustani vocal technique. He recorded long drone pieces and shorter country jams, collaborated with Tony Conrad, Pandit Pran Nath, and Yoko Ono, and even replaced John Cale in the Velvet Underground for two weeks in 1966. He also pursued mathematics at Harvard and New York University and economics at the New School, developing complex philosophies that led him to coin the term "concept art" and stage protests against John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

That's just a small sampling of Flynt's vast biography. The latest addition is the exciting news that he is performing again, something that came about almost by chance. "I was watching a lot of late-night talk shows, and listening to the bumper music" before and after commercials, Flynt says by phone from his New York home. "I thought it would be interesting to play lead guitar over the rhythm parts, so I began to develop something that I thought could be a classroom demonstration at Columbia. I even had a tentative title, `Columbia University Rock,' which I guess falls about as flat as anything possibly could."

The Columbia lecture never happened, but when a gallery in Lisbon, Portugal, asked Flynt to visit in February, he proposed a performance of the new piece, renamed "Rocking Midnight in A" and featuring his niece Libby on second guitar. The Flynts bring the composition to Baltimore this week, and it has already changed since its European debut. "When I got back to New York, I happened to hear the song `Bo Diddley' on FM radio," he recalls. "Bo Diddley discovered a rhythmic approach that's not straight ahead the way that, say, Chuck Berry or Little Richard is. It's much more elastic. I wanted to take something from that, so the piece is now called `Rocking Midnight in C.'"

A return to the stage with guitar in hand might surprise followers who associate Flynt primarily with the violin. "The violin is my instrument, and the guitar was acquired much later," he admits. "But I try to transcribe back and forth between the instruments. I'm using a lot of violin licks in the piece that I'm playing now. The riffing at the end was originally on violin, so I had to figure out a way to finger it on the guitar." Then why not just play it on violin? "I want to play rock," he answers bluntly.

Rock is a big part of Flynt's past, too. He led numerous bands in the '60s, including the shambling protest group Insurrections (featuring sculptor Walter De Maria on drums) and the country-rock outfit Nova'Billy. "I've been sort of in and out with rock, ever since I Don't Wanna," he says of the Insurrections' 1966 album. "I have a great admiration for what I see as the potential for rock. It started out as commercial three-minute songs, but even in that period there was extraordinary creativity.

"People didn't necessarily realize there was something there beyond entertainment, but I feel it's a very complete music," he continues. "Less academic than jazz, for example. I'm one of these strange people who admires rock more than jazz."

Still, Flynt seems unlikely to start a new rock band. "Trying to hire a group of musicians cold, I don't necessarily think that works," he says. "In [my previous bands], these people were my friends before we played together, and it was just an extension of being friends. The situation has to make itself. Making a few phone calls and hiring a few people, that's much too awkward."

Playing with Libby, which Flynt had planned to do for decades, has proven to be enough of a challenge. An accomplished rock guitarist who once toured with Band of Susans, Libby helps Flynt test his own guitar chops. "She is very proficient, whereas I struggle along with my self-taught guitar technique," Flynt admits. "She wanted to play slide guitar, and I asked her not to, because I want our solos to be directly comparable, so we're up there with the same instrument, tuned the same way. I want it to be easy to comprehend what we're doing musicologically. I guess I'm still thinking of it as a demonstration for Columbia University."

Though he has spent nearly 25 years away from performing, Flynt's music has resurged in the past decade, due to reissues on Recorded (the Baltimore label run by John Berndt), Locust, and Ampersand. It's an ongoing project Flynt has approached with gusto. "I didn't have the morale problem with sitting in a studio and editing that I had with playing," says Flynt, who supervised the releases, often with the help of sound designer and percussionist Tim Barnes. "I've been delighted to get the opportunity. We've only got less than a third of it out there. There's a lot more that ought to come out."

What has emerged so far is an excellent cross section of Flynt's many styles. The best are his electric violin pieces, influenced by Indian raga and minimalist pioneer La Monte Young. The 1980 You Are My Everlovin' (Recorded) is perhaps his masterwork, but 1980's C-tune and 1981's Purified by the Fire (both on Locust, and both featuring C.C. Hennix on tamboura) are nearly as powerful. Then there are energetic rock records by the Insurrections and Nova'Billy (both on Locust); compendiums of various modes from the '60s (Raga Electric on Locust) and '70s (Graduation and Other New Country Blues Music on Ampersand); and the raw guitar and violin hoedowns on Hillbilly Tape Music (Recorded) and two volumes of Back Porch Hillbilly Blues (Locust). You might imagine that revisiting all this history would influence Flynt's current approach, but he insists that "the old pieces sound the same to me now that they did then. I'm sort of stealing bits here and there from them, but I also have a sense of wanting to plow ahead."

In album and song titles, Flynt often uses the term "hillbilly," which he defines as the "music of whites in the Southern mountains." (Flynt grew up in North Carolina.) He has written extensively about it and its influence on his New American Ethnic Music series, but he's also quick to point out that "I'm certainly not the first person to broaden it. I don't know if I'm responsible for it because I've used it in titles, or whether reviewers seize on it because they hear a violin. I think that people have just found it convenient to label me that way. I'm just as conscious of African-American music, Hindustani music, Romanian Gypsy music, and so on. It's a mixture, definitely, everything that I do."

All of those influences come to play in Flynt's philosophies of art, music, and history (a dense sampling of his ideas can be found at www.henryflynt.org, which Berndt maintains). In broad terms, his approach is a fight against the dominance of European tradition. "It's been a project of mine for many years, advocating for non-Western music," Flynt says. "European music is the only one that has this vast theoretical apparatus, [with] the invention of notation. So there is a problem in even trying to speak on behalf of the other musics. You have to do something about creating a new notation--musics in different traditions are genuinely different languages. That's why you can't simply take European notation and use it on other musics without any alteration.

"I would have to go into a long thing and play you musical examples to explain this properly," he continues. "But thinking about music and the encounters between different musical practices, I began to realize that perception is so important. If people are presented with music that they haven't been inculcated with, they may perceptually misjudge what they're hearing. Somebody can stand in front of a tree and not see a tree. That came as a big surprise to me. People bring their mental boxes to incoming sensations, and if it's out of their boxes, they in effect negatively hallucinate it."

These kind of heady ideas perhaps had more urgency in the 1960s, when New York was bubbling with activism, and Flynt organized protests with titles such as "Action Against Cultural Imperialism!" and "Fight Musical Decoration of Fascism!" "It could just be that I'm older and I'm judging from a different vantage point, but [the city] seems to me to be rather mechanical now," Flynt says. "Some of the ['60s] things eventually turned out to be just fads, so I don't want to glamourize them. But at the time, it seemed all of these very interesting things were happening all over the place. Bookstores used to have entire sections devoted to pamphlets and leaflets and those kinds of thing. Now, it's a much more online and digital thing, which makes me feel like it's all sort of steam-ironed. It's not coming from a place of social consciousness, it's coming from the relation between money and technology."

Given that climate, Flynt's musical rebirth feels especially timely. His brand of history-appreciating, forward-looking art just might be a cure for modern malaise. But when asked whether his recent performance experiences will keep him coming back, the usually loquacious philosopher becomes almost speechless. "Well . . . I think I ought to try to make a go of it," he says sheepishly. "That's about all I can say."

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