Where Sonic Youth and the Velvets Found the Noise

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:25

    Hello, 20th Century In London recently, I stumbled on a used copy of Tom Johnson's long-out-of-print book The Voice of New Music. Johnson, the new-music critic for the Village Voice 1972-1982, is generally credited with identifying minimalism while documenting the fledgling NYC-based downtown scene from its public inception. Discovering minimalism turned out to be a mixed blessing: as a few composers went on to superstardom, hordes of experimentalists who happened to be doing extremely challenging work found themselves neglected. The close-knit downtown community was blown apart, and although the human toll it took was remarkable (excessive drug and alcohol use, exile and breakdowns), the real debilitating factor was the ever-increasing marginality of their practices. As a result, over the years slews of very experimental music simply vanished, not in the least due to the fact that most of the music was ephemeral by its nature; the little music that found its way to disc was produced in very small runs without any widespread distribution. While there has been tons of ink devoted to the downtown arts circa 1960-1980, until now it was impossible to hear what a lot of it sounded like, and although the recent slew of releases gives only the faintest glimpse of what was a far-ranging and complex scene, there's finally enough of it to grasp a sense of what has often been characterized as downtown's golden period. It was a time when just about anything felt possible, when lines between various arts blurred, when there seemed to be endless amounts of space and time to let these experiments unwind in their own way.

    There also seemed to be endless amounts of patience on hand. Much of the work is marred by self-indulgence, drug use and cuts that go on forever (on several, the entire discs are taken up by one long track). A lot of the records simply document musical group gropes. On the other hand, in almost all of it there are seeds for just about every musical innovation that we've now come to accept as common practice. And in a few cases, the music itself is simply so gorgeous that you wonder how you lived so long without knowing about it.

    The only thing these artists seem to have in common is that they were all, in some way, trying to stretch music to its absolute limits. And although their efforts often strike me as being incredibly naive, it's that sort of openness that allowed for wild experimentation.

    If there's one moment in Johnson's book that epitomizes this period, it's a description of a concert given by Philip Corner at the Experimental Intermedia loft in 1974 (to call it a concert would be stretching the point: instead, it was an audience participatory action that resulted in music). A bell is suspended from a ceiling and then pushed. Around the path of the swinging bell, participants from the audience are sitting in a circle cross-legged on the floor, each holding up a mallet. The idea is to wait for the bell to swing around and hit your mallet?to reach out is verboten. A given time period for the piece is allotted, and whatever contact the bell has with the mallets during that time constitutes the finished composition.

    What's more interesting than the piece is the participants' reactions to it. Johnson describes his struggle as a participant: At first he is tempted to whack the bell. Self-consciously, he glances at his cooler-than-shit neighbor sitting there stone still, and realizes that he, too, must stop trying so hard. So he starts to relax into it and soon starts feeling the groove. Now he realizes that some denizens of the circle are leaving, to be replaced by new members. These newbies are swatting and pecking at the bell, while he now has it all under control. He smugly mocks the newcomers as amateurs, thinking he is king shit. Then he starts to feel guilty for having such impure thoughts. What results is an est-like experience under the guise of experimental music.

    Bets are that the recording of the bell piece wouldn't have been too interesting to listen to, which is why a recent release documenting Philip Corner's work from the early 60s, Word-Voices (Alga Marghen), is as unsatisfying a record as I've come across in quite some time. All the pieces are participatory, and while some of the ideas behind the music are intriguing, it's a good case of why much of this work was better left off disc. I like the idea of a big group piece with loose parameters, scored for a "non-singing" ensemble. When I read the back cover, it made me hope that the music would end up sounding something like England's Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra created by a bunch of avant and pop musicians in the 70s that anyone, musicians and nonmusicians alike, could join; it was utopian yet hilarious music.

