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In Writing

Read an excerpt from David Grubbs's Records Ruin The Landscape

February 2014

What does it mean to describe a recording as being of a moment in which it did not circulate? Asks Grubbs, on Henry Flynt's unrecorded and recorded output. Grubbs wrote a Collateral Damage article for The Wire 360, his book is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

On 26 February, 2004, the 63 year old violinist, composer, philosopher, and writer Henry Flynt made a rare appearance on the radio. He was the guest of Kenny G (the other Kenny G, not the smooth jazz star), also known as Kenneth Goldsmith – radio host, conceptual poet, and founder of the online archive UbuWeb. Don’t worry if you missed Flynt’s appearance at the time of the live broadcast on WFMU of Jersey City, New Jersey – it was immediately posted on UbuWeb as a three hour mp3 file with a playlist detailing the names of the tracks that appeared in the broadcast.

It may be misleading to persist in describing Flynt as a violinist and composer, as by his own account he had given up performing music in 1984. Yet here he was, 20 years after hanging up his fiddle, discussing his musical trajectory, his education – like that of Henry Adams or Flaubert’s Frederic Moreau, it led to disillusionment – and the role that music played in it.

Insert for Henry Flynt's You Are My Everlovin/Celestial Power cassette (Edition Hundertmark). Courtesy Alan Licht

With the single exception of a cassette released in 1986 in an edition of 350 copies by Cologne’s Edition Hundertmark, Henry Flynt’s music didn’t see commercial release until the 21st century. And then, at the century’s turn, the floodwall gave. Within three years, three American independent record labels had released ten compact discs featuring hours upon hours of archival recordings of Flynt’s music.

Descriptions of Flynt’s recordings often hinge upon words like “personal,” “informal,” and “solitary.” These terms are especially apropos of the two volumes of Back Porch Hillbilly Blues (recorded in the early and middle 1960s, but first released in 2002), home quality solo recordings for violin, ukulele, guitar, and occasional vocal accompaniment, in which Flynt’s voice veers between the extremely nasal, high-lonesome wail of “Sky Turned Red” and the gentle, wordless moan of “Blue Sky, Highway and Tyme.” The greatest incongruity with these pieces is not their meeting of avant-garde and hillbilly styles so much as the fact that these spirited, soulful performances are unaccompanied by other musicians. The affecting down-home music of Back Porch Hillbilly Blues differs in the number of participants, if not necessarily in feel, from the “Social Music” volume of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American of Folk Music.

Flynt’s avant-garde hillbilly music comes across as a movement consisting of a single practitioner; it is and it isn’t social music. In particular, his exuberant solo fiddle tunes such as “White Lightning” and “Informal Hillbilly Jive” cry out for accompaniment, for some kind of musical response to drive their headlong tempos toward even greater abandon. These solo fiddle workouts appear in memorable recordings that combine Flynt’s inventive playing with abrasive amplified timbres, occasionally plunging a performance into a Mammoth Cave of reverb. On a number of these, echo is employed well in excess of the comparatively judicious, benchmark use associated with Sam Phillips’s productions from Sun Studio.

Cover of Henry Flynt's Back Porch Hillbilly Blues Volume 1 CD (Locust Music)

Back Porch Hillbilly Blues
proves to be only one of a number of musical destinations in Henry Flynt’s recently revealed itinerary. Other previously unreleased works include the garage punk protest music of Henry Flynt and the Insurrections’ I Don’t Wanna (recorded in 1966 but first released in 2004); miscellaneous experiments for wild, unhinged solo voice (the “Central Park Transverse Vocal” series from 1963), freeform alto saxophone, and overdriven electric slide guitar with wordless vocals (recordings from 1963 to 1971, collected and released in 2002 on Raga Electric); the mellower, groove-oriented ensemble performances of “contemporary cowboy raga” (Flynt’s description) on Graduation and Other New Country and Blues Music (recorded in the late 70s, first released in 2001); as well as numerous releases of Flynt’s ecstatically charged amplified violin and tamboura music from the 1970s and 1980s.

