Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording argues that, following John Cage, new genres in experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s actively thwarted the form of the LP. These activities include indeterminate music, long-duration minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation. How could mercurial performance practices such as these adequately be represented on an album?
And yet, like it or not, present-day listeners’ understanding of experimental music from the 1960s increasingly has come to rely on recordings. Distaste for recordings as imperfect representations has come to be recognized as a period attitude of the 1960s. In their day, surprisingly few of these works were available in recorded form. By contrast, contemporary listeners can encounter works not only through a flood LP and CD releases of archival recordings, but also in greater volume through Internet file-sharing and online resources such as UbuWeb, DRAM, and Archive.org. Records Ruin the Landscape considers the odd fact of listeners coming to know a period through the recorded artifacts of composers and musicians that largely disavowed recordings.
In this spirit, what follows is a brief, annotated itinerary of recordings that have not always been at one’s fingertips.
It can seem that in the 1960s nearly everyone was eager to voice an opinion about John Cage. A fascinating, emblematic, and deeply strange artifact of this period is this radio interview with Cage by nineteen year-old Jonathan Cott, who would later become an editor at Rolling Stone. The audibly nervous Cott begins by reading a voluminous, confrontational quasi-question containing two lengthy quotations about Cage that are not critical so much as they are fundamentally dismissive. It’s a prime example of an anti-Cage backlash in full swing—as well as a remarkable document of teen chutzpah.
Performed by John Cage and David Tudor
This recording comes from a January 1965 concert (on David Tudor’s 39th birthday) at the San Francisco Museum of Art that was recorded by the radio station KPFA; the recording was never commercially released, and remained unavailable until it was posted online as part of the Other Minds Audio Archive. A different concert recording of Variations IV from later in 1965 appeared on the Everest label. This concert of live electronic music finds Cage and Tudor enjoying themselves in a cacophonous, heterogeneous, difficult-to-map sonic terrain.
Pauline Oliveros is a composer whose work is currently available on dozens of commercially-released recordings, but before 1970 her music was represented exclusively by her contributions to two Music of Our Time compilation albums: Extended Voices and New Sounds in Electronic Music. Sound Patterns, her piece on Extended Voices, lasts a fleeting four minutes. By contrast, to celebrate Oliveros’s 80th birthday in 2012, Important Records released Reverberations, a 12-CD collection containing more than ten hours of her largely unreleased tape and electronic music from the 1960s, beginning with a 1961 work of musique concrète that utilizes recordings made in her bathtub and moving through thirty-four subsequent works created in that decade.
Performed by Max Neuhaus
It used to be that if you were interested in Max Neuhaus’s realizations of music by Cage, Stockhausen, Earle Brown, and Morton Feldman, you would have had to pay dearly for an out-of-print copy of his 1968 LP Electronics and Percussion: Five Realizations from Columbia Records’ Music of Our Time series. It’s a marvel that Neuhaus’s work was even represented on a major label; surely this ranks as one of the most abrasive and one of the most dynamically extreme records ever released by Columbia. Neuhaus’s performance of Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark is aptly and marvelously hushed, and the label did justice to the piece by not significantly raising its volume level in the mastering process.
With the single exception of a cassette released in 1986 in an edition of 350 copies, Henry Flynt’s music didn’t see commercial release until the twenty-first century. And then, at the century’s turn, the floodwall gave. Within three years, three American independent record labels had released ten compact discs featuring hours upon hours of archival recordings of Flynt’s music. Terms like “personal,” “informal,” and “solitary” are aptly descriptive of the two volumes of Back Porch Hillbilly Blues (recorded in the early and mid-1960s, but first released in 2002), home-quality solo recordings for violin, ukulele, guitar, and occasional vocal accompaniment, in which Flynt’s voice veers between the gentle, wordless moan of “Blue Sky, Highway and Tyme” and the extremely nasal, high-lonesome wail of “Sky Turned Red.”
If the year is 1970 and you’ve heard tell of Derek Bailey’s curious manner of playing the guitar and would like to judge for yourself but can’t make it out to his weekly gigs in London, you would also have had the option of sitting down and spending time with Incus Records LP1, the album The Topography of the Lungs by the trio of Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, and Han Bennink. But when you do so, each listen increasingly resolves into something closer to a musical composition those tempestuously brittle, battling slivers of sound that otherwise arrive prefractured in a thousand sizes, shapes, and velocities. Quoth Bailey: “Recording’s fine if it wasn’t for fucking records.”
David Grubbs is Associate Professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where he also teaches in the MFA programs in Performance and Interactive Media Arts and Creative Writing. As a musician, he has released twelve solo albums and appeared on more than 150 commercially released recordings. Grubbs was a founding member of the groups Gastr del Sol, Bastro, and Squirrel Bait, and has appeared on recordings by the Red Krayola, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Will Oldham, and Matmos, among other artists. He is known for cross-disciplinary collaborations with the writers Susan Howe and Rick Moody and the visual artists Anthony McCall, Angela Bulloch, and Stephen Prina. A grant recipient in music/sound from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Grubbs has written for The Wire, Bookforum, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.