The Wire

In Writing

Bell Labs: For Monument, Change At Bank

February 2013

Clive Bell on the recent glut of monumentally proportioned music, and imagining the person who forks out hard-earned cash for an "obese release"

I have a box set of Anton Webern (1883–1945): his complete works, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez. It’s on Sony Classical, and a very prestigious project – which makes it all the more enjoyable that in the booklet notes the recording venue of Barking Town Hall repeatedly suffers transformation by typo into Banking Town Hall. But the point is that here is a major composer whose entire output fits neatly onto three CDs. Will we ever behold such conciseness again?

The music lover is currently reeling under an onslaught of monumentalism, a Cecil B. DeMillennium’s worth of super-sized releases crashing into our living rooms. From behind the sofa I’m peering out at February’s Wire: fifteen CDs of concrète from Francois Bayle, that’s enough for a patio. Six CDs (plus DVD) from Ralf Wehowsky, seven from Arve Henriksen, ten from Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware. Oneohtrix Point Never’s Rifts was already a two and a half hour sprawl when he originally compiled it in 2009, but three years later Rifts is re-released, now bulked up to a five LP box. William Basinski’s requiem for decaying tape, Disintegration Loops, was at first a four-CD series, but in November last year it reappeared – my, how you’ve grown! – as nine LPs, five CDs and a DVD, in the 12 lbs Deluxe Box Set on Temporary Residence Ltd.

The tide seems unstoppable: Circadian Rhythm was a 13 hour concert in 1978 featuring Evan Parker, David Toop and others, released as a modest, single LP on Incus. In 2013 it feels much more sensible to release the entire 13 hours, and the set is being prepared as we speak. Terre Thaemlitz kind of sent the whole thing up last year with his Soulnessless, appearing in the format of a 16GB datastick. It included a 31 hour piano solo titled “Meditation On Wage Labor And The Death Of The Album,” but there was plenty more: remixes, bonus tracks, videos and endless essays.

What’s got into us? Like rabbits in the headlights, are we all going down with boxsettosis? Is monumentalism the result of artists’ lust for legacy? Or are we all, like politicians, hopelessly in awe of the 'Grand Project' – this is how Iain Sinclair characterised the London Olympics in his book Ghost Milk, arguing that grandiose, money-vacuuming schemes are a desperate response to society’s frenetic pace of change, paradoxically coupled with our sense of inability to bring about change.

Presumably we are not literally listening to this British-Librarys-worth of music. I find it hard to imagine the person who spends north of £300 on Basinski’s Deluxe Box Set and then lets it squat his/her record deck like some obese cuckoo; and yet that box set seems to be nearly sold out. Perhaps listening to records was always just an adjunct to the somehow sexier act of buying them. Buying is public, listening is private. The unread books, the unwatched DVDs, they all stack up in the shelving space that used to be occupied by unwatched VCR recordings.

But I think what really lurks behind our current love of the obese release is the internet. Confronted with this vast ocean of data, our efforts to make an artistic mark seem puny. How can I show, in however tiny a way, my deep inadequacy and insignificance in the face of the mighty internet? Maybe if I release a box set so vast it does my back in, that will be an appropriate homage.

Meanwhile, let me tell you about the latest 12” LP I bought. It’s by Hilary Jeffery on Dilemma Records, it’s called Tibetan Tunnels, and it’s fantastic. In total it lasts 12 minutes.

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