    No such luck here. "Vocalise" is a bunch of people making intermittent noises in a large empty space. Likewise, 1962's "Air Effect" is an ensemble piece for what sounds likes a gang of detuned instruments. The score instructs the musicians to musically interpret Corner's calligraphic treatments of Korean letters, but the piece never takes off, creating instead a tedious stasis (unlike later minimalism, achieving stasis couldn't have been farther from Corner's mind). What results is the worst sort of improvisation: self-indulgent and seemingly untalented (which is ironic because the group playing the piece is the very talented Downtown Ensemble).

    Faring somewhat better from the early 60s Fluxus scene is a retrospective disc by original Flux member Ben Patterson called Early Works (Alga Marghen). While many of the conceptual approaches are similar to Corner's, Patterson's great sense of humor makes this disc enjoyable. The main piece, "A Simple Opera," features short spoken texts punctuated by a long chorus of squeaking pet toys. The self-referential texts simply talk about how boring the piece is. By shoving its admitted weakness up front, Patterson cleverly debunks any chance of boredom.

    Another work, "Paper Piece" written in 1960 for five performers, is nothing but the sound of paper being crumbled, torn, rubbed, scrubbed and twisted; paper bags are even blown up and popped in accordance with the written score. Although it continues for 17 minutes, there's a great sense of play?at once inspired by, yet spoofing, avant-garde practices of the time?which characterizes the best Fluxus work. (Bashing the avant-garde establishment of the day was a prime Fluxus tenet: in 1964 Fluxists George Maciunas and Henry Flynt picketed Stockhausen concerts "in order to oppose the bourgeois and European-chauvinist implications of the ideology of 'serious arts.'")

    On their new disc Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Youth takes up the Fluxus mantle by doing covers of a Maciunas composition, "Piano Piece #13 (Carpenter's Piece)" (1962) and Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" (1961). They're beautifully performed, and the simple gestures that they're based on are still resonant nearly 40 years later.

    Maciunas' gesture simply involves recording the act of nailing down every key of a piano?the resultant sounds of the action (the hammering, the keys that the hammers hit, the hammers dropping on the keyboard) determine the outcome of the piece, which in this case runs just under five minutes. Yoko's piece has this set of simple instructions:

    Scream: against the wind against the wall against the sky Sonic Youth tackles it by putting Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon's young daughter, Coco, to task. She simply screams at the top of her lungs three times, with the entire work taking 12 seconds to perform.

    The intersection of Fluxus and rock come together in a totally different way on a batch of recordings by Angus MacLise, a Maciunas collaborator and founding Velvet Underground member. A new disc, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (Siltbreeze), features previously unreleased 60s material with a more rock-based flavor, tempered by downtown experimentalism. Although it doesn't bother to parley with the issues of the post-serialist avant-garde, it in many ways manages to neatly fit into a corner of it. MacLise cut his teeth droning with LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music alongside Terry Riley and John Cale. Later on he fell into the Velvet Underground as their first drummer, but was fired by Lou Reed for his general lack of interest and his feeling that money and art were somehow incompatible (he was soon replaced by Maureen Tucker). A traveler by nature, he drifted back and forth to India and Nepal, absorbing both the music and spiritual practices of these places. Exiled in Katmandu, he died there in 1979 from a mixture of malnutrition and drug abuse.

    The title cut, recorded in 1968, is a 40-minute echoey mix of Eastern and Western instruments punctuated by occasional whoops and hollers. Imagine the organ-based minimalism of Terry Riley mixed with the aggressive cosmic jams of Gong and you start to get the picture. It's got an unmistakably open-ended 60s psychedelic quality and sounds like it would not be out of place at the Fillmore East. The rest of the disc follows suit and provides a window into the reason why MacLise has been revered by the rock community as an underground hero for all these years; his work, as evidenced by this disc, provides yet another missing link between the classically based avant-garde of the 60s and the pop phenomenon that, through the lineage of the Velvets, eventually mutated into punk rock.