While it might be a challenge to guess the date of origin of many of these recordings on the basis of musical style, I Don’t Wanna (1966) comes across as pointedly of its time, with satirical lyrics about napalm, Uncle Sam, and CIA-backed coups. Flynt’s preferred vocal delivery on I Don’t Wanna is a snotty harangue with a southern twang, a voice suited to the songs’ vituperation and somewhat reminiscent of Peter Stampfel’s and Steve Weber’s singing in the Holy Modal Rounders. Flynt accompanies his invectives with a brittle, blues-inflected electric guitar that locks together in a suitably Bo Diddley fashion with sculptor Walter De Maria’s shuffling, imperturbable drumming. Art Murphy’s roller-rink electric organ periodically joins the fray and reminds you that 1966 was the year that ? and the Mysterians’s “96 Tears” was a Billboard number one single. The electric organ’s signaling of innocent fun contrasts jarringly and winningly with the Insurrections’ political bile in much the same way that the Velvet Underground’s sweetest, most cheerful moments often sit alongside Lou Reed’s poetry of dread. Reed himself gave the classically trained violinist Flynt his first tips on playing the electric guitar, although Flynt’s ambitious and messy fingerpicking is miles away from Reed’s clean, schematic strumming. From the perspective of the present, I Don’t Wanna seems sufficiently of its moment (lyrically topical and barbed; sonically coexisting in present, past, and future; threatening to collapse or to splinter into something new, like all the best rock music) as to create the impression that it was released in 1966, and that it must have intervened in the pop music, pop culture, and politics of its day.

Cover of Henry Flynt And The Insurrections's I Don’t Wanna CD (Locust Music)

It is an interesting illusion, as this timely album was released 38 years after it was recorded. This disorienting listening experience – what do you mean that people weren’t talking about this album in 1966? – points to anachronisms that often accompany the reception of archival releases. From what is now almost half a century later, I Don’t Wanna increasingly comes to resemble just another recording from 1966 that participated in the culture of its moment. In terms of musical style and lyrical subject matter, you could file I Don’t Wanna between politicised popular music from that time that reached thousands of listeners (such as Ed Sanders’s and Tuli Kupferberg’s group the Fugs) or that reached millions of listeners (such as Bob Dylan, whose “Subterranean Homesick Blues” inspired Flynt to try his hand at songwriting). A listener can easily forget that this music went unheard for decades in spite of its status as a bracing artifact of the year 1966.

At the present moment, Henry Flynt’s musical activities are represented as never before. He comes across as a unique, eccentric figure of historical interest, one whose protean musical activity referenced, abutted, or overlapped with post-Cagean experimental music in the early 1960s; free jazz in the style of Ornette Coleman; rhythm and blues; Delta blues; hillbilly fiddle music; garage rock protest music; country rock; and North Indian classical music (he studied the Kirana vocal style with Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath). From a musically more pluralist era, we recognise Flynt as a prescient figure. A contemporary, postmodern musical culture is better prepared to hear an artist play hillbilly violin licks in a repurposed Hindustani raga or to hear him manifest his vocal studies with Pandit Pran Nath while fronting a country band. Recordings of Flynt’s hybridisations, which he terms “New American Ethnic Music” (in order to distinguish these efforts from European art music and its rhetorical default position of constituting music proper), have a complex relation to the time of their creation. They are both of their time and ahead of their time, even as they have served time in a personal archive of unreleased recordings.

While we may be better prepared today to appreciate Flynt’s music and are perhaps eager to slot it into a revised chronology of pluralistic musical activity starting in the mid-60s, we must consider the ways in which these materials have been disseminated. What does it mean to describe a recording as being of a moment in which it did not circulate? Conversely, what does it mean to describe previously inaccessible music as participating in a later moment in which it resonates more powerfully? What was known about Henry Flynt’s music prior to these archival releases? In what form did his music – or knowledge thereof – circulate?

