AS RECORDINGS become more ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that a piece of music, conceptually — whether a symphony or a pop song — is something very different from a recording of that piece of music. At the very least, a recording will generally contain unique artifacts of the time and place it was made, such as background room-noise or subtle variations in a singer’s volume, elements that would never be considered part of the composition. With a simple song like “Three Blind Mice,” this distinction is negligible — just about any recording of any performance of the tune would be instantly recognizable as “Three Blind Mice.” But in the case of more advanced works, and especially those designed to incorporate some degree of chance or randomness, things get complicated quickly. For compositions whose whole raison d’être is to generate a drastically different realization with every performance (most often by providing “scores” that give the performers tremendous latitude), no recording of any one performance could be said to “be” the piece.
David Grubbs’s exhaustively researched Records Ruin the Landscape explores this dilemma specifically as it affected the generation of avant-garde composers who hit their stride in the sixties, John Cage being the most prominent and outspoken among them. In Cage’s case, there was no ambiguity at all to his feelings about records: he hated them, and the reason is plain enough. Two of Cage’s greatest contributions to music (to oversimplify for a moment) were the concepts of chance and indeterminacy. In composing, Cage substituted chance operations (using dice, or more often texts like the I Ching) to derive concrete parameters like pitch, tempo, and timbre for the musicians. He used the word “indeterminacy” to refer to randomness or unpredictability in a piece’s performance, where his score left the performers tremendous room for interpretation or even whims. Under either scenario, a particular performance was never considered final or definitive but just one of a vast number of possibilities. Cage’s most famous composition, 4’33”, may have been the ultimate example of indeterminacy, as the content of the piece was meant to consist of whatever ambient sounds happened to be present during the concert — the “performer” seated motionless at the piano had literally no direct influence.
Many other composers of Cage’s generation, and certainly most of those in his circle, felt the same way about recordings. Freezing one performance of a piece (a unique and fleeting realization by definition, and much more so in the age of Chance and Indeterminacy) was an outright misrepresentation of the performance. Grubbs points out that, of the musicians and composers he spoke to who had come of age in the sixties, most “remain of the opinion that audio recordings are at best curiously incomplete representations of their efforts.” It was not only such haute avant-gardists as Cage who held this view, but also, for example, Scratch Orchestra co-founder Cornelius Cardew and free-jazz guitarist Derek Bailey, though Bailey’s motives differed somewhat from Cage’s. For Bailey, an individual performance was unique and practically sacred — in free improvisation there is no “composition,” not even a loosely scored one — but preserving a live gig on tape permanently was tantamount to trapping a butterfly under glass, or worse. In Bailey’s words: “The point of a record is that you can play it again[…] It’ll all eventually become mood music, right?”
It’s no coincidence that this debate began to get heated in the sixties, as the production and sales of records took off and recordings began to mature into a complex, sophisticated art form in their own right. Though Grubbs doesn’t say this in so many words, there was a generational-technological shift going on at the time, and, brilliant as they were, Cage’s radical ideas had their own historical bias. This is not to minimize their importance (that would be a fool’s errand, as Cagean thought has been and still is massively influential in the music world and beyond), but to recognize that they were formulated in a particular time and place, with the blind spots specific to that time and place. Of course, when records were released infrequently and in relatively tiny quantities, it was likely that a single, arbitrary performance of a piece could become the canonical version simply by dint of being recorded, and it’s understandable that Cage would have been horrified at the thought. (In fact, it was only through the heroic efforts of people like David Behrman and Earle Brown, who produced the Music of Our Time and Contemporary Sound series, respectively, that any of this music managed to get recorded and released in the sixties.) But crucially, as Grubbs makes clear, the idea of recordings per se is not incompatible with Cage’s approach to composition. On the contrary, especially in the past decade or so, it’s become easier for that approach to thrive, in ways that would have been hard to foresee 50 years ago.
