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By a happy coincidence, Topless Cellist arrived for review on the day in January when news broke that the Block museum of art, at northwestern university’s Evanston, Illinois campus, had received a $100,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, to stage a 2016 exhibition focusing on Charlotte Moorman, the American cellist and artist, often described as the Joan of Arc of avant-garde music. A timely announcement.

Charlotte Moorman (1933-1991) was from Little Rock, Arkansas. She trained locally and rigorously, decided at the age of ten to become a string player and, after attending Juilliard – where she never earned better than an average grade – somehow morphed into an attention-getting new York-based avant-gardist. Author Joan Rothfuss observes that since Moorman was never content to be merely average, her failure to distinguish herself at Juilliard can be seen as the beginning of her remarkable metamorphosis. Since then, the position of women in classical music has changed enormously. In 1959 Moorman auditioned for the Buffalo Philharmonic, but that orchestra did not hire women unless they were harpists. Indeed, as late as 1953 there was not a single woman in any of the major orchestras in New York city.

However, Moorman soon became part of the new music scene. Rothfuss’s well-researched biographical account is replete with mentions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Yoko Ono (who writes the foreword to this book), David Tudor, La Monte Young and even saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, together with other musicians now less well remembered. Some of the more outrageous aspects of the experimental new music scene fitted well with Moorman’s preparedness to appear naked, or to put herself into potentially dangerous positions (such as playing while being dangled from a balcony). In 1964 she performed three minutes of a piece by John Cage on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. in the words of Rothfuss, ‘She had not been able to achieve more than average competence as a classical musician, but on the new music scene Moorman was beginning to look like a star’.

Even so, with a few exceptions Moorman does not appear in histories of 20th-century music. The vividly written and lavishly illustrated account that is Topless Cellist should go some way to rectify that neglect. One hopes so.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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