For the May issue of Sight & Sound I spoke with the composer, filmmaker and photographer Phill Niblock.
“Niblock’s concentrated visual approach was defined by the early 1970s, as the Environments series progressed. He began to favour shooting in extreme close-up and restricting camera placement and movement in specific ways. The parallels are close between his musical compositions, building out from a single musical note into drones, and the long durations and detailed focus of the films.”
For the December 2014 issue of The Wire (#370) I spoke to Eiko Ishibashi about songwriting, language, improvisation and the inspirations she finds in cinema. Ishibashi’s recent album Car and Freezer is available from Felicity (Japan) and Drag City (US).
“Car And Freezer continues on from the densely melodic piano based orchestrations of Ishibashi’s previous album Imitation Of Life and is again produced by [Jim] O’Rourke. There is a characteristic lightness in the way Ishibashi delivers a verse but the emotional colour of Car And Freezer’s songs bursts through in the group playing: the simmering strings and scratchy harmonized guitar break on “Boring Stories”; the piercing trumpet and unsettled organ swirl on “Mr Cloud”; and the extended crescendo of “Lap Top Blues” powered along by guitar and piano trills and Yamamoto’s fierce thump and clatter behind the kit.”
Originally published online at Audiovisual Salvage, March 2013
There is a modesty that has repeatedly characterised the presentation of Phill Niblock’s art for the past fifty years, from the title of his 1982 India Navigation LP Nothin’ To Look At Just a Record to the current retrospective of his creative output since the early 1960s, Nothin’ But Working. All of the apparent simplicity and humility belies the immense power, density and singularity of his intermedia explorations.
Niblock is known primarily for his microtonal drone compositions in which recordings of specific tones, played on a single acoustic instrument, are amassed to create a dense, continually shifting cloud of overtones, through multitracking and playback at volumes of up to 115db. Despite the careful compositional choices, the results efface the sense of a directing hand, as well as the typical identifying marks of the source instrument.
Niblock’s series of 16mm films, The Movement of People Working (1973–91) – which comprises scenes of individuals engaged in traditional modes of manual labour, in countries including Mexico, Peru and China – avoids rhetorical, and non-linear editing as well as any narration, which might contextualise the images more specifically but also ask us to interpret them. They are more engrossing and unusual without.
Presentations of Niblock’s works primarily involve pre-recorded material played very loud, along with multiple projections of the films of workers. Yet far from yielding a result which is unresponsive to the particularities of a given performance situation, the sound interacts with each space in a different way and the films are not specifically timed to follow the music. In addition, Niblock often invites musicians to accompany the material, sometimes a recording of their own playing, in the live situation. The audience’s attention is not directed toward any single point of focus and the different rhythms imparted by the sound and pictures eradicates any normative sense of time.
This year Niblock celebrates his 80th birthday but he is evidently a tireless and enthusiastic artist. Niblock regularly performs in various countries, and several records have been released through Touch Records over the past decade. In addition to the retrospective – taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland – a collection of essays and interviews, Working Title has been published, in a bilingual edition by Les Presses du Reel. It reflects the diversity of Niblock’s artistic undertakings, which also includes jazz photography, street photography, films of musicians including Sun Ra and Arthur Russell, as well as a number of asynchronous sound films collected on the Six Films DVD available from Die Schachtel.
Touch has recently made a number of Niblock’s records available for streaming online. While the accessibility of Niblock’s work in a recorded format is invaluable, the direct experience of a Niblock live performance opens up entirely new possibilities for audition and physiological interaction with sound. I spoke to Niblock in February prior to a performance at Café Oto, in London. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Yusef Sayed: One thing that is fascinating about your drone works is that they can be experienced somewhat differently in each new context in which they are played.
Phill Niblock: This is literally true, because so much changes in the acoustics of the space and the sound system that it can be an entirely different piece. You don’t really hear the music if you’re playing it from a recording on a home sound system. You have to be in a concert space where it’s happening and then it has to be happening well. So there are a lot of concerts where the sound is so-so.
Is that what keeps you excited about going to different places to present them?
It’s interesting that there is that much variety. We did a concert in Lisbon recently, in a pretty lousy hall – with a low ceiling with two Meyer speakers in the front and two JBL Eons in the back – and we were going to show video, but the projector was so dim.