Consider the 1968 LP Electronics and Percussion: Five Realizations, a recording of the music of Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, and others by percussionist Max Neuhaus. Out of print (and available only as a pricey collector’s item) for decades, the album was reissued on compact disc in 2003. Then, shortly afterward, additional recordings of related and previously unavailable performances by Neuhaus were released on CD by the Italian label Alga Marghen, as well as on the web-based avant-garde archive UbuWeb. “Thus,” Grubbs points out, “in a few short years Neuhaus’s solo percussion and live electronics work went from being represented to a listening public by two LPs that had been out of print for more than two decades…to many times that number of recordings, including multiple realisations of the same composition.” While greatly expanded interest in albums like Neuhaus’s in the 21st century led to an avalanche of CD re-releases (or releases, as many of these recordings were seeing the light of day for the first time), the boom in free or low-cost file-sharing, digital archives like UbuWeb, and subscription services like DRAM eventually made many more of these archival recordings available. As a result, the problem of having certain compositions represented by only one or two essentially random performances has effectively been solved. In fact, today, it’s rare that any performance goes unrecorded.
(The ubiquity of recordings in the 21st century brings to mind one important topic that seems conspicuously absent from Grubbs’s book — and is incidentally the subject of frequent concern for UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith: the problem of storing music remotely “in the cloud.” The ever-increasing presence of the cloud raises new questions of privacy — who’s gathering data about the music in your “collection,” and what are they doing with that information? — and ownership — can your music be taken away from you at the flip of a switch, and why? What happens if the cloud service crashes?)
Despite Derek Bailey’s misgivings, recordings also serve the more obvious purpose of preserving history. Active improvisers may, by definition, prefer making new music rather than listening to past recordings, but for someone who missed a particular performance, or wasn’t born at the time, having a recording is like owning a time machine that will take him or her directly back there, with (ideally) perfect fidelity. Those not lucky enough to live within a short distance of the few metropolitan areas where concerts of avant-garde music are staged might never get to hear this music live if recordings didn’t exist.
One particularly strange historical case revolving around recordings, which Grubbs devotes most of a chapter of his book to, is the story of violinist/composer Henry Flynt. (The details are largely culled from a radio interview Flynt gave to Kenneth Goldsmith on WFMU in 2004.) In the 20 years or so before he gave up performing in 1984, Flynt made many recordings, almost none of which were released commercially before the end of the century — the only one that was appeared on a small German cassette label in a tiny edition in 1986. Then, starting in 2000, amid a sudden renewed interest in his work, a flood of Flynt’s music was released on CD, including the historically significant I Don’t Wanna, a proto-punk record made in 1966 but never heard at the time. As Grubbs points out, prior to the release of all these recordings, “those interested in the history of experimental or avant-garde music in the sixties might have known Flynt’s work by hearsay, as an enigmatic footnote...The music was simply not available.” If this music hadn’t been recorded and preserved, it would have been lost forever, and the bulk of Flynt’s legacy would have been lost with it.
In addition to the many documentarian functions of recordings, Grubbs points to an equally important one that could hardly have been envisioned in the days before the explosion of record production in the sixties. Far from listening to it just once as you would an in-the-flesh live performance, a record could be played repeatedly under any condition the listener chose — and, with the advent of CDs or MP3s, in pretty much any physical venue he or she could imagine. The significance of this kind of freedom and endless flexibility can’t be overstated. It meant that a recording could be scrutinized and analyzed over time, to any degree the listener desired. This in turn inspired recording artists to make increasingly complex recordings that rewarded or even required multiple listenings. One ironic result of all this is that, as it became possible to do more and more with recordings, the Cagean idea of creating “imaginary landscapes” — a strictly live-music concept initially — reached a level far beyond what Cage himself originally envisioned. In the recording studio — using various kinds of electronic processing, and with all the time in the world — a record producer could literally simulate entire sonic environments, including ones that couldn’t exist in the real world. And at that point, we’ve left the idea of the recording as a simple, real-time snapshot of a live sound performance way behind.
Cage, who died in 1992, would no doubt be cheered to see how the technology he disliked so much has evolved to embrace and extend his own ideas. U2 — one of the most successful pop bands of all time — has used Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” oracle cards to generate new ideas and break out of habitual ruts in the studio; publicly accessible apps and websites allow literally anyone to create drastic remixes of commercial recordings; and contemporary sound-manipulation tools make it possible to manipulate essentially any sound ever captured on tape, and use it as raw material for new “compositions.” So while recordings abound, indeterminacy and chance are, in fact, alive and well.
Dave Mandl hosts a weekly music program, World of Echo, at WFMU-FM, and is music editor at The Brooklyn Rail.