At home the other night I searched our Smart TV’s YouTube channel for the poet Ted Berrigan and came across video of a reading of his with fellow poet Anne Waldman from the 1970s of their now infamously classic book-length poem “Memorial Day.” This was quite a surprise. Previously the only available footage of Berrigan on YouTube had been a couple of poems with brief remarks from the Poetry in Motion film series. Back around 1999 I remember an audiocassette recording of a similar reading of “Memorial Day” (it may even have been this same reading) circulating among some poet friends of mine. At the time, this audiocassette came as just as much of a surprise as the YouTube video.
That was of course back when such recordings were only available in library archives or private collections, usually those belonging to poets of earlier generations. It was extremely rare, if not impossible, to come by them unless you happened to be in school at an institution with relevant archives or were somehow acquainted with older poets. As Berrigan died in 1983 there was never hope of hearing “Memorial Day” read in person. For most readers of the poem, hearing him and Waldman read it together remained the stuff of legend. To find myself sitting comfortably on my sofa, sipping some wine, and, while casually browsing YouTube, coming across this video is an example of how radically things have changed.
This radical alteration in the availability of recordings, and exploration of its subsequent effects on the listening audience in relation to the work being presented, is taken up by David Grubbs in Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording. While Grubbs focuses on sound recordings of primarily experimental, avant-garde music, his remarks pertain as well to other material such as the video footage of the Berrigan/Waldman reading. The ready abundance of historical material made increasingly available in recent decades reaches across disciplines and styles (as well as deep into not only the recording vaults but the performance histories of individual artists), opening up many of the established divisions between genres, such as popular and avant-garde as well as classical and experimental, in the minds of both listeners and performers.
With ever increasing potential access to nearly any sound recording in existence, individual listeners are exposed to an ever widening array of genres, picking and choosing among them as they define and refine their own set preferences, often without any regard for prejudices of the past. Grubbs doesn’t so much lament or celebrate these changes as he does interrogate them, borrowing his title from a delicious bit of repartee from John Cage. During an interview, Cage reaffirmed his firm displeasure for vinyl records, remarking how, similar to picture postcards, they “ruin the landscape.” Just as many viewers will no longer literally look the same way at physical locations once they’ve seen them on a postcard, musical recordings alter the capability and willingness of the listening audience in attendance at a live performance. The potential and literal perception of the musical event is forever changed. It is not just that as an audience we’ve already heard the recording, so therefore believe we know what’s coming, but that our entire perspective of what constitutes the occasion is altered. Our opportunity for in-the-moment relation is ruptured.
This is not a complete loss to our experience as there are many obvious upsides to the situation. Having an abundance of recordings available only enlarges the potential audience size for all artists, however finely rarefied their individual fields of practice may be. Recordings also give opportunity (as with Berrigan) to hear performances and private recordings of artists from years before many of us were born. Grubbs’s first chapter, for instance, dwells on the work of the somewhat obscure composer and musician Henry Flynt. Flynt himself describes his music as “Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” (His essay “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” is available, along with a considerable amount of other writing, at his website: henryflynt.org). To my ear Flynt’s music immediately brings Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, of Palace Brothers to mind. Although it sounds as if Oldham were hanging out with some free jazz types, such as Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor. It’s pretty wild, fun stuff.
Flynt was recording his music at the time Coleman and Taylor were coming up in the jazz world scene. Yet nothing of Flynt’s was readily available until decades later. Aside from one audiocassette issued in the eighties on an obscure European label, “[Flynt’s] music was simply not available” until after the turn of the twenty-first century when an expansive complete set of CDs was released. Flynt’s entire recording history is archival in the sense that he stopped performing music in 1984. Grubbs tells us that Flynt did perform “in the now-legendary series of monthly concerts at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft” yet only an extremely small number of individuals would have heard him. But now you can click through YouTube and listen to entire albums like “I Don’t Wanna” and “Backporch Hillbilly Blues.”
Grubbs questions the context and means within which we approach appreciating Flynt’s work:
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-1960s, 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?
A major source of information on Flynt from which Grubbs draws upon is Flynt’s 2004 interview with poet Kenneth Goldsmith which originally aired on radio station WMFU and has since been made available via Goldsmith’s site: UbuWeb. UbuWeb is a treasure trove of freely downloadable recordings from across a broad spectrum of the arts: films, texts, and sound files are all to be found. Grubbs pairs his discussion of UbuWeb with the Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM). Whereas UbuWeb makes no attempt to acquire the rights for any of the recordings it makes available, coming across them either directly from the artists or otherwise attaining them by other means, DRAM does in fact do so and charges membership fees for access. And DRAM, like UbuWeb, is but one example of several such resources. It’s a drastic distance to have traveled from a period of time when the limits of what might be available to a listener were confined to in-store purchases and the amount of shelf space in your home library.