Of course, it is not just the space in which the drones are played that determine what is heard, but the technical conditions as well. Do you just have to rely on whatever equipment is at the venue, or have you had the ability to specify?
I used to carry a projector, but my projector broke and wasn’t fixed properly.
And in terms of the sound system?
Whatever you get.
When you arrive at a venue to setup, you must do a soundcheck before people start filing in. As I understand it, when the audience come that changes the extent to which the sound can move and the overtones can react. So how much can you do beforehand, or do you not get too hung up on it?
Well, the main thing is to find out when you play it at the right level, that it doesn’t distort. When you get a really bad system, it’s so distorted, you can’t do a lot.
Is the setup in your loft in New York the ideal, in terms of the playback equipment?
It’s very good. Ideal? I don’t know, because of the old speakers. On December 21st I do this six-hour concert – which I can’t do anymore – and sometimes, towards the end, one speaker will start to sound raggedy. But then the next time you try it, it’s perfectly fine.
Are all the pieces finished by you at the loft, or are they worked on and finished wherever you are at the time?
Wherever I am, basically. I wouldn’t probably play it on the big system until it’s finished anyway. I’m working with monitor speakers in one place or another. Even in the loft, I don’t work in the same room, with the same sound system.
Are there certain engineers whom you prefer to record your pieces?
The chief one is in Belgium, Johan Vandermaelen, but I’ve recorded recently with Marcus Schmickler in Cologne. He has a Brauner microphone, it is really fantastic, so when I recorded my last piece in Boston, in the Fall, I asked them for a Brauner microphone and it turned out they had a Brauner microphone – because it’s the Berklee school of music. The guy who was the chief of the sound crew came with a microphone himself and put it on the stand, left, and as soon as we finished the session he came and took it off and put it back in the locker. It was a $10,000 microphone, he really wrapped it up fast [Laughs]. Another recording engineer is Robert Poss, in New York. Robert is a composer and guitarist, with a small studio. I have made many pieces with material recorded with him. On some of them he is both the engineer and a playing guitarist!
I came across a piece that you did for Touch Records, called ‘Sound Delta’ which is comprised of field recordings, and it struck me as being one of the few recordings of yours that was somewhat distinct from the typical drone pieces.
It’s totally distinct, yes. There’s a series of twelve or fifteen sound collages. There’s a new one, of crickets.
Where was that recorded?
In Ikaria island in Greece, in August. I do quite a bit of work with my partner, who does live video and I play those sound collage pieces and I mix them – so I’m constantly mixing, which I never do otherwise with the music.
What are the other recent pieces you’ve been working on?
I finished a scored piece, ‘To Two Tea Roses’, in September 2012. We recorded multiple tracks with the Ensemble NeoN and then I mixed them to make the recorded piece, the playback. In the concert, the ensemble played live along with the recorded parts.
In 2011 I recorded three versions of a scored piece called ‘Two Lips’ which was commissioned by the Champ d’Action in Antwerp three years ago, and they were played by three guitar quartets, three different guitar quartets. So we’re issuing the next Touch CD and one side will be those three versions, one after the other. Then in 2012 I made a piece for cello for Arne Deforce and a piece for electric harp for Rhodri Davies, both of which are a half hour long, and so that’s the other CD of the two CD set. I finished the masters, they’re at Touch but I haven’t finished the notes. I was hoping to have it out before the retrospective opened in January but I didn’t make it.
That label has recently celebrated a milestone of their own, 30 years. You obviously have a good relationship with them.
They reprint my stuff too, which was my request – they just reprinted ‘Touch Food’, which had been unavailable for a couple of years.
I’d heard that the plant had lost the masters tapes.
They just found a CD copy and copied that, which is not uncommon. Everybody’s having their trouble with pressing plants. One thing that is interesting about Touch is that they’re always willing to reissue the stuff because it simply continues to sell. It’s a weird phenomenon. It’s the same with XI, that stuff’s really old. It doesn’t sell as well as Elaine Radigue’s ‘Trilogy de la Mort’ – our bestselling record, which is great because that’s a really beautiful piece and the best piece of hers, I think.
XI is the other label that you release stuff through, which is your own. Do you have any plans to keep that label ticking over in terms of anything that you want to put out?
