Tonight's episode of Mad Men featured a scene at the Electric Circus, one of the leading New York clubs of the late sixties. I gathered some material about the Circus for a talk a couple of years ago, and offer it here to the curious. The club operated in the former Polish National Home on St. Mark’s Place; the site had also hosted Andy Warhol's legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable. From the outset, the Circus featured contemporary classical music as part of its far-out entertainments. The connection made intellectual sense, given the links between early West Coast psychedelia and the classical avant-garde. On opening night, amid a celebrity-studded crowd, Morton Subotnick, co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, presented a version of his electronic piece Silver Apples of the Moon. In an interview with the scholar Robert J. Gluck, Subotnick recalled “Seiji Ozawa and the Kennedys . . . dancing to it in tuxedos, under strobe lights.” Alas, no photographs of this spectacle have surfaced. On Monday nights, Subotnick curated an explicitly classical series called the Electric Ear, which at one time or another hosted John Cage, Mel Powell, Alvin Lucier, David Behrman, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Salvatore Martirano, Robert Ashley, and David Rosenboom.
In December, 1967, the Electric Circus took over Carnegie Hall and hosted an Electric Christmas, involving Circus Maximus, the club’s house band; electronic music by Subotnick; a light show by Anthony Martin; and, I kid you not, the pioneering early-music ensemble New York Pro Musica. The notion of inviting New York Pro Musica seems to have originated with Edgar Coons, a New York University psychology professor who had earlier studied composition with Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. One night he had wandered into the Electric Circus and, as he later recounted in an article for the Music Journal, “experienced a psychedelic light and rock show that ‘blew my mind.’” For reasons he leaves a bit vague, Coons was reminded of medieval French music in the New York Pro Musica repertory, and reached out to the parties involved. Carnegie became interested, and two Christmas shows were arranged. Harold Schonberg, the chief critic of the New York Times, reported that New York Pro Musica at one point were seen performing beneath a gigantic filmed projection of a fish opening and closing its mouth—a Northern pike or a muskie, Schonberg guessed. Later, Circus Maximus and New York Pro Musica collaborated on a rendition of Machaut’s “Douce Dame Jolie.” A follow-up Electric Easter concert featured the soul group the Chambers Brothers performing Perusio’s “Le grant désir” and New York Pro Musica singing “Allo adieu,” the Beatles hit of early 1968.
The press reception was instructive. One might have expected Schonberg, a critic militantly opposed to the avant-garde, to have mocked the affair mercilessly. But he professed to have enjoyed himself. He was impressed that the hall had sold out and also that the audience was “overwhelmingly young.” Time magazine, too, voiced its approval, describing the Machaut mashup as “delightful.” For these observers, the Electric Circus was fostering a new kind of avant-garde, one that overcame the esoteric tendencies of post-World War II music. In a think piece for the Times, Schonberg wrote, “I had the nagging notion that here was the music, the art form, the Gesamtkunstwerk of the future.” Richard Goldstein, surveying the scene from the rock side, reached a similar conclusion. “We need to have great art that is accessible,” Goldstein wrote in New York magazine. The Beatles, Zappa, and other rock innovators, Goldstein said, “know something which John Cage has forgotten. Art is what you do to other people, not to yourself. ... There is no longer any need for alienation in the avant-garde.” The point is debatable; the Electric Circus is long gone, Cage is resurgent, and the alienated avant-garde still has a few things to say.