Prior to the series of releases on compact disc that began just after the turn of the 21st century, those interested in the history of experimental or avant-garde music in the 1960s might have known Flynt’s work by hearsay, as a recurring citation. The anecdotes were compelling, a dance at the edge of more official histories, tantalising in its obscurity. The music was simply not available.

Flynt might have been known as a figure with a complicated, antagonistic relationship to Fluxus. (A page on his website describes Flynt as “a philosopher, musician, anti-art activist and exhibited artist, whom unsympathetic reviewers often link to Fluxus.”) He might have been known as the author of “Essay: Concept Art (Provisional Version)” (1961), published in La Monte Young’s An Anthology of Chance Operations, Indeterminacy, Concept Art, Anti-Art, Meaningless Work, Natural Disasters, Stories, Poetry, Essays, Diagrams, Music, Dance Constructions, Plans of Action, Mathematics, Compositions. This essay’s relation to conceptual art continues to be discussed. He might have been known as the author of the expansive, memoiristic essay “La Monte Young in New York, 1960–62,” which ranges beyond its ostensible subject to render a personal, trenchant perspective on a historical moment in which a group of young artists and composers were determined to move away from the influence of John Cage. This essay vividly describes the significance of Cage’s presence for a number of younger artists: “[La Monte] Young has explained that everywhere you turned in 1960, people were saying ‘Cage,’ ‘Cage.’ They were talking as if Cage was the end of history. (That was exactly Cage’s claim...).” In “La Monte Young In New York, 1960–62,” Flynt minces no words in expressing what he takes to be Cage’s shortcomings: “[Cage] persisted in a professional life which could not be reconciled with his own pronouncements. Not to be overly subtle about it, Cage’s occupation was to provide the music for a ballet company... The job involved upholding a specifically European art form; it also involved upholding the cooperative distinctness of the European art trades.” Given Flynt’s characteristically combative prose, one can understand the interest that this polemical, fascinating essay might have provoked as regards hearing his own unreleased, under the radar music.

What else might have been known about Flynt prior to the release of his recordings? Perhaps that he was from North Carolina and had studied mathematics at Harvard in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the same time as Tony Conrad, the future composer and filmmaker, and Ted Kaczynski, the future Unabomber. The experimental music activity at Harvard at this time centered around the graduate students Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski, who promoted the work of John Cage and allied composers through their roles as concert organisers.

Perhaps it would have been known that Flynt performed in the now legendary series of monthly concerts at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft. The series was organised by La Monte Young, ran between December 1960 and June 1961, and included performances from an array of artists including poet Jackson Mac Low, composer Richard Maxfield, dancer and choreographer Simone Forti, and artist Robert Morris. Perhaps listeners would have encountered Flynt’s name through an early La Monte Young composition from April 1960 entitled Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) To HF, also known as (To Henry Flynt) and X For Henry Flynt. X For Henry Flynt calls for X number of forearm clusters on a piano to be repeated at an interval of between one and two seconds; an alternate realisation permits the use of a gong and a drumstick. David Tudor’s controversial August 30, 1961, performance of the work – could there be any other kind? – at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (International Summer Courses for New Music) in Darmstadt, Germany, consisted of his striking a tam-tam 566 times at roughly one attack per second, hence the title for this particular iteration: 566 (to Henry Flynt). Finally, people interested in experimental and avant-garde music of this period might have been familiar with tales of Tony Conrad, Jack Smith, and Flynt picketing the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center, or of Flynt’s “Picket Stockhausen Concert!” text – part of an incident that culminated in the excommunication of Philip Corner, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Benjamin Patterson, Nam Jun Paik, and Takehisa Kosugi from Fluxus.

