Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Daniel Herwitz reviews David Grubbs’s Records Ruin the Landscape

David Grubbs. Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties and Sound Recordings. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014. 248 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Herwitz

“How strange”, this book announces in its third chapter, “these crossing paths of [Glen] Gould and [John] Cage, particularly over the issue of performance and recording. Gould’s chosen mission was to put forth his eccentric canon of classical works in brilliant, pointed, and provocative recordings, composed of edited performances—and then to disappear as quickly as possible from the concert stage. Cage, by contrast, was a pioneer in the counterintuitive use of recording technology within live performance, and he recognized no utopian dimension either to commercially released recordings or to pronouncements about the death of live performance” (p. 76).

Between this pair of visionaries the issue of recording was fought within the musical culture of the avant-gardes and performers of the 1960s, at a moment when sound recordings had finally become widespread and popular and electronic technologies embedded in a wide swath of music composition and performance. Ironically, although Cage was adamant in the use of electronic media in performance, relying on digital tape, prepared piano, microphone, speaker and indeed record player, he hated records and often boasted that he owned none. Gould on the other hand, was a mercurial perfectionist, awkward with people (something Cage was not), and he prophesied the day when the concert hall would disappear, replaced by recordings which far bettered it, since they could be produced through multiple takes in which each stretch of music was rerecorded until it was played exactly right. At this moment, so common when new technologies burst onto the scene of culture, a visionary utopian pronouncement took hold about the way the new technology would shape the future (something we now find in writings on the digital humanities, where prophesy and utopian pronouncement have center stage).

This book focuses on Cage, not Gould. It stresses that Cage’s dislike of recordings had to do with his larger mission of turning music into a happening in which, through the use of controlled chance operations, would raise the consciousness of the listener (in true avant-garde fashion and so change the world). Heightened consciousness would occur, Cage believed, through his manipulation of scale, of the amount of time things took to happen, and how they happened. For the first ten minutes of a multivariant Cage work, one would exist (and here I riff off the book) in a state of dazzled confusion at the man on the stage slurping spaghetti in front of a microphone while percussionists, flutists, singers, entered it felt, in a controlled, yet random way. Cage as often as not read from James Joyce or Henry David Thoreau in an amplified whispering. Slowly, slowly, as in meditation, a kind of rhythm would emerge, a pulse of mesmeric focus half random, half controlled, in which everything became fascinating and the parts took on the role of individualities. The experience was meant to have no meaning beyond itself, although, remembered later, and in the context of Cage’s brilliant writings, it was meant to lead the way to a better form of living between music, personal life and politics. Cage called the achievement of this new and improved state of mind (in an Americanized Zen) “ordinary life with your feet a little bit off the ground.”

Crucial to the Cage performance was meant to be its transience. Cage hated the idea of musical “externalization” in what the philosopher Lydia Goehr has named the “imaginary museum of musical works.”[1] He wanted music neither to be ruled by a score (which dictated exactly what should happen each and every time it was performed) nor embalmed in a recording archive. Both would dampen, on his thinking, on the crucial experience of immediacy, spontaneity, and change rung by chance, of rhythm emergent through scale, of deepening absorption on whatever happens to happen, of, as they said in the 1960s, “being there” until the performance, like a human life, simply ceased to exist. The recording was, he felt, a pale replica of this experience of live performance: one incapable of engendering it. Repeated listening to a recording would turn it into a museological occasion rather than a lesson in fleeting intensity.

While the author does not dwell on this, Cage’s focus on the redemptive value of spontaneous yet controlled happenings was therefore part of the wider culture of the sixties, in which he functioned as a kind of guru. The author astutely points out, however, that Cage is known today courtesy of those recordings of his work that were made in spite of his anxieties.

Records Ruin the Landscape is a book chock full of incident. Like a collector in love with recordings, the author, David Grubbs, himself a musician and performer, excavates all manner of Cageian story from the 1960s and discusses it very well. Not only that, Grubbs has managed to discover a kind of living waxworks of American maverick/oddities from the time, students of mathematics at Harvard during the 1950s who turned to violin performance and were as fascinated by the then new recording possibilities, as someone today might be fascinated by writing music on their iPhone or crowd sourcing it across digital space. Thirty years from now someone like Grubbs will write the story of today, including various denizens of San Francisco and New York City who are experimenting with new technological possibilities and pushing the envelope of technologies freshly minted from Silicon Valley.

What has happened a half century after Gould and Cage pronounced their visions? Gould is in a way right. The world now lives through digital means in a constant state of downloading (of recordings), while live concerts of classical music are largely attended by the Social Security and Medicare set. I myself live on YouTube and recently watched a short video there featuring close ups of bleating sheep and wide pans of herds of bighorn munching away on green and pleasant fields to the music of Bach’s famous aria: While Sheep Do Gently Graze. Both marvelous and grotesque, this video seemed to me to say it all. YouTube allows the listener to exist in a state of perpetual discovery, as if the museum of musical works were as big (horned) as the world and he or she were a child taking it all in. This state of discovery is exciting, even if such works are downloaded, as often as not, with a collector’s fascination about the past, dredged up under a halo of which Cage would not have approved (since it is the aura of the past rather than the spontaneous absorption in the transient present). Many of these recordings are once off moments from a long history, themselves fleeting—products in part of historical chance. So there is something—and Grubbs notes this well—Cageian about the archive of recordings he disliked. But the word “product” really does apply. There is a well-known flattening of music into product when the listener becomes an online consumer of recordings, something neither Cage nor Gould was quite able to imagine (although Theodor Adorno did).

One of the chief joys of this book is that seeks to rediscover the avant-gardes of the 1960s in all their spontaneity, in their present-ness, as if unfolding these mavericks from their own perspectives, without benefit of current hindsight. We learn, reading this book, what the future looked like to the past. Records Ruin the Landscape seeks to prestidigitate the landscape of the 1960s back to life.  For this, one should be thankful—including for the recordings that allow David Grubbs’ act of imagination and scholarship to have taken place.

[1] Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (London, 1992).