There’s only a couple of CDs still in the works, and then we have to decide what to do. There’s a CD from Ulrich Krieger and he just simply has been too busy to get it out. He keeps saying, last year he said he’d finish [Laughs].
And related to that, in terms of the history of Experimental Intermedia, I’ve come across some archived recordings that have been put in a couple of places online. One of the websites is Art on Air and there’s a couple of pieces in the Free Music Archive.
We’ve been putting on some recent concerts for Art on Air. But the label New World Records, which has a division called DRAM – which makes music available to universities, music schools, subscribers –they’ve taken the archive. So they have all the archive recordings and they’re digitising them now. They will either keep the archive tapes at the end or we’ll find a place which will take the archive. There’s a couple of places that want to take my archive and that archive, but it is not decided. But they will have them all digitised, that’s the most important part.
Do you foresee then that it will be only available as some sort of subscription service to a limited number of people, if it’s through music academies? Do you think those Experimental Intermedia archives will be available at anytime to the wider public?
They said that we could have the files and that we could do what we wanted to with them, but if we compete with them directly by making them all available it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s relatively easy to get access to that archive. It would be more likely that we did the same thing that we’re doing with Art on Air, to make some things available on a piecemeal basis.
It seems that there’s such a rich history and archive there.
There’s a page on the website where you see all the composers who have performed from 1973 until 2007. And there are omissions in it as well, because the advertising of the early concerts was done using postcards. It was before computers. In those first years, when the postcards were just typed on a typewriter and sent out, we always kept a stack. But if we lost the cards, we didn’t know who did concerts on certain dates. We didn’t start recording until ’79, so there’s six years when there were interesting people but none were recorded – there was Julius Eastman, it would be nice to have a copy of that.
I found it heartening reading the history of Experimental Intermedia that Bernard Gendron wrote that sometimes there were just a handful of people there at shows.
Sometimes even less than a handful.
A lot of that stuff has a tendency to be romanticised, that it was this buzzing hive full of artists. But it was a lot more small-scale for much of the time.
Well some people simply weren’t well enough known and frequently we would prompt people to send a card themselves and in a few instances people didn’t do that at all and nobody would show up, zero audience. In one instance a guy played and one woman came. It turned out she was a former lover of his from years ago – but she was also a former lover of mine [Laughs]. So I was shocked to see her.
Currently, there’s a huge retrospective of your work underway in Switzerland. How did that come about?
It was actually supposed to happen in 2010 in Lyon but the financial disaster bombed their budget so they cancelled it – and it probably won’t happen there. What the curator Mathieu Copeland wants to do is put together the films, the Movement of People Working films, which are pretty much together now, and music, and sell it to a few museums as a playable archive.
Getting the material together was extremely hard work and in the middle of it I had a heart bypass operation, so I was in the hospital. I came out and there were two weeks when there wasn’t any thinking or working at all, I couldn’t edit film. And then I started editing it, and it was just very hard work.
So a lot films were edited for the first time?
The basic editing was all done in 16mm film and they were transferred to video at a very high level shop in New York. They were all spliced workprints and one thing that happened with the splices is that when a splice got to the shutter it bounced – so at the end of every shot there’s usually a bounce. So I was going through anyway and cutting out the splices but then also the bounce; or if there were any flashes. And then re-colour correcting what they had colour corrected. There’s no montage or anything like that, I’m not reversing or changing the order. It’s really trimming and colour correcting.
And what were the arrangements for the audio aspects of the retrospective. Did you have the opportunity to put in place an adequate technical setup?
They simply kept saying there was no budget, so they got a relatively shitty sound system in the place where the most sound is, which is too bad because it could have really sounded great – if they’d had a couple more thousand to spend. Johan Vandermaelen was supposed to come with a sound system but it was bureaucratically impossible to bring a sound system from Belgium to Switzerland and take it back again, totally insane customs. And they couldn’t buy the sound system, so we were arranging to rent it to them at a very cheap price, but then he’d have to take it back again at the end of the exhibition. We couldn’t do it.
The sound system they got was okay, but it could have been much better sounding with a bit more money.
When you perform live you regularly involve your films as an accompaniment, and a lot of the time you have multiple screens going. Again, a lot of that must be dependent upon the space and what resources are available at a given time. Does the exhibition in Lausanne reflect your preferences here?