Then what? Numerous essays on philosophy and economics, most of which remained unpublished until they appeared at the turn of the new century on the website An obscure 1975 publication of selected writings, offered under the title Blueprint For A Higher Civilization. An exhibition entitled Classic Modernism and Authentic Concept Art (1989) at New York’s Emily Harvey Gallery, a concept art installation entitled “Logically Impossible Space” at the 1990 Venice Biennale, and exhibitions of a photographic portfolio – but little public activity as a musician. That Flynt has reveled in his status as scourge is attested to in Blueprint For A Higher Civilization by the inclusion of letters on the subject of his anti-art activism from contemporaries such as Terry Riley, Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, and poet Diane Wakoski. Responding to a March 1963 lecture by Flynt, Wakoski writes, “I’m for Henry Flynt but not for his ideas... I am not against art and think that any artist who would say that he is or think that he is would be masochistic enough to need psychiatric care. Since you make no claims to being an artist this does not refer to you.”

The Edition Hundertmark cassette You Are My Everlovin/Celestial
Power (1986) comes from recordings made in 1980 and 1981, and marks the first time that Flynt’s music was made available commercially. This release appeared a quarter of a century after his performance in the La Monte Young–curated series at Yoko Ono’s loft. With this overdue debut, listeners were able to encounter an idiosyncratic violin music that references and synthesizes the drone of minimalism and of North Indian classical music, the sarod virtuosity of Ali Akbar Khan, and the slide guitar artistry of John Lee Hooker. Additional reference points for Flynt’s music on this recording could include any number of Delta blues performers, the Old Time Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, early rock and roll, John Coltrane, Bismillah Khan, and VG Jog, the first master of the violin in Hindustani music. As Flynt explains, “I often eliminate chord progressions... because I experience changes of root like stoplights on a highway.”

In his essay “The Meaning Of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly And Blues Music” (first drafted in 1980 and revised in 2002), Flynt proposes that his work does for hillbilly music what Ornette Coleman’s did for jazz, namely, that it allows the artist, as fictive “folk creature,” to bring elements of contemporary music into what is basically a folk form: “I intensify and elevate the American ethnic musics to produce a sophisticated music whose nearest correlative would be Hindustani music... I aspire to a beauty which is ecstatic and perpetual, while at the same time being concretely human and emotionally profound. The specificity of sentiment and passion to which I am committed requires for its expression an ethnic musical language, a musical language which embodies the tradition of experience of autochthonous communities.”

The inverse of the “folk creature” – and in Flynt’s view a figure deserving of profound scorn – is the high-cultural avant-garde composer who delivers so-called folk content within the idioms of European art music, a lineage that includes composers as diverse as Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, Janáček, and Stockhausen. Flynt identifies a relatively small number of artists importing elements of contemporary music into folk forms (Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane are his examples), while noting that many composers have been celebrated for incorporating folk traditions into what is conventionally presented as a more sophisticated musical practice. The German composer and musicologist HH Stuckenschmidt, who taught at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt, provides us with an example of the ideology that Flynt rails against in “The Meaning Of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly And Blues Music”: “The ivory tower is the appropriate dwelling for those contemporary composers who have greater claims to consideration. No one should make modern music easy to listen to and to understand by providing listeners with short cuts. Injecting music with songs and dance rhythms would be as inartistic and misguided as daubing abstract paintings with representational images. A reversion to folk music is impossible in any case, because a notion of reversion presupposes a notion of progress and this has long been discredited. Folk music has to be justified by avant-garde music, not vice versa.”

Unfortunately, by the time that an initial handful of people were able to hear the immersive, exhilarating, often delirious music on You Are My Everlovin/Celestial Power, Flynt had already given up composing and playing. In “The Meaning Of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly Music,” he writes, “I was competing with musicians for whom the last step in composing a piece is the sale—musicians for whom a bad piece that sells is a good piece... My pursuit of music proved to be an eccentric hobby.”

Records Ruin The Landscape: John Cage, The Sixties, And Sound Recording is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

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