Grubbs utilizes the works of John Cage as a hinge upon which his exploration of these matters swings due to Cage’s stated reluctance to accepting the recordings as at all adequate or as a welcomed venue for his art. Grubbs writes: “Despite Cage’s relatively unchanging aversion, the practice of making records changed as a result of Cage’s work in the 1960s.” And Cage’s attraction and renown within our new digital age is only growing. After all, “Cage, while professing to find little or no value in the act of making records, nonetheless created unprecedented types of recordings.” New artists are continually finding Cage’s work relevant and inspiring. When doing so it is increasingly distant “from a period in which experimental music was notable primarily for its insistence on the experience of duration and physical space as activated by live performance, and on the unrepeatability of its gestures and sounds.”
Despite the undeniable change in our experience of music, there remains an authentic place for attending live performances as a continual touchstone of our appreciation for creative arts. The other week poet Diane di Prima gave a poetry reading celebrating the release of her new poetry collection The Poetry Deal from City Lights Publishers. This was remarkable on several counts. Di Prima hadn’t published a new full-length collection of poems in decades and she has recently weathered through fairly severe health issues. Having the opportunity to hear her read was a rare treat. The reading was held at the San Francisco Public Main Library and later that same evening less than half a mile away just up Larkin Street at Great American Music Hall musician Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth, played a show. By coincidence I had already purchased tickets without realizing di Prima read the same evening. Since Great American is only a block and half from our home we try to go whenever anybody of interest is playing.
The Thurston Moore Band went on around ten and was a rousing delight. Mid-way through the show Moore gave a shout-out to di Prima, dedicating the next song to her and talking about how he had attended his first di Prima reading right down the street earlier in the evening. Moore’s nod to di Prima doesn’t arrive from out of the blue. He has long been interested in poetry, especially the ‘zine and small press mimeo scene of the 1960s on the Lower East Side, and even runs his own poetry press Flowers and Cream. But to have attended the di Prima reading as well and then be at Moore’s gig, enjoying the eclectic mix of loud sonic guitars with a hint of experimental free jazz thrown in, and hear directly from him the same level of interest and respect for di Prima as a poet was a terrific experience.
Moore’s off-chance stage remark about di Prima’s reading is the sort of thing likely never to appear on a traditional album. Yet such personal, ad lib comments from recording sessions or live shows fall within the confines of the deluge of material Grubbs works his way through–the seeming never-ending encounters with ever-varying versions of songs and even whole albums awaiting interested and uninterested listeners alike:
As artists, estates, and record labels are now more likely to allow for free-of-charge access to work that they did not initially select for official release or that was considered peripheral […], the result is that much work previously deemed as being of secondary importance or of an inferior quality is now likely to be heard by an even greater number of listeners than work that has remained in print in the form of for-sale releases. Work previously filed away is now work to be given away, and lesser efforts can become the most widely encountered.
I find Grubbs’s focus on the never before availability of recordings to be fascinating. It’s a rare, quickly disappearing personal history he straddles. All too soon the delimiting experience of being obstructed by sheer material availability will vanish for those with adequate access to web resources. Grubbs also notes how given the rate of current technological advancements it’s impossible to fully fathom the exact means and venues via which future access may occur. All the same, I’m struck by no matter how much content becomes available online and how broadly listeners expand what they listen to, there’s always something lacking that only arrives with the in-person connection to art as an event in one’s life.
Two nights previous my partner Ava and I also attended a show at the SFJazz Center of the Calder Quartet playing two of Bartok’s quartets accompanied by avant-garde performer Iva Bittová on violin. Bittová is a marvelous performer who not only has a dramatic physical presence but also hits surprising guttural timbers of scale with her voice matching the east-European jigs of her violin. Listening to her on CD is nowhere close to witnessing her in person. That evening combined with the di Prima/Moore night made it quite a special week of events that no set of sound recordings will ever match. On top of everything else, the moon was out and full as we walked from the di Prima reading up towards Great American. Moore took due note of the moon as well, mentioning it before a song. Ava has also noticed that Moore was born July 25, 1958, and Bittová on July 22, 1958. They share the same moon sign.