The stuff in Circuit is really pretty good. It’s three screens that are roughly four metres wide and a big enough space so the sound is good, except the sound isn’t as good as it could be because the sound system is 20 per cent below what it should be. What’s mostly wrong is that the clarity in the high end is simply not there. So the volume is there, but the clarity of what happens in the overtones is not happening.
Alongside the retrospective there is the book, Working Title.
Yvan Etienne is editing a whole series of books, for the publisher Les Presses du Réel, in Dijon, France. The first book was Paul Panhuysen, who’s a very close friend. So Yvan and I got together and collected articles and decided a few things that had to be written, like the Kase article on the films. One of the interesting ones, in fact I just read it myself recently, is Volker Straebel’s music analysis: I learned a few things reading it (finally) [Laughs]. And I’ve even been in lectures where he presented the ideas, but it was in German, in Berlin.
I was hoping that the visual material would come out through the book, not having had the opportunity to see some of your photographic work. So was that a conscious decision, to not publish any images?
They decided that it had to be in black and white and no pictures. We did the four DVDs, so…
Of course, two double-sided DVDs are included with the book – a new installment of the Movement of People Working Series, shot in Japan, and the rarely seen Anecdotes from Childhood videos – but I’m particularly interested in the photography which isn’t so often seen. I know it’s part at the retrospective.
There have been a number of proposals over the years to make a book of the jazz photos, which I did early on in my photography. I have resisted. The problem with the jazz photographs is that they’re just pictures of people and I have felt the artistic merit to be at a low ebb. Recently, after the retrospective in Lausanne it is perhaps more determined to do a book. I have proposed doing a duo book with the Boatyard in Brazil project, which is also in the retrospective and which I like very much – maybe a book that one has to turn over so that the book can start with either project.
The boatyard project was shot on Kodak Tech Pan film, which is very fine grain, for 35mm it looks really good. The Panhuysen’s wanted to do that at The Apollo House Editions, but it was simply too expensive, $15,000 in the early ‘90s and they had about $5,000. To print it badly, not having it be duotone, just sort of didn’t make any sense. We even went to printers and got tests of the duotone printing which looked really great; you virtually couldn’t tell the difference between the photograph and the duotone print, it was really good. So it would be nice to get them to do that as a book.
In Lausanne you’ve also restaged ‘Environments’, which was last presented in 1972.
The Environments pieces were done as events with dance and music, with three simultaneous film images and two slides. And we looked for the prints of the three images and I couldn’t find them and then I found something that had two – I don’t know what they were ever used for – and so that’s what I converted and that’s what’s showing. There was another big batch of 16mm film negatives from 1986 from China, where the film was fogged very badly by the Chinese X-rays and the print was no good. It was printed but I never could use it. But I did do a conversion of some of that material to video and the uneveness across the frame wasn’t so obvious, so I was hoping to use that…but we couldn’t find those negatives and we couldn’t find the three screens films. Then at the end, as we were getting ready for the show, Mathieu came again and we moved some stuff away from some shelves and there were six boxes of film. So we found all the stuff. But it would have cost five to ten thousand dollars to redo the Environments and it simply wasn’t possible within the budget. And we were going to try to do ‘China ’86’ and another film which hadn’t been done, from Brazil.
The Movement of People Working films on the Extreme DVD set were almost impossible to get for a while. It’s nice that those are available again.
They had a really lousy distributor. Then it was sent to Microcinema and they do a really good job of getting it about. It’s still selling. I just got 100 copies myself, because I was running out totally. He originally issued it without the notes (beause it has a really extensive notes). In fact, I even printed the notes myself so that I could put them in copies that I send out.
Are there any plans to release any more from that series? The one I’m intrigued to see, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen footage from, is from when you shot in the Arctic.
That one’s less interesting. I want to do four DVDs. One of them would have been out a year ago on Mode, it’s of Brazil. But it hasn’t come out. I found a good place for mastering in Cologne, from Marcus Schmickler, so I’ll try to do one and see what it’s like.
I also want to do a two DVD set on Touch. So we’ll do four hours – two two-hour films – and then I have to find the music. Some of it will be music that hasn’t been issued before, but a lot of it will have to come from stuff that’s already out on Touch. There isn’t very much music that I have done that isn’t published, that I want to have out anyway.
