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Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording

by David Grubbs
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2014
248 pp., illus. 19 b/w. Trade, $70.51
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5590-8.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver

jfbarber@eaze.net

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.


Last Updated 29th August 2014

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