David Grubbs: "The laptop has to be invited to connect with the stereo. It definitely doesn’t get to leave its toothbrush at the stereo’s place"

Talking John Cage, digital music and the wide world of experimental music with the brilliant musician and thinker

Published May 16, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

John Cage     (AP/Bob Child)
John Cage (AP/Bob Child)

David Grubbs is perhaps best known as half of the rangy, ambitious, quixotic Chicago-based duo Gastr del Sol, along with producer and filmmaker Jim O’Rourke, but he has worn innumerable musical hats, having begun his music career as a teen in the seminal Louisville punk band Squirrel Bait (the band that spawned Slint, the For Carnation, Bastro, etc.), and, upon the breakup of Gastr del Sol, made a great number of solo albums, some song-based, some not at all. He has also collaborated with everyone from Royal Trux and Will Oldham to Pauline Oliveros, Rhys Chatham and Tony Conrad. And somewhere in the middle of all this, he found time to finish a Ph.D. in literature at the University of Chicago, which in turn led to a rather substantial day job at Brooklyn College, where he now teaches music, music composition, performance and creative writing. (It bears mentioning, here, that I occasionally collaborate with him in the Wingdale Community Singers.)

In his guise as a tenured professor, Grubbs has recently finished, and is now publishing, a book-length monograph on John Cage’s ideas about audio recordings, and the way these ideas were disseminated in and among the avant-garde in the decades during and after Cage’s active years. The book is titled "Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording," and it was published this month by Duke University Press.

That Grubbs can write is perhaps not that much of a surprise if you know him (he’s very excitable about art and literature), but that doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion that he could write this book, this rather magnificent survey of the ideas of the experimental music world over the last 40 or 50 years that doubles as an offhanded paean to record collecting. Grubbs not only knows about all of this stuff, he cares deeply about it, and there aren’t that many punk guitarists whose range of interests is quite this wide (for example, it’s hard to imagine a Steve Jones or a Greg Ginn or a Bob Stinson or a Johnny Thunders writing a scholarly work about John Cage). In this way, it seems that Grubbs is sort of a one of a kind.  We spoke about the book in three distinct email exchanges during February.

As befits an exchange on John Cage, this interview has been carved up into sections, and then reordered randomly (using, as a tool, random.org). For those who want to see how the original might have gone, had it gone in the order of questions asked, you can reassemble it using the following key: 14 17 4 9 13 2 6 1 11 3 16 5 8 12 7 10 15

Why is it, for those of us who grew up with recorded music, that it is so satisfying to listen to these recordings over and over again?

Isn’t one’s relation to repetition as complex as one’s individual musical preferences?

I imagine that I listen to particular recordings again and again primarily because of the pleasure of discovering details anew.  In my own song “I Started to Live When My Barber Died” (which is also the title of a country novelty song that was a favorite of mine when I was a kid), I try out some distinctions that might be relevant here (and it should be said that the lyric’s first-person narrator is a record):

I don’t age.

I don’t.

The style does, I don’t

Depart from this date.

There’s something about the recording in all of its indexical glory not aging that is deeply appealing to me.

You talk a lot in the preface to your book about the live music scene in Chicago, when you were first there studying at the University of Chicago. Does it seem to you there is a similar lust for live music in the Brooklyn scene these days? Does live mean now what it meant in the '60s or even in the '90s?

I think that when there are so many options for seeing a wide range of extraordinary musics — in Chicago, in Brooklyn, in many metropolitan areas — what you have is more of a deepening appreciation than lust.  I equate a lust for live music with scarcity.  But yes, I’m lucky now in Brooklyn, as I was then in Chicago, to find myself among people with a deep appreciation of, with a real gratitude for exceptional live performances. It is such a privilege. Do live performances mean the same things that they did previously?  I do think that the frame has changed profoundly — that people do their homework beforehand (e.g., have access to a wealth of information about performers in advance of encountering them live — even if it’s a cursory look and listen while juggling three different tasks) and can listen again or can compare their experience of the performance to online documentation of other performances by the same artist.  Or can read what others chose to post online about a given performance. Speaking personally, I feel there’s less of an imperative to take it all in — just this once, just this single pass — to the best of your ability. But it’s also something new to hear the crowd buzz ... in writing.