I’ve read your comments about your earliest pieces that you released on LP. The medium clearly determined how long the pieces could be, at a certain quality as well. But in terms of standalone compositions, there seems to be a point beyond which you wouldn’t go in terms of length, despite the possibilities for data storage today. I think the longest piece you’ve done is 70 minutes for Pan Fried, which I like a lot.
70 minutes for the piano piece, yeah. It has a beautiful sound, there’s an incredible amount of bass. But because the timbral qualities of the piano played that way are so loose, there’s not really a heavy fundamental and all of the microtonal stuff doesn’t really do anything. You put two microtones together and they simply don’t do anything that they’re supposed to do.
It’s much more interesting to play 3 or 4 pieces in a program that’s an hour and a half than it is to play one long piece. So I’m not sure that in concert I’ve ever played the piano piece at 70 minutes. There’s another version of that track that’s 27 minutes and yet another version which is 11 minutes.
I saw Frederick Bernas’s short film ‘Loft Chronicles’ on the Internet recently, and it includes footage of you preparing a film of a music box. It strikes me that an interest in close-up and detail links a number of the film works. It’s especially striking and untypical in the musician films, the Sun Ra piece and the footage you shot of Arthur Russell.
Arthur Russell was shot just with a standard old single-tube colour JVC camera which had a fairly long zoom lens, so it’s all just shot with that lens. Whereas, in the Sun Ra film, the second two-thirds was shot with a Bolex, but with a Kilfitt 135mm lens with extension tubes. So with that I had extension tubes and a 135mm lens.
I like details. There’s a bunch of nature stuff that’s a completed film called ‘Ten Hundred Inch Radii’, the last of the Environments pieces. There are a lot of close-up images of ice and running water at the end of that film. I have a commission to make a new video and probably a new sound piece for a Paris gallerist, who has a house and garden (actually, more of a park) which also has an exhibition space within the garden. She wants to make an exhibition there for one, two or three years, so we have to design and make screens to have projections and sound. And probably I would project the film ‘T H I R’ there too, as a historic piece from ’71. I am shooting in May, I hope!
The artistic collaboration between the late filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin and composer Gavin Bryars, from the 1960s until the mid-1970s, has been almost completely neglected by historians of both avant-garde cinema and experimental music. Within their respective fields, each artist has rightly been recognised for his talents but the film projects that they worked on together have largely been written about in ways that unduly overlook the effects achieved through the combination of sound and image – perhaps since the look is so crucial to Dwoskin’s work.
In a recent article, I articulated some of the specific ways in which Bryars’s compositions complement Dwoskin’s images, and identified the musical sensibility reflected in Dwoskin’s own scores for his later films. 
A relentless, electronic drone soundtracks the entirety of Behindert (1974) and is by turns mesmeric and unsettling when edited together with Dwoskin’s highly personal scenes of the initial spark and subsequent demise of a relationship. In Central Bazaar (1976), the clash and gel of instrumentation – glockenspiel, drones, prepared piano, guitar – mirrors the collision of personalities and emotions in the single room where all of the onscreen drama unfolds. At times, the score brings to mind Bryars’s most enduring composition The Sinking of the Titanic (1969-). Dwoskin in turn provided a rarely seen film accompaniment to Bryars’s remarkable Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971).
Bryars spoke to me briefly about their work together, as well as his troubled friendship with Dwoskin, which saw them parting ways in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Bryars was unable to recount the particulars of recording certain of their most striking works, and it has been close to four decades since he last viewed them. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to share with me some of his memories of this period of his life and of one of the most fascinating underground filmmakers.
Yusef Sayed: When did you first make the acquaintance of Stephen Dwoskin and how did your first collaboration come about?
Gavin Bryars: I first met Steve in, probably, 1966 through Ron Geesin. I met Ron when I was working as the house bass player at Greaseborough Working Men’s Club and Ron was playing piano with Doctor Crock and the Crackpots. I visited Ron in London and he lived in Elgin Crescent, across the road from Steve, and had made soundtracks to some of Steve’s films. The first thing I did was to perform some double bass improvisations, which Ron recorded and which were used for a film. I can’t recall which one it was [Naissant (1964) – ed]. I subsequently made some recordings myself for Steve’s films, usually working direct to tape with various collage techniques.
From what you can recall, was Stephen particularly knowledgeable and excited about experimental music, including the other artists who you were collaborating with, between the 1960s and mid-70s?
