One for Violin Solo

One for Violin Solo (1962) by Nam June Paik, Düsseldorf
© Nam June Paik, Foto: George Macunias

Nam June Paik studied art and musicology in Tokyo, writing his degree thesis on Arnold Schoenberg. He moved to Germany in order to continue training as a composer and there, during a vacation course on new music, met John Cage, who made a significant impression on him. The expansion of the sound spectrum though new media, the incorporation of the coincidence factor, and the performative element in Paik’s early works can probably be attributed to Cage. Hommage à John Cage (1959) was the name of one of Paik’s first works, which, not unlike happenings, combined actionistic and acoustic elements – frequently using unfamiliar instruments. Paik also placed considerable importance on the aspect of destruction, which he saw as closely linked with construction – both concepts that in his opinion characterized the human existence in a philosophical and psychological sense.

The destruction of a violin formed the centerpiece of Nam June Paik’s most famous action: One for Violin. The premiere of this piece was held on June 16, 1962, in the Düsseldorf Kammerspiel theater. One for Violin Solo was the first item on the program at the Neo-Dada in der Musik (Neo-Dada in Music) event, featuring not only Paik but also Tomas Schmit, Wolf Vostell, and Benjamin Patterson. The action One for Violin could not be simpler: Paik took a violin from a wooden table in the center of the stage. He held it not like a musician, rather took hold of the neck, as if gripping the hilt of a sword. He raised the violin very slowly. The tension in the audience mounted, the viewers wondering what fate awaited the instrument. Eventually, their foreboding was confirmed when Paik smashed the violin down onto the table with huge force – like a blacksmith hitting an anvil with a hammer.

An essential element of One for Violin is the lighting direction. The moment the violin was smashed, the lights went out. Here, destruction is associated with complete darkness and thus attains a dimension that the recipient is able to immediately grasp. The apocalypse comes to mind. In addition to the correlation between acoustic and visual experience, the time factor plays an important role in the piece as the anxious anticipation of the violin’s potential destruction is experienced as a moment of great intensity.