What do you think is the effect of French composer Pierre Schaeffer's late-life repudiation of musique concrete on the history of that form, for which he is in a large part responsible? Is it merely another example of the paradoxes of this discussion of music and recording that you catalog so well in Records Ruin the Landscape? 

I imagine that I’m as surprised and as saddened as you are by Tim Hodgkinson’s 1987 interview with Pierre Schaeffer, where Schaeffer says things like, “Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside DoReMi ... in other words, I wasted my life.”  The tragedy isn’t that Schaeffer spent four decades working with and theorizing concrete sounds but rather that he wound up in a place of personal crisis in concluding that his work fell outside of the domain of music. For me, Schaeffer’s bizarre retrenchment of what counts as music has no bearing on the pleasure that I take in or the value that I place upon musical works that utilize concrete sounds.

How did the years this book took to compose change the scope of its interests?

There is a precise answer: It went from being a book about experimental music from the 1960s to being a book about how people encounter experimental music from the 1960s in recorded form.

Given the parameters of your discussion of recordings and experimental music — that the idea of recording is paradoxically against the “tradition” of experimental music -- are you satisfied with the current debate on rights, royalties and streaming services? Is there a way that the paradoxes in your alternative history of the recording are applicable in that debate?

I would be interested in hearing you expand on this question. "Records Ruin the Landscape" really doesn’t significantly treat issues of royalties because it describes music that circulated in comparatively small editions, where the profit impulse was often minimal. Or ironic, or quixotic.

OK, I will take the bait for a brief moment. I find that I personally respond to the debate about rights (and royalties) in an emotional way, which is to say a romantic way. I still honestly believe that artists should in the main be paid for their work, and I honestly believe that the large corporations investing in the streaming services do not care about the individual artists in any significant way. And I fear for the worst about what this means in the long term. Like you, I find Internet radio and streaming services antiseptic (in the same way I find the e-book antiseptic). This is my reflexive, emotional response. But there are people I find persuasive who make the case that it is too late for this particular argument (Dave Allen, for example, the former bass player of Gang of Four, who is a force to be reckoned with on digital and Internet-related issues), for whom the Internet is a thing that cannot be controlled. Wishing for a time before the Internet is folly, etc. This Dave Allen argument, in the end, is an argument about convenience. And I feel like the argument against convenience is always desperate. It’s a losing argument. (For example, I remember arguing against the Metrocard, when it was first introduced. I was a passionate advocate for saving the subway token.) I think, like Cage, releasing Cheap Imitation, et al., while raging against the recording, is like this. I feel that I personally occupy both positions: against the streaming services (passionately), and occasionally using the streaming services, as when, for example, I am traveling, as I am today, as I write these lines. It is true, however, that the kind of music you’re writing about is a kind of music that still doesn’t get paid for the way popular music does. But it is also a kind of music whose audience has grown exponentially. Am I ringing any bells here?

No bait!  No trick!  I asked you to expand the question because I wanted to hear how you would summarize the debate about digital rights and royalties, and I was curious what in the book might have triggered the question.  Also I should say that in the previous response, when I use the characterization “ironic,” it’s ex post facto: the weary irony, the self-deprecating humor that various small label owners sometimes use years down the line when reflecting on their work and ironically characterizing it as part and parcel of the record business, when it has clearly been inspired by something other than a profit motive.

In the book I wound up writing about UbuWeb and DRAM as two distinct models for the digital distribution of previously released, largely out-of-print recordings of experimental music.  Both of them are in differing ways outside of the economics of the music business — even in its current multifold competing models of digital distribution. UbuWeb doesn’t seek permissions from rights holders, and the site’s visitors can stream or download its files free of charge.  There’s no creating an account, no password, no logging in — none of it.  DRAM is rigorous about obtaining permissions from rights holders, but until recently it was only accessible through subscriptions by institutions — primarily college libraries. I was interested in researching and contrasting UbuWeb and DRAM as particular kinds of models — even if YouTube proves to be the most common means by which the bulk of the material described in the book is accessed.

