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David Grubbs on the meaning of records

In a new book the former Gastr del Sol front man discusses why the experimental music of the 1960s was so rarely recorded at the timeā€”and what changes when we listen to it today.



David Grubbs teaches classes in creative writing, performance, music, and technology at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, and before he arrived in New York 15 years ago, he lived and played in bands in Chicago. A Louisville native, he'd moved here in 1990 to attend grad school at the University of Chicago, but if you knew about him then, you probably knew him as a musician. His trio Bastro, founded in Washington, D.C., in the late 80s, persisted in Chicago until 1991, then evolved into experimental rock band Gastr del Sol—which soon became a duo with Jim O'Rourke that would last for most of the rest of the 90s. Grubbs finished his dissertation after he left town in 2005, finally earning his PhD in English literature, and now he's transformed it—adding a chapter, cutting another, and revising throughout—into a fascinating, readable, and well-researched book called Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press).

David Grubbs's Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording
  • David Grubbs's Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording

Grubbs discovered the experimental music of the 1960s through recordings, but as he learned more about it, he discovered that in many ways it was characterized by a lack of such documentation. The avant-garde composers and free improvisers of the time didn't tend to record their music, for a variety of reasons—some considered the fixed artifact of an LP to be antithetical to the nature of their art, some didn't have access to the resources necessary to manufacture or distribute albums, and some were simply indifferent to whether a recording existed or not. Grubbs examines this phenomenon from all sides, starting with John Cage in the early 60s and moving on to free-improv pioneers such as Derek Bailey and AMM later in the decade.

The idea that a live performance should be a unique, unrepeatable experience doesn't have the same currency it did half a century ago—and if Grubbs's experience with his younger students is any indication, it can even be hard for new listeners to comprehend today. In the mainstream pop realm, the recorded version of a song has long been its definitive form, and performances rarely include interpretation or variation—indeed, live sets are often little more than pantomimes acted out to the accompaniment of studio recordings. On the other end of the spectrum, free improvisers focus on spontaneity and real-time interaction; in the late 60s, when this style of playing was young, many practitioners saw recording a performance as akin to pinning down a living, breathing organism, fixing in time something that was ephemeral by nature. Many compositions by John Cage and other New York experimentalists (La Monte Young, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, various Fluxus artists) similarly resist the notion of a single, definitive version through their use of chance operations and indeterminacy. In many cases they'd make no sense as recordings—take one of Young's infamous text scores, Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris, which consists solely of the written direction "Draw a straight line / And follow it." Who would want to listen to that?

Furthermore, the record industry had little interest in this segment of the music world, so even artists who wished to release albums rarely could. Though composers Earle Brown and David Behrman curated important series for Time Records and Columbia, respectively, most of the experimental work recorded in the 60s would languish in storage for many years.

Grubbs's interest in the experimental music of the 60s arose during the explosion of re­issue and archival record labels brought on by the popularity of the compact disc in the 90s. Many out-of-print or never-released recordings from that decade got new leases on life, in part because CDs' extended playing time and lack of surface noise made them well suited for, say, the quiet, long-form works of Morton Feldman. Through the medium of the CD, Grubbs gained an understanding of the music of composers who'd disdained recordings in the first place.

Grubbs began his research and writing in 1994 and undertook the revision of his dissertation into a book in 2007, and in the years between the Internet enabled an explosion of streaming and downloadable material—during the heyday of MP3 blogs, hundreds if not thousands of fans illegally posted the sort of experimental music he discusses. The final chapter of Records Ruin the Landscape focuses on two especially important sites, both of which still exist: DRAM (originally the Database of Recorded American Music) is a nonprofit scholarly resource, founded in 2001 and available only to college libraries from 2006 till 2012, that obtains legal permission from labels to stream a huge collection of experimental music, which anyone can access for a fee. Ubuweb, a manic website founded in 1996 by poet and DJ Kenneth Goldsmith, is a clearinghouse of experimental music, film, writing, and more, making it downloadable for free and almost never bothering with permission from copyright holders or labels.

This profusion of accessible material can make it feel like hard-to-find, uncommercial music will never be scarce again, but there's no guarantee that a volunteer-run site such as Ubuweb will be around forever—and because so much of what it posts is never-released ephemera, if it disappears from the Web it might end up genuinely disappearing. Time may prove this bounty to be a fleeting feature of our era, just as the underdocumentation of experimental music was a feature of the 60s.

