Newly released recordings of experimental music from the 1960s say more about our own time than the moment of their creation, argues David Grubbs.
The present-day relevance of earlier moments in experimental music history is predicated in no small part on our remarkable access to previously unavailable archival recordings. This is especially true of experimental music created in the 1960s, the irony being that comparatively little of this work circulated in the form of recordings at the time of its creation.
For instance, by the end of the 1960s, Pauline Oliveros’s music was represented on record by just two short pieces on the Columbia Music Of Our Time compilation LPs. The only thing unusual about this was the fact that her work had even appeared on an album in the first place. Compare this situation to that of the present, in which listeners can immerse themselves in more than ten hours of Oliveros’s electronic and tape pieces from the 1960s, courtesy of the Important label’s 12 disc box set Reverberations (2012), which follows in the wake of earlier collections of Oliveros’s unreleased electronic works by the Paradigm and Pogus labels.
Tony Conrad recently explained: “LPs or 45s or whatever were so removed from my worldview in the early 60s that they were almost irrelevant... in 1965, I can’t even tell you who would have been making a record.” It was not merely the case that there was little in the way of infrastructure for distributing these recordings; in fundamental ways much experimental music and performance during this period actively thwarted the form of the LP. How are you supposed to represent various kinds of indeterminate musics, minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free improvisation and so on in two 20 minute slices of audio? John Cage did much to set the tone for the period with his disdainful remarks about records – those loci of nostalgia, possessiveness, consumerist demands for ease of access, and potent representations of the idea that there’s a best seat in the house.
The fact that a significant percentage of new releases of 1960s experimental music are now appearing for the first time throws up an intriguing conundrum. What does it mean to think of various archival recordings – recordings released years or decades after they were made – as participating in an earlier era in which they effectively did not exist?
To give an example, by the end of the last century, Henry Flynt’s music had been represented by the release of just a single cassette: Edition Hundertmark’s You Are My Everlovin’/Celestial Power, which was released in 1986 in an edition of 350 copies. Just three years into the new century, ten albums of Flynt’s delirious, idiosyncratic avant garde hillbilly music were readily at hand. To unaccustomed ears, much of this music would be difficult to date. The most of-its-time of this previously unreleased material was Henry Flynt And The Insurrections’ I Don’t Wanna, recorded in 1966 and redolent of a landscape in which “96 Tears” had been a number one single and protest songs about napalm addressed an urgent demand. I Don’t Wanna appeared 38 years after it was recorded, shopped around to labels, and then shelved. And yet, when hearing it now, it’s hard not to participate in the illusion that this album must have been part of the broader mix of pop music and agitprop culture circa 1966. What do we do with the fact that it first caught folks’ ears in 2004? That it gibes with a sense of 1966 – with multifold meanings of 1966 – four decades later? Does it speak any less of 1966 (and to 1966) for having languished in the can? What can we say about our familiar, self-congratulatory affect in being the audience – proud time travellers from the future – that gives a neglected work its due? What’s the nature of the present-day conversation between I Don’t Wanna and other artefacts of the period that actually echoed in their own time?
A previously unreleased would-be pop intervention such as I Don’t Wanna differs in kind from the work of artists from the 1960s who argued that recordings crucially altered – distorted, even – the meaning of their practice. At a certain point during the first wave of CD releases of these recordings in the 1990s, I began to notice criticisms of sound recording (and collecting) from various 60s practitioners including Cornelius Cardew (“Documents such as tape recordings of improvisations are essentially empty”) and other members of AMM (Keith Rowe: “We took that quite seriously as an AMM idea, that recordings were really undesirable”). I was particularly drawn to AMM’s objections to recordings, as expressed in texts included with their records. At the tail end of the 1960s, when AMM’s sole release was the 1967 AMMMusic LP, it is true that that rare, unlikely album (thank you, Elektra Records) assumed a disproportionate status, one that, in spite of the group’s caveats, nominated this lonesome discographical entry as a milestone or capstone. Or a tombstone.
By the end of the last decade, archival releases of postwar experimental music on LP and CD had turned into a flood. This resulted in the ex post facto creation of sometimes sprawling discographies for artists for whom commercially released recordings were decidedly eccentric, unsatisfying representations. Experimental music never seemed more like just another genre than when it became a section in a record store. But now there are good reasons to forecast a shift away from thinking about experimental work from the 1960s in terms of more conventional musical models, with official releases and canonical recordings. One of these reasons has to do with the increasingly detailed historicisation of the period – and not only because of the testimony of those who there, but also because of the research of interdisciplinary historians including Branden W Joseph, Liz Kotz, David Crowley and Benjamin Piekut. These scholars are most in their element when detailing the encounters and sometimes outright collisions of individuals operating in milieus in which varying combinations of art, activism, music, film, literature and performance were put into play.
The most important shift in the relationship between experimental music, recorded documents and the historicisation of the period, however, has to do with the volume of work being made available through online archives (UbuWeb, the Free Music Archive, DRAM and many others) and the more familiar, more beaten paths of online resources such as YouTube. The sheer amount of recordings becoming available via these channels is bound to have the effect of representing various kinds of experimental musics more in terms of process-based daily practice, as opposed to being oriented around the terminal marker of the album release. That is, unless the ease of access to these peripheral, variously disavowed objects – the recorded documents – effectively recasts the narrative such that they were always in circulation, always central to the work.
When encountering this music in the form of new releases of archival recordings, we are and we aren’t listening to experimental practices from the 1960s. Access to previously unavailable recordings makes for a listening experience that’s often unrecognisable to the originators of such activities. With archival recordings, it’s not only a matter of being outside of the time of its creation (the joint is out of time); older recordings – accessed now, resuscitated now – actively participate in our present moment.
David Grubbs’s Records Ruin The Landscape: John Cage, The Sixties, And Sound Recording will be published by Duke Unversity Press in March. His Borough Of Broken Umbrellas 10" EP and Belfi/Grubbs/Pilia’s Dust & Mirrors are released by Blue Chopsticks.