Are there reasons the book took the time it did beyond simply teaching and parenting and trying to have a music career? How has the situation with respect to recording and the meaning of recordings changed over the time it took for you to write the book? 

The majority of the book figured into my Ph.D. dissertation, which I completed in 2005. It has since been greatly expanded and much of it rewritten. The Ph.D. dissertation seemed to stretch on forever (I started graduate school in 1990), but that can be misleading as there were long spans of time in which 100 percent of my work outside of teaching or freelance writing took the form of making records and touring.  Those were the years of cryogenic suspension. When I took to expanding and rewriting the book after 2005, one of the newly compelling facts of the project was that, as you’ve implied, online resources had vastly altered one’s ability to access recordings of experimental music from the 1960s — as well as the sheer volume of material.

The book, in some ways, does not offer a conclusion with respect to its premise, at least not a conclusion that is as generous as the incredibly beautiful preface about your own early music consumption habits. Is this perhaps because the problematic you are describing is still so labile that it is impossible to fix it in a conclusive way?

I think so.  The book describes how peripheral sound recordings were to experimental music in the 1960s and how central they are today to our experience and understanding of this same practice.  Many of the artists whose work I detail did not imagine that there would some day be a listenership for these recorded documents.  Technologies of distribution have continued to change such that it was necessary for me to add case studies of two very different online archives of avant-garde and experimental music: UbuWeb and DRAM.  By the end of the book, it’s apparent that future means of accessing these recordings—and I’m reluctant to make hypotheses about what forms these will take—will continue to alter the meanings of and the historicization of this earlier period, in which live performance was fundamental.

People often ask me how playing music relates to my primary occupation, which is novel writing. At this point, I have a well-rehearsed answer to this question. But I'm interested in the equal and opposite question and how it relates to your work: How does writing relate to your primary occupation: composer and guitar player/songwriter. Is it a natural fit for you? 

At this exact moment — having signed off on final corrections and now awaiting the book’s publication — the combination of writing about music and writing and performing my own music strikes me as a perfectly natural fit, one of the best of possible worlds.  But what did it feel like when I was working on the book?  Surely this is one of these phenomena related to the smooth workings of evolution, that now that the book is finished I look back at the process with contentment — why, it was a natural fit.

The downside of being a musician writing about music is something I felt relatively early in the process — that the reception of the book and the ability of others to engage with its arguments would become tangled with the reception of my own music.  I was concerned that the reception of my music would affect responses to the book and that in turn the book would affect responses to my music in the future.  As my commitment to the book grew, that concern evaporated.

The upside is that through music I’ve had the opportunity to know — socially, but also through collaborating and performing together — a number of the people whom I write about, especially Luc Ferrari, Tony Conrad and Pauline Oliveros.  The conversations that I’ve had with musicians closer to my own generation — most of whom have very little to do with academia — have been every bit as enlightening as my own academic training and my experience as a teacher.

I should add that my gut reaction to your question was this: I don’t have a primary occupation.

And where do you sit in the debate over digital files versus a physical recording now? What role do these feelings have in what you do as a musician?

From my own standpoint as a listener and, to an extent, as a collector, I don’t trust my ability to successfully keep track of digital files, and certainly not over a longer period of time.  I find the various interfaces of iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc., more or less hideous.  I’m more simpatico with SoundCloud — partially because of the interface, including the absence of advertising, and partially because of the way in which pages are the result of decisions by particular musicians, record labels or venues.  My home listening situation is such that the laptop has to be invited to connect with the stereo as a guest.  It definitely doesn’t get to leave its toothbrush at the stereo’s place.

As a musician, I primarily make works in my preferred format — the album.