I spoke with Grubbs by telephone to discuss Records Ruin the Landscape, and on May 24 at Corbett vs. Dempsey he'll read from the book and talk with John Corbett.

David Grubbs plays solo at New York's Deitch Projects gallery, beneath Peter Coffin's 2008 work Untitled (Color Wheel). - PETER COFFIN
  • Peter Coffin
  • David Grubbs plays solo at New York's Deitch Projects gallery, beneath Peter Coffin's 2008 work Untitled (Color Wheel).

Can you discuss how Records Ruin the Landscape went from a dissertation to a book?

As a dissertation it really spanned a pretty considerable length of time. Some of the material in the AMM chapter came out of a paper I wrote in graduate school [in 1993], and I remember conversations with John McEntire [of Bastro] and Jim O'Rourke [of Gastr del Sol] about precisely the rhetorical strategies of AMM in the [1990] reissue of [the 1966 album] AMMmusic. When I finished the dissertation I had a brief period, probably like most people who write dissertations, of wanting to erase all traces of it. It was something that I conceptualized for so long as having a readership of about three people—a dissertation committee—and then it just had to be re­written.

But I think as far as dissertations go, it was pretty accessible—and that there was an interest in ultimately turning it into a book that would have a much larger readership than a dissertation committee. The most satisfying conversations about the material in (or the most basic ideas of) the book were with musicians and listeners and not necessarily people with any ties to academia. In fact, most of the conversations I had with academics—whether they were in music or media studies or sound studies or art history—I felt like I had to fill in a lot of the gaps about what is this stuff that I'm even talking about in the first place. The methodology certainly comes from my experience of writing it as a dissertation, but the most productive conversations that I've had around it have just been with listeners.

When was it that you first thought about the lack of recordings of experimental music in the 60s?

It's something that struck me on first reading [the 1961 John Cage essay collection] Silence a little more than 20 years ago, because my experience was so strongly that of the fanzine editor and that of the person whose contact with other musicians—first through punk and then more-experimental music—was always mediated through recordings, owing to the relative geographical remoteness of Louisville. Initially I took Cage's attitude in a lot of the essays in Silence, where he says things like "a record isn't music, it isn't true to the nature of music." I just thought—it was strikingly old-fashioned, would've been the way I described it at the time. It's willfully contradictory, given that Cage was working with recorded sound and participating as a performer and overseeing recordings of his works—I wanted to get into the nature of that contradiction. It's something I've been thinking about since I was in my early 20s.

The acceleration of the availability of material owing to online resources is really profound. It's interesting to me the ways in which people's conceptualization of what constitutes an archive is changing almost as rapidly, and the book to me has to feel very rooted in the present moment. This is the goal—it's about listening in 2014 to this period half a century earlier. And to me it's much less a history of music in the 1960s or a study of John Cage but rather of what it means to access that earlier period through current technology.

What do the historical figures you spoke to say about the changes in availability of this music?

In conversations I had with those subjects and people like [composer] Pauline Oliveros, everyone really emphasized how marginal that recordings were to the musical culture of the time, and people gave very different reasons for that. For someone like Pauline, recordings were, much like for Cage, kind of anti­thetical to her ongoing practice as a musician. For someone like Tony Conrad, they were just so few and far between, and people lived in such poverty at the time. There's a quote from Tony where he says, "I can't even think of who would've been making records at that time among more experimental artists, and I certainly couldn't have afforded any."

I wonder what your undergrad students make of this notion that 50 years ago there were no recordings of this music.

I primarily teach graduate seminars, and people seem to be very interested in media histories and theories of mediations. But in the undergraduate class (the pop-music and technology class I teach—I guess I first taught it seven years ago) there's less of an interest in this idea that one entree into popular music would be through its material history.

Twenty years ago, when I was in school, that seemed incredibly interesting to me—to talk about the actual concrete documents and the way they circulated, what the channels of distribution were, and what the size of a particular audience was, reception histories and things like that. That seems like a more far-fetched notion to the younger students. They think it's a really curious idea, that you would attend so closely to material documents—like what were the differences in jazz practices around the cusp of jazz being sold on 78 RPM records versus LPs. Hopefully they eventually find it a kind of interesting question, but it increasingly seems like it's from left field.