    Richard Maxfield is another composer whose impact and reputation relative to his small output is enormous. Until now, I've only known one of his pieces, "Night Music," which was included on Oddysey's well-distributed LP from the late 60s, New Sounds in Electronic Music. On a new disc, The Oak of the Golden Dreams (New World), Maxfield shares a bill with early minimal works by Harold Budd. While the Budd material is forgettably derivative, the breadth and vision of Maxfield's four cuts are striking. Composed between 1960-1963, Maxfield adopts no particular style, instead skittering about from electronics to tape loops. Typical of this attitude is "Bacchanale," a collage piece incorporating the beat-style poetry of Edward Field, recordings of Korean and flamenco music, Terry Jennings' jazz-improv sax, a prepared violin, typewriters and an amazing-sounding instrument called the "underwater clarinet." Maxfield's low-tech mix of world instruments and styles is reminiscent of Sun Ra, Moondog and Teiji Ito's work from the same period.

    The disc's centerpiece is his 1961 "Piano Concert for David Tudor," a 12-minute exploration of a wired-up piano. Tiddlywinks pluck amplified strings and gyroscopes whirr inside the instrument, releasing an array of sounds you'd never have thought possible from a piano. Think of it as a complementary piece to Maciunas' nailing down of the keys: In the spirit of the times, composers went as far as they could to do untraditional things with traditional instruments. "Amazing Grace," from 1960, predates James Tenney's early plunderphonic composition "Collage #1 (Blue Suede)" by a year. Although the means are different, the ends are similar (Tenney works from a single source, Elvis' "Blue Suede Shoes," while Maxfield mixes a preacher with bits of his own music). "Amazing Grace" has often been referred to as a seminal plunderphonic work: everyone from Negativland to Christian Marclay owes a debt to it. It's great to be able to finally hear it.

    A few composers from the period who were MIA for several years are back with a vengeance. Charlemagne Palestine is one of them. Palestine was a constant presence on the downtown scene in the 70s. He shared a studio space with Philip Glass, where he held weekly concerts and was best known for his punishing feats of endurance on the Bosendorfer piano. In the late 70s, he disappeared to Europe and lost touch with the scene he was so much a part of.

    Then a few years back, the Italian label Robi Droli released a 1975 piano marathon, Strumming Music, which is Palestine going apeshit on the keyboard, banging out a repetitious minimalist pattern for 45 minutes, never missing a beat (Palestine is rumored to have pounded the keys so hard that he would often snap strings).

    Soon thereafter, some of his dry, minimal electronic works were rereleased, which earned him a following among the electronica community. A few months ago New World Records added a new item to Palestine's growing rerelease discography: a 1979 work called Schlingen Blängen. Palestine simply holds down a single note on a church organ for an hour. So little happens that the static monotony makes Steve Reich's 4 Organs sound like a Mahler symphony.

    Around the beginning of the 80s, Johnson began to tire of the scene he was documenting. With big careers emerging from experimental music on a regular basis, the heyday of downtown's art-for-art's-sake seemed to be over. Johnson cut his ties with the Voice and moved to Paris, where he devotes himself to composing in a rigorous style that uses mathematical principles as compositional devices. Over the years, he's done some terrific pieces, notably "Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for a String Bass," in which a solo bass player is given such complicated playing instructions that a failure is inevitable and, as such, becomes a goal in the piece. A few years ago, he released a disc, Music for 88's, which is a series of mathematical formulas translated into piano pieces.

    Johnson's got a brand-new CD of piano pieces, The Chord Catalogue (XI), that is a demonstration of how one octave can be divided into 8178 chords. To call it microtonal would be an understatement: While splitting chords into quarter or eighth notes is not that unusual, Johnson's accomplishment is mind-boggling. And it sounds great. It's basically Johnson just bashing out thousands of these variations on a solo piano. Remember when Thelonious Monk hit those "wrong" notes in piece like "Little Rootie Tootie"? That's just the jumping-off point for Johnson. Far from tedious, the work is one of the richest pieces I've heard, yet it employs the sparest means. Call it textbook minimalism, but something's changed: 30 years later, Johnson's new disc still proves that there's plenty of life remaining in practices?and careers?that, not too long ago, were left for dead.