If, as it appears to be in the book, John Cage's position with respect to recordings of his own work appears somewhat contradictory, is it the case that that contradiction has been passed on to us, those of us who are interested in innovative or experimental music? Is the contradiction useful somehow? 

My sense is that Cage’s seemingly contradictory attitudes — the fact that he railed against recorded music while participating in recordings and pioneering numerous innovative techniques in recording — are immensely productive.  They’re productive from the standpoint of a critic or a historian because they invite more precise, more nuanced readings (hence the necessity of the word “seemingly” in the previous sentence), and they’re productive from the standpoint of a musician or artist because they provide a model for both protesting and working creatively within a culture that demands ease of access and acquisition.

Has the complexity of Cage’s position been passed along?  Not particularly, and that’s one of the impulses behind this book — to measure the distance between period attitudes towards recordings of experimental music in the 1960s and in the present moment.

I should add, however, that when speaking of the complexity, of the productive contradictions, and so on, of John Cage, I am also interested in underscoring Cage’s ignorance of much popular music — and the ways in which this marks a generational divide between Cage and younger artists, especially in the early 1960s, for whom the challenge to move beyond or to stand apart from Cage was widely felt.  It was a challenge that vexed a number of younger musicians, when the fact of merely opening one’s ears to what was happening in a variety of pop musics already marked some distance from Cage.

What are you writing next? Do you want to talk about it?

It’s a book-length poem about a musical performance.  I read a long section of it at a BOMB benefit this January in a trio performance with C. Spencer Yeh and Eli Keszler.

Does the fact that Henry Flynt, to take one salient example from your book, has resumed playing in the last five or six years (after decades of silence) tell us anything about the effect of digital archiving and the increased visibility of experimental music in the present moment?

Yes — he responded to the demand.  And the demand comes from the widespread desire to set things aright and to give credit and respect to exceptional artists who were not sufficiently recognized on the first go ‘round.  I say “widespread” because everyone’s aware of similar impulses in literature and visual art — and in every mode of cultural production — to celebrate those who should have chimed with an earlier moment.  (I think that contemporary audiences are proud to the point of vanity about their ability to identify the great artists overlooked or otherwise wronged in earlier periods, but that’s a different conversation.)  This demand wouldn’t have been possible except for the fact that Henry Flynt, a musician whose recordings were represented in the 20th century by a single cassette, within a span of a year or so at the century’s turn suddenly was represented by hours and hours of archival recordings.

I was drawn to writing about Henry Flynt because he’s such a fascinatingly complex individual, and so the thought of also taking him as a representative figure — one of many musicians catapulted into some degree of prominence through the release of archival recordings — was too good not to act upon.

Some of the materials of your book feel frankly postmodern. That is, for this reader anyhow, the book turns on questions of definition, as if the whole field of music is much preoccupied with semantics, and with the slippage of terminologies. There is not only the question “What is an archive?” but also the question, “What is a recording?” Sometimes, while reading, I imagined this had to do with the origins of the dissertation — that it was begun at the University of Chicago, under the watchful eye of W. J. T. Mitchell. Is that flavor of deconstruction and theory a potent one for you, or am I imagining it? And what was Mitchell’s stamp, if any, on the development of the project?

The book really took shape — and filled in that shape — a number of years after I went AWOL from grad school.  Briefly, I finished my exams and broke ground on a dissertation of a different subject (a jeremiad about disciplinarity, taking John Cage’s reception in three different fields as a test case to demonstrate the absence of productive crosstalk), and although "Records Ruin the Landscape" comes from what was finally submitted as a dissertation (my present teaching job having been contingent upon finishing the Ph.D.), it really does come from a later period where there were no watchful eyes.  As far as critical theory, I soaked it through my pores over a number of years of working at the journal Critical Inquiry, but the most important teachers for me were Miriam Hansen and James Lastra.  Miriam taught an extraordinary seminar on the Frankfurt School and mass culture, and to this day it remains a model for what I hope to achieve in a classroom.  In a time where many students could be dazzlingly and audaciously fast and loose with the language of theory, Miriam was dogged — and as patient as she needed to be — in requiring that students be able to point by point reconstruct the arguments of particularly challenging texts by Adorno, Benjamin, Kracauer and so on.  James Lastra is a cinema-sound theorist who first made me grapple with the ontology of sound recording, and also to take a long view of technology and representation.  To give an example, in a class of his in which we viewed films by Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith, we also read Michael Baxandall’s "Painting and Experience in 15th Century Italy."