Steve was not really involved with experimental music in terms of the other people I worked with at the time. He was much more involved in underground cinema. 
Were you composing music for Stephen’s films by watching the footage, discussing the films with him and then writing to the images, or did Stephen source material that was pre-recorded?
I would always watch some footage that Steve showed me before working and then I worked directly with tape – not ‘writing’ as such. Steve didn’t source anything that I had already recorded, except for Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which was an exception.
With respect to that film, Stephen was providing a visual accompaniment to your music.
For this I had already written and recorded music and wanted a film track to accompany the live performance, rather than the other way round. I even told him how I wanted it filmed – using a high speed scientific camera to give a 30-minute projection that would take 30 seconds to film, and filming an old man walking towards the camera.
In the event the filming was compromised because a) the camera could only take small reels that gave us a few minutes at a time and so had to be edited together and b) because the speed of the camera was governed by mains voltage, there was a problem since the power source was in the London College of Printing (we were filming in the road behind) where the electricity was being worked on. As a result there were constant flashes and distortions in the film due to the fact that, as the speed varied so did the aperture. I felt that the resulting film was compromised.
What is your view of Stephen’s work in general?
In retrospect I feel that Steve’s films were constrained by his physical limitations and problems. There were those, Bruce McLean among them, who felt that what he was doing was a form of self-gratification and was an indulgence. I didn’t go along with that entirely, but there are moments when his filming borders on an impotent voyeurism. He was, of course, a serious film person and worked in a controlled technical environment with his Steenbeck and with professional sound equipment – Nagra, Stellavox and so on.
You were friends with Stephen for a long time, before a property dispute brought your relationship to an end. What do you recall of this period of your life, living with Stephen?
We were good friends for many years and I regret the way things turned sour, but this was of his doing. Our daily lives intersected at many points from the mid-60s until the mid-80s and I spent a lot of time in his company when we lived in the same house from 1972 to 1986 – our separation occurred in 1983.
He was not healthy – apart from his disability – drinking copious amounts of coffee (and I drank a lot of this with him, chiefly Colombian dark roast), eating lots of red meat (his freezer was full of steaks, sides of beef, lamb) and as far as I could see virtually no vegetables or salads! I was surprised that he lived so long, and I hope he had a good life.
The films that you and Stephen worked on together will undoubtedly last and influence some filmmakers to come, especially since these films are more accessible today.
I worked with the Quay Brothers recently and they said that Steve was very helpful to them in their work and, in spite of my caveats, which they understood, I’m pleased about this.
 ‘Stephen Dwoskin – Wide Angle’ published online by Little White Lies, 5th November 2012.
 Dwoskin’s seminal book on underground cinema Film Is… does at least reflect a knowledge of the impact that John Cage had had on the arts in the 1960s.
Originally published at Audiovisual Salvage, December 2010. This article covers the early years of the band. I planned to follow this up with a second part focusing on the writing and recording of the records Thinking of Empire, Riposte and We Shoot for the Moon, which still deserve critical attention.
An unfortunate oversight in the history of American alternative music of the 1980s, Slovenly have not even gained from fan-authored content on the internet. The freedom offered by web writing means that interest in this California band can potentially be renewed and AudioVisual Salvage decided to dig up some more of the group’s history. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss Slovenly with guitarist Tom Watson.
The current SST Records back catalogue is host to a wealth of influential bands – The Minutemen, Husker Du and Black Flag to name a few. In its heyday in the early to mid 1980s, the label also released seminal records by Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Those with an interest in American underground and alternative rock are more than likely to own a record bearing the SST logo and the trials and travails of several of the aforementioned artists were covered in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Between 1987 and 1990, however, the prestigious label was on the wane and certain bands had become disenchanted with the administrative arm of the label. Numerous disputes ensued concerning rights and royalties, which permanently fractured the label. During this period, Slovenly produced a triumvirate of brilliant records that are sadly languishing out of print today.
