Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2014
248 pp., illus. 19 b/w. Trade, $70.51
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
David Grubbs begins his new book, Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the
Sixties, and Sound Recording, with a bold statement. Most genres of
experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s, he says, were ill suited to be
represented in records. He concludes his new book with an examination of
current-day unprecedented access to such recordings afforded by online
resources and impermanent archives. In between, Grubbs examines what it means
to listen to the past in the present with care, expertise, and insight.
The story begins with John Cage. Often cited as the premier American composer
of experimental music, Cage opened a new field of sound for composition and
performance with his use of magnetic tape, which represented the potential for
working with all sound. He pioneered the use of records in his performances. He
participated in recordings of his work, both as a composer and performer.
Yet, Cage opposed the fixed form of the record. Why? A performance, recorded
and instantiated on a record, did not change. It was a fixed representation of
a musical work. Cage's work was designed to change with each performance. The
difference, he thought, was fundamental.
Beyond indeterminate music, Grubbs contends long-form minimalism, text scores,
happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation all
contributed to a lack of interest by musicians, and many listeners, in recorded
music. The arguments against recording are interesting.
Music that changes with each performance (indeterminate music) . . . music that
extends beyond the conventional time frames of records (minimalism) . . . music
whose instructions are ambiguous, open-ended, poetic, descriptions (text
scores) . . . music where electrical circuitry is more important than a written
score (live electronic music) . . . music that moves beyond composition (free
form jazz and free improvisation). How can these evanescent considerations be
adequately represented on a record? In the Sixties, the consensus was they
could not. As a result, few recordings were made, and fewer still were
circulated. Listeners sought out live sessions.
Recordings of experimental and avant-garde music, made in the 1960s, began to
circulate as archival records during the 1970s. More recordings were released
in the 1980s and 1990s given the economics of compact discs: They were less
expensive to produce and sold for higher prices than records.
Reissue labels specializing in repackaging and remastering out-of-print
recordings evolved. As a result, experimental music of the 1960s was
rediscovered as an underexploited resource. Since then, a flood of digital
music files have appeared online, available for streaming and/or downloading
from multiple sites, providing an encyclopedic wealth of information about a
musical era very different from present day.
What are the results of such present access to past performances? Grubbs explores
the answers. In chapter 1, "Henry Flynt on the Air," he contends that
present listeners have come to consider music in more fluid ways. In chapter 2,
"Landscape with Cage," Grubb explores the presence of Cage's work in
visual art, poetry, dance, and philosophy, mainly as a result of access to his
work. Chapter 3, "John Cage, Recording Artist," considers the impact
Cage's commercial records had on musicians and composers in the 1960s. Chapter
4, "The Antiques Trade: Free Improvisation and Record Culture,"
explores Cage's collaboration with guitarist Derek Bailey and the
free-improvisation group AMM, formed in 1965 and still active. Chapter 5,
"Remove the Records from Texas: Online Resources and Impermanent
Archives," considers the unparalleled access to archival recordings
afforded by blogs, MP3 sharing sites, and dedicated, ever-changing archival
websites like Archive.org and UbuWeb. Grubbs argues that such online resources,
their work and their structure(s) affect every category of the archive.
Through the individual foci of these chapters, Grubbs foregrounds the changing
historicizing of experimental music from the 1960s. These histories, he
concludes, are like landscapes with their changing perspectives, which, in all
likelihood, will be mediated again through forms now unfamiliar to contemporary
listening practices. Although the future may be uncertain, with Records Ruin
the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording Grubbs provides
us a map of the territory, along with a provocative tool for unpacking /
listening to the past in the present.