I remember that while taking my comprehensive exam at one point I was using “sound recording” and “sound representation” interchangeably.  The English Renaissance scholar Richard Strier was the wild card on the exam panel, and at one point he interrupted me and asked, “What is ‘sound representation,’ anyway, apart from good government?”

How is a book like a recording in the sense that you are constructing the idea of the recording here? Would it have been possible for you to imagine this work of yours, this book of yours, published primarily online, as part of the scholarly world that exists today online, more so than ever before?

From one angle, a recording can very much resemble a book; it’s a publication, it has that same sort of time stamp, and bibliographies and discographies often function in a similar manner.  I don’t have a strong sense that an e-book of "Records Ruin the Landscape" is a fundamentally different entity, but I can imagine that the reception of the project would be quite different if it had been published primarily online.  The word “book” still suggests a certain kind of undertaking, right?  In my experience, this has been very much the case.

Those who know you well (I count myself lucky) will take particular pleasure in the "Selected Discography" in this book. It appears to catalog merely albums or recordings that are well-treated in the text. Does this selected discography also reflect recordings that are especially delightful to you? If you were to nominate a top five from the selected discography, would you be able to do so? 

A: Ha!  This is something that I could never have done in the context of the book, so thank you for the opportunity.  There’s no way that I could bring myself to make an outright ranking, so I’ll just list five particular favorites in alphabetical order:

John Cage, "The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of John Cage"
Tony Conrad, "Early Minimalism: Volume One"
Luc Ferrari, "Presque Rien" "No. 1/Société II"
Henry Flynt, "You Are My Everlovin/Celestial Power"
Evan Parker/Derek Bailey/Han Bennink, "The Topography of the Lungs"

Could you have imagined, 10 years ago, the way that digital consumption of music would have affected the idea of what a recording is?

It took me years to wrap my brain around the way that digitization would eventually alter the ways in which people make recordings, the ways in which recordings are distributed, and the ways in which people use recordings.  Around 1997 Markus Popp, aka Oval, asked a number of people, myself included, to contribute essays to an anthology of writings about digital audio that for whatever reason never saw the light of day.  I sent him a short essay about how digitization doesn’t fundamentally alter the status of a sound recording as a particular kind of representation, and I think that he was most likely incredulous at my lack of foresight!  Looking back, I certainly am.

Often in the past I have been struck with the idea that your origins in the Louisville punk scene are entirely consistent with your adulthood as a maker of experimental music. That is, in your case, it seems abundantly obvious that Squirrel Bait does directly lead to Gastr del Sol, which does in turn lead to, e.g., soundtracks for Angela Bulloch. Is there a way that writing books, now, is consistent with the aesthetic hallmarks of the David Grubbs we already know? In what ways consistent? 

I like to think of the path from a teenage punk band through the music that I make now and also "Records Ruin the Landscape" as being single and continuous, but I’m also aware that at any point there could have been other routes chosen: Squirrel Bait could have made the mistake not to break up (I’m imagining three decades of continuous Squirrel Bait activity, here we are on album No. 26), I could have decided to become a sculptor, I could have decided that I was too old to play in disgusting clubs, I could have become a bebop purist, etc., etc.  Sometimes I think that I should have wised up and have been applying myself to book projects years ago.  I suppose that this book — and others hopefully to come — are consistent with my musical path in that I’ve always trusted in the importance of description and the working out in language of concepts that animate the music that I make and the music that moves me most.

By Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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