“They were this beautiful band, making luscious soundscapes for a lead singer who basically sounds like he’s talking. He’d recite these half-songs/half-poems. There’s a lot of powerfully emotional stuff. Every time I listen to it, I think, ‘Wow, it’s pretty crazy how much I’ve gotten out of this.’ It doesn’t sound too far from the things I’ve attempted.” – Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)
It was with this quote, in the October 2004 issue of Spin magazine, that my own interest in Slovenly began. My proclivity to check out the music favoured by those whose records have knocked me flat led, at this point in time, to a band about which I could unearth very little information. The records themselves were almost impossible to track down, even with the aid of the now prevalent internet auction and retail sites. Six years later and the situation has barely altered. A combination of licensing and rights issues, lack of critical recollection and plain bad luck seems to have kept this great band from wider attention.
All of the members of Slovenly collaborated in a variety of combinations throughout their high school years in the 1970s. Guitarist Tom Watson’s earliest foray was a collaboration which included Rob Holzman on drums and Mark Vidal (soon to be Earl Liberty) on bass. These two later decamped to join Saccharine Trust for the recording of their first album Pagan Icons, which was released shortly thereafter on SST. During the same period Watson was called upon by more school friends, Steve Anderson, Scott Ziegler and Bruce Losson to play bass for their group The Convalescents.
“We all went to the same school together, Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach, so we all knew each other…they were trying to get their band going and needed a bass player and I joined even though I had never played bass before. I was just happy to be in a band and writing our own songs.”
In 1978 The Convalescents became Toxic Shock, a punk group who played shows in the Beach cities of LA alongside better-known locals such as The Descendents and Red Cross. The band’s first ‘real’ show saw them supporting Minutemen and Saccharine Trust at a bar called Capone’s in San Pedro.
“I remember having to wait out back in the alley for our turn to play because we were too young to be inside.”
Soon after graduating to larger gigs at the Star Theater in Pedro, and the Vex in east LA, Toxic Shock were asked to record a song for a compilation that documented the grassroots of some of the west coast’s underground scene of the late seventies and early eighties. Keats Rides a Harley was organised by 100 Flowers (later known as The Urinals) on their Happy Squid label and included one track each by many of the diverse bands of the time, such as The Meat Puppets, Earwigs, Tunneltones, The Gun Club, S Squad and Human Hands. Toxic Shock contributed “Sensationalism”, which was the only song ever to be released on record during the band’s existence. In control of the recording sessions was future Slovenly producer Vitus Matare, keyboardist of LA garage punk group The Last.
Before long, the wide-ranging musical tastes of the band members soon caused Toxic Shock to break away from the common punk template and Watson in particular felt restricted within the band’s simplistic punk rock.
“I liked playing live and being part of the early underground music scene that was going on, but I was getting restless on bass, I wanted to play more guitar. I think we all started to grow out of that version of music and got inspired by new bands that we started hearing, like The Fall, Wire, The Raincoats, Pere Ubu.”
Toxic Shock recorded an entire album’s worth of music, in a cassette edition of approximately 20, but this is unreleased to this day. Always one to engage in a variety of musical collaborations, Watson had also spent some time away from his high school bands, making an altogether different music with another school friend, Tim Plowman.
“We spent a lot of time listening to Prog, Glam and Krautrock, as well as Minimal and Electronic music at his place and started to collaborate as a duo – him on piano and synth, me on guitar and a bunch of effects. He introduced me to another future Slovenly collaborator, Lynn Johnston, a sax player who lived nearby in El Segundo. We would spend hours jamming together, making our own sort of free-art-jazz improv over at Lynn’s place. I think that phase was an essential part of where some of the roots of Slovenly’s music originated. These improvised jams over at Lynn’s place continued long after Slovenly was going as a band and I think it kind of kept us in check – a sort of musical conditioning.”
Eventually, Watson and his Toxic Shock bandmates Ziegler, Anderson and Losson, as well as new addition Plowman, found themselves making music together Happy to create without any clear-cut plan to become a touring, recording band, the friends’ improvised music found its unique sound when the sum of their myriad inspirations was wedded to Anderson’s found-lyric articulations.
“Steve would talk-sing old Toxic Shock words or just read out of whatever he could grab and soon happened to pick up the children’s book of fables called Slovenly Peter, which was on a stack of books at my house.”
The band soon performed original material live under the name Slovenly Peter, before changing to slovenly. However, soon Rob Holzman replaced Losson on drums and this finished the line-up. Often sonically akin to Captain Beefheart, Television, Pere Ubu, Wire, The Fall and the No Wave angular clang, Slovenly