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In Writing

Nate Wooley’s guide to American weirdos

July 2016

The New York trumpeter and composer celebrates the USA’s lesser known maverick composers

I use the term ‘American weirdo’ in my conversation with Philip Clark in The Wire 390 – referring to that maverick spirit in music, writing or art of an individual vision that seemingly comes from nowhere – in a problematic way. It contains a pejorative, one that may not be embraced by the artist in question, and to wield the term responsibly requires a qualitative set of signifiers, something beyond the typical ‘it’s a feeling, man’ rhetoric I’ve employed in talking about the subject to this point.

So here I attempt to give positive form and definition to this term while presenting some music that exemplifies the work of those American weirdos that have inspired me in the past 15 years. I define the artists below as having committed themselves to working outside of an established musical dialectic. Instead, they hurl themselves into the void of an idea with only their personal context and history as aesthetic anchor points. The starting point of their work is self-contained. Tradition, history, theory be damned.

To keep the list manageable, the parameters here are slightly more rigorous than the vague nomenclature under which I gather artists that share only some indefinable something in my everyday mind. I limited my thinking to composers who downplay the role of improvisation in their music, the concept being that their work should be able to live on posthumously without dependence on their performance as definitive. This leaves out Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Arthur Doyle and others who have a concrete place in my estimation of the American weirdo, as well as within the history of American music.

My use of American weirdo is both malleable and highly subjective. In the case of this list, I have tried to present artists that I hold dear in this category, but may be less widely known to the general public, as opposed to singing the praises of John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, Moondog, Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, La Monte Young or others who have (or should have) been long ago entered into some sort of experimental music canon. I have also added a short ‘see also’ list in an attempt to smuggle in a handful of other listening possibilities.

Kenneth Gaburo
Minim Tellig – One, Two, Three

Kenneth Gaburo’s music and writing ignited my fascination with the American experimental aesthetic. His work within linguistics and the limits of the performing body have played heavily in my own work for the past ten years, culminating in a 160 minute solo trumpet piece based on the mechanics of speech to be released later this year. This piece, while not his most radical (it owes a bit to Schwitters and even Beckett to my ears/eyes), is a stirring example of the raw emotional power of Gaburo’s composition, film, tape work and writings. See Also: David Dunn, Warren Burt, Larry Polansky

Salvatore Martirano
L’s GA For Gassed-Mask Politico, Helium Bomb, And Two Channel Tape

Larry Polansky and David Dunn suggested Sal Martirano’s work to me after they took part in a roundtable discussion I had arranged on Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy in 2008. I remained unconvinced until Sub Rosa released The Salmar Construction in 2015. The instrument, constructed by him and a crew at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, offered the performer the ability to essentially ‘zoom in’ on musical information and parameters. This attitude of collective building of your own instrument to solve an aesthetic issue made me take a deeper look into Martirano’s music, ultimately finding L’s GA, which I love for its almost perfect lack of ‘elegance’. See Also: Donald Martino, Alex Mincek

Gordon Mumma
1978 Santa Cruz Saw Festival


In a generation that included Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, David Tudor and David Behrman, I never felt like Mumma received his due. His music is profoundly interesting and unlocks the Huxleyan axiom of great art: that which you cannot grasp immediately but become obsessive about decoding. There are fantastic examples of his electronic and acoustic music on New World and Tzadik, but I had to include this example as it encapsulates his spirit of rigorous experimentation using nothing more complex than the singing saw. See Also: Alvin Curran’s solo work, the ONCE Festival

Julius Eastman
Evil Nigger

Eastman’s work has come, thankfully, to public attention in the last two or three years, thanks to Mary Jane Leach and Renée Levine Packer’s collection of essays, a festival put on by Bowerbird in Philadelphia, DJ /rupture’s recorded homage, as well as a forthcoming release on Frozen Reeds. But two years of hype doesn’t make up for 30 of obscurity, and so he’s included here. I love Eastman’s music for its ambiguity. Is it minimalism? Not in the sense of Glass or Reich, or even Riley. Its structure is not so clearly audible; a trait that seems to define that era. If you don’t believe me, try transcribing it. It lives in its own place; a wonderfully dancing edgy confrontational place. See Also: Mary Jane Leach, Michael Gordon

Tom Johnson
The 1287 Five-Note Chords

Tom Johnson’s aesthetics are deeply rooted and he is fierce in their defence. His music is as uncompromising as the man, and is built on finding the right pitches to inject into complex (or less complex) mathematical formulas which often, then, flaunt their ‘numberness’. Although he has lived in Paris for years, his place here is a necessity. This is an excerpt from what I consider to be the locus of his compositional style, The Chord Catalogue, in which the pianist goes through every possible permutation of two to 13 note chords. In true Johnsonian fashion, the result is still highly musical. See Also: Rajesh Mehta, Rhys Chatham

David Rosenboom

Rosenboom’s music, along with that of Chris Brown and Kenneth Atchley, has been a recent obsession of mine. In a way I look at them all as models of artists completely inhabiting an experimental world – be it in traditional or non-traditional notation, pure improvisation; or broadly conceptual and technological pieces like this one from Brainwave Music, the concept of which is clearly evident in the title, but becomes increasingly more moving the further listeners allow themselves to push past the technology at its source. See Also: Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins, John King

The League Of Automatic Music Composers
Early 1980s

I interviewed Tim Perkis and John Bischoff of The LAMC about five years ago for one of the first issues of Sound American. Tim described their early working methods in The League (with Rich Gold and Jim Horton) as – roughly paraphrased – plugging things in backwards and seeing what happens. This maverick attitude with something as volatile as electricity exemplifies the spirit of everyone on this list, and The LAMC’s work with the humble KIM-II computer opened up a new way of thinking about the interactivity of musicians: a sort of chamber aesthetic for electronics. See Also: The Hub, Tim Perkis, John Bischoff, Kenneth Atchley

Ellen Fullman

There’s not a lot I can say about Ellen Fullman without being tongue-tied. My earliest experience, with a ripped cassette of Long Stringed Instrument, took me beyond similar ‘wire’ work by Alvin Lucier into something far beyond a preconceived notion of built instruments as set art pieces. Her music provides tension, release and stasis in a way that is not linear, but architectural: resolution occurring on one level while tension builds simultaneously on another. It is a music that can be studied as snapshots without ever missing a feeling of development. See Also: Michael Pisaro, Ashley Fure, Neil Feather

Richard Maxfield

My concept of the American weirdo relies as heavily on literature as it does on music. I will happily argue the radical nature of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick over a beer any time (try me). Maxfield and other early tape manipulators like him found a way to make concrete music as something separate from musique concrete. I have always loved Bacchanale for its sense of chaos, similar to that in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski and Gregory Corso, and have always been attracted to the jazz kaleidoscope sound world it inhabits, which mirrors my young perception of my father’s jazz musician friends. See Also: Harold Budd, William Basinski, Eyvind Kang

Maryanne Amacher
Head Rhythm 1 and Plaything 2

There’s no way for me to really deal with Maryanne Amacher’s music. I want it to be as simple as an adjustment to the way I hear, in the way that Eliane Radigue or Pauline Oliveros or Antoine Beuger might. But, it’s not that. Or, it’s beyond that. It’s a construct, a test of physical limitations that strikes the same part of me as Gaburo’s Mouthpiece II or Johnson’s Failing. Her music is less about the enjoyment of a recording as the memory of being immersed in it – a physical, almost muscular memory. See Also: Charlemagne Palestine

Subscribers can read Philip Clark’s interview with Nate Wooley in The Wire 390 via our online archive. Nate Wooley is the editor of Sound American.

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