Artists On Albums: AOA#35 (David Grubbs on The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage)

David Grubbs on…

John Cage’s The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage (no label, 1959)

John Cage - The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage

John Cage – The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage

I have always been intrigued by John Cage’s dismissive attitude towards sound recordings.

Actually, I should be a bit more precise than that.  John Cage was often dismissive towards commercially-released sound recordings, even as he expressed great enthusiasm for working with sounds on magnetic tape (in the 1954 performance text 45’ For A Speaker, he explains, “There are two great dangers for / magnetic tape: one is music…”); even as he participated in recordings of his own compositions; even as he championed a mode of distracted listening he found in the work of Erik Satie; and even as he pioneered the use of recorded sounds in live performance.  As he told an interviewer late in life, “I don’t use records, and I give the example of someone who lives happily without records.”

That said, the three-LP box set The 25-Year Retrospective Concert Of the Music of John Cage—just like the May 15, 1958 concert from which it is taken—makes for an excellent introduction to the first half of Cage’s career.  The question arises in 2013, when there are several dozen recordings available of Cage’s “Sonatas And Interludes” for prepared piano (including the outrageous audiophile recording by Nurit Tilles on three 45rpm 12” discs recently published by the John Cage Trust to celebrate Cage’s centennial), why go for the incomplete version performed by Maro Ajemian that comprises the second disc of The 25-Year Retrospective Concert ?

The 25-Year Retrospective Concert was a key moment in Cage’s career, and the album gives you the chance to hear that moment in all of its complex texture.  His friends Emile de Antonio, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg produced the concert at New York’s Town Hall, and to coincide with the event the Stable Gallery exhibited a number of Cage’s scores.  One of the elements that makes for tense listening to the recording is the extremely divided audience response contained in the album, which famously includes booing after the disorienting tape piece “Williams Mix” (played back at the concert on eight monaural machines) and catcalls and boos both during and after the final piece on the program, the “Concert For Piano And Orchestra.”  The album ends with three glorious minutes of booing being overtaken by cheering and vice versa.

The original LP predates by two years the first publication of Cage’s Silence: Lectures And Writings, and as the original box collected a number of Cage’s writings and excerpts from his scores, it seems to have been a trial run for the book that now, fifty years later, has sold half a million copies and is still a crucial—and utterly enjoyable—point of entry into Cage’s work.  To this day you can find references to the original LP box set popping up as a touchstone for folks from the generation beyond Cage who would go onto make their own wildly original music starting in the following decade: James Tenney, Gavin Bryars, Tony Oxley…

And when WERGO reissued the set on three CDs in 1994, what can I say?  For me and for so many musicians I knew, the time was right.

Notes On The Artist:

David Grubbs

David Grubbs

David Grubbs was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1967.  Since coming of musical age in the early-to-late ‘80s with the cult post-punk outfit Squirrel Bait (a group also featuring future members of Slint), Grubbs has carved out a wide variety of niches into the eclectic edifices of the experimental rock world.  In the late-‘80s to early-‘90s he led visceral post-hardcore-to-post-rock path makers Bastro (a band which also passed Squirrel Bait’s Clark Johnson and eventual Tortoise members Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire through its ranks) over a handful of albums and singles.  During the bulk of the ‘90s, Grubbs radically evolved his muse with the amorphous Gastr Del Sol (also incorporating, at various times, Bundy K. Brown, John McEntire and sparring partner Jim O’Rourke), which culminated in 1997’s sublime art-pop album Camoufleur.

Since the dissolution of Gastr Del Sol, Grubbs has primarily released self-composed material under his own name, preferring to alternate between song-based albums (such as 2000’s tremendous The Spectrum Between and 2002’s richly-melodic Rickets & Scurvy) and far more avant-garde affairs (like 2001’s Thirty Minute Raven and 2002’s Act Five, Scene One).  Outside of his own band-leading and solo journeying, Grubbs has also collaborated widely, touring and recording with – amongst many others – Codeine, Will Oldham, Boxhead Ensemble, Red Krayola, King Kong, Dirty Three, Edith Frost, Richard Buckner, Matmos, David Sheppard, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Susan Howe, Mats Gustafsson and The Wingdale Community Singers.  On top of actual music making, Grubbs also runs the Blue Chopsticks label as an outlet for his own more leftfield recordings and for artists such as Luc Ferrari, Noël Akchoté and Derek Bailey.

David Grubbs - The Plain Where The Palace Stood

David Grubbs – The Plain Where The Palace Stood

Although his profile has been relatively low-key over the last few years, 2013 is the start of another busy creative run for Grubbs. Firstly, Blue Chopsticks has just released a new vinyl/digital-only album – entitled Night, Sleep, Death – from The Wingdale Community Singers, which finds the core trio of Hannah Marcus, Rick Moody and Grubbs joined by guests Jolie Holland, Tanya Donelly and Oneida’s Kid Millions, for more elegant folk-centric meditations. Secondly, Drag City is launching his latest solo album, The Plain Where The Palace Stood; a collection of alluringly angular guitar-tangling instrumentals, atmospheric noire moodscapes and languid vocal-led ruminations that could be the most cohesive and essential David Grubbs long-player for the best part of a decade.  Finally, outside of touring duties in support of his new solo wares, Grubbs is also gearing-up for the publication of his forthcoming book, Records Ruin The Landscape: John Cage, The Sixties, And Sound Recording via Duke University Press.

David Grubbs – “The Plain Where The Palace Stood”