Did you see this as more of an inquiry, to understand these methods of thinking and how they changed?

It began more with a sense that I was witness to or participant to these shifts, rather than beginning purely with a hypothetical question—I felt like I kind of knew what happened. But certain difficult/impossible-­to-answer questions emerged along the way. In the Henry Flynt chapter there's this moment of talking at cross-purposes between [Ubuweb founder] Kenneth Goldsmith and [composer] Henry Flynt, where Flynt was talking about how people involved in experimental music are proud of their ignorance of popular music and Goldsmith says something like, "Well, that wouldn't happen today." On the one hand, it made me think about taking certain individuals as representative figures of different generations or different historical moments. And also it seemed interesting and fun to take two eccentric figures like Henry Flynt and Kenneth Goldsmith as representative, which seemed like a strange gesture—I wanted to follow the consequences of that gesture.

And if it is true, as Goldsmith says, that there's been a leveling of hierarchies of taste, what role did the circulation of music in recorded form have to do with that? Certain questions emerged that I had no idea they would come out. It took a long while to formulate how I would respond. The project itself, the contours of it, appeared whole to me. I felt like I knew what that story was.

When you interviewed some of the folks who were active in the 60s and are still making music now, like Keith Rowe—did they just shrug about the shifts? I assume Keith Rowe is just as ambivalent about recordings as ever, right?

I think so, but I wanted to focus in that interview pretty strictly on what the conditions were in the recording of the AMM record [AMMmusic], to fill in the historical record. What role did [rock producer] Joe Boyd play? What was this moment like, when Paul McCartney and Scott Walker were coming by AMM gigs because they were the next hot thing after Pink Floyd? What was their relation to pop music at the time? What were their expectations in making a record for Elektra? I think they had a pretty bad experience in the recording studio, where they felt kind of ridiculous, that it wasn't the place for them. And I think it really had an effect the development of AMM.

I guess I would say one of the defining characteristics of experimental music was that it couldn't adequately be represented as a record. That was a kind of badge of pride—that it couldn't be commodified in that way, it couldn't be sold in that way—and a lot of people ran with that in different directions. I think that Cage is really the figure who sets the pace. Some people move to one extreme, like La Monte Young, of keeping an absolute, tight lack of access to the material, and some people move in opposite directions, like [composer and bandleader of the United States of America] Joseph Byrd and John Cale, where their way of moving past Cage is to create this experimental rock band or to serve as producers.

I assume some artists from that era didn't share Cage's antipathy to records—they just had no access or opportunity to make them. It seems like [composer] Bob Ashley liked records. I recently interviewed Alvin Lucier, and he told me he loved recordings.

I had a super interesting conversation with Alvin Lucier around this. Essentially the book was finished, but a year and a half ago he and I were invited to UC San Diego by [cellist and UCSD professor] Charles Curtis to take part in this symposium, and I read from a chapter and gave the example of Alvin Lucier's Vespers as a piece that just—what's the purpose of listening to the recorded version of it? [Lucier] was so nice and so thoughtful and he looked so disappointed by my remarks. He wasn't disagreeing with them. For a piece like that there's a bigger gulf between the recorded version and experiencing this piece, in which performers are moving amongst the crowed with echolocation devices in the dark. He did say, "We tried hard to make the recording interesting, and there was exquisite care in the recording of the piece." It's really interesting to hear that he himself listens to records and likes them, but it kind of doesn't mitigate the fact that the work is not best served by being represented on an LP.

One of the observations in your book that really hit me was the fact that we now have so much access to recordings of experimental music that we don't have time to take it all in. There's only time to hear something once before moving on to the next recording—which, as you point out, kind of creates an analogue to the situation in the 60s, where you only had a chance to hear a specific work once. But I don't know if we're listening as closely as people were in the 60s, because now we know we could hear something again.

I think it's wise for me not to make pronouncements about the intensity of people's focus when listening. In some ways a more constructive way to look at it is that people's relations to certain musical traditions, like experimental music, are less organized around milestones, great works. That seems really consistent with a lot of the aims of the generation I'm writing about in the 1960s. I think it's increasingly hard to tell, with so much writing, recording, and documentation immediately accessible—I think it's harder and harder to tell what people's real familiarity is with it. There's a certain fear in writing a book, like, are all of these works I'm describing, are they just second nature now, does everybody know this stuff already? I don't think that's the case.

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