Book Review: David Grubbs, John Cage and Freshness in Sound

Reviewed:  Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording
David Grubbs
Duke University Press, 2014
  1. As I write this I am listening to Pauline Oliveros. She is an accordion player who I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for David Grubbs. This book sent me on a deep search into the roots and meaning of experimental sound.
  1. For a while I read so much of John Cage’s writings that I felt guilty listening to music; I remember thinking, ‘I should be listening to the buses.’ Someone else has shared this story; it may be in this book.
  1. David Grubbs destroys my blind worshiping of John Cage in the preface alone. Then he helps me to adore him again.
  1. There is an epigraph to open the introduction which serves as a great summary of Cage’s attitude towards recording:

Daniel Charles: Records, according to you,
are nothing more than postcards…
John Cage: Which ruin the landscape.
(from For the Birds)

  1. Grubbs clearly points out that Cage saw recording technology only as a tool for manipulating sound during live performance. Ironically, a quick internet search for ‘experimental music’ brings forth Cage’s work almost exclusively.
  1. He didn’t even like Wesleyan University Press’s cover for his A Year from Monday with concentric rings because it resembled an LP. My copy of the book, the 2009 edition, has musical notations in a cube. I don’t see how this is much better, as Cage describes his music as asymmetrical.
  1. Henry Flynt, self described “hillbilly” is the antagonist to Cage in this book. He plays a main role in the text and in the evolution of modern listening practice. Grubbs describes him as a “prescient figure” of our pluralistic era.
  1. For Flynt listening to the music that came before him and building on that is essential. Rather fitting as the world celebrates what would have been Alan Lomax’s 100th
  1. Henry Flynt describes Cage and Yoko Ono and the downtown musical avant-garde of the 1960s as “the debris of privilege.” He goes on to describe how he has never fully recovered from the experience of seeing African American musicians wedged out of the scene.
  1. Flynt illuminates the notion that there are multiple ways to approach the future of music that do not lead to the elimination of tradition and folk arts.
  1. Grubbs knows a lot about a lot of things. Sometimes I had to go back and reread to understand. More often than not, I had to go back and listen.

12.  Going back. Searching for a song online. These are things Cage, deep down, knew experimental music needed to grow, no matter how opposed he was to sound recording.

  1. Cage used recording devices as a method of making sound but this also crossed into recording sound for the purpose of posterity, intentionally and unintentionally.
  1. Grubbs uses Barthes notion of studium and punctum to understand temporality in art. The studium is the cultural moment, the more or less planned element. The puntum is the element of chance or surprise. Like a photograph, a sound recording can have both of these elements and can bring the sound recording some of the element of chance found in live improvisation.
  1. Kenneth Goldsmith and Ubuweb figure largely in Grubbs’ analysis of experimental music, recording and tradition. In an interview with Goldsmith on WFMU Flynt has difficulty grasping that the mindset he had in the 1960, of listening to everything, is actually common today. He is somewhat shocked. It was 2004.
  1. Later in the book Grubbs discusses developments in sound recording and Cornelius Cardew and AMMusic. He proves to be another seminal figure. He opens the score up to more interpretation than Cage endorsed. He wrote in his Treatise Handbook about opening the score to those who would “have (a) acquired a visual education, (b) escaped a musical education and (c) have nevertheless become musicians, i.e. play music to the full capacity of their human beings.” This also seems to be what Grubbs is advocating for. Certainly not what Cage is advocating for.
  1. Archives are a hot topic right now in theoretic circles so Grubbs would have been remiss to exclude them from this study of recording and thus cataloging sound.
  1. I smiled when Grubbs points out the “hubris” of the word archive. How it has much become like the term, “curator.”
  1. As I read this last chapter of the book I wrote “Benjamin” in the margins over and over again until Grubbs brought Walter Benjamin up himself.

20.  He didn’t bring up the same Benjamin I was thinking of.  Grubbs was thinking of photography. I was thinking of hoarders. In the chapter “Remove the Records from Texas” Grubbs discusses the notion of the music object. The need to accumulate both records themselves and the sounds they contain. In The Arcades Project Benjamin dedicates much time to the Collector in convolute H. Benjamin writes: “And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes.”

21.  Funny how he (or his translator) uses the word landscape since it is key in the title of Grubbs’ book. The collector uses the object in his hands as a stand in for a landscape, an epoch, the temporal event.

  1. But a few lines later, much like how Grubbs oscillates in his own book, we see Benjamin give more power to the collector and his practice, “The true method of making things present us to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space.)” Applied to music, even through a recording, the music can remain relevant over time when listened to, even when heard in new contexts.
  1. If Grubbs can be considered advocate for improvisation at the beginning of the book he manages to find a way to improvise even in the world of recorded music. This notion blew my mind.
  1. With the dawn of Ubuweb, DRAM and the internet in general there is so much music to listen to it becomes impossible to listen to it all; it becomes possible, however, to never have to listen to the same thing twice.
  1. Cage’s dream is realized in the end thanks to the very technology he despised. Even if all we have are postcards, we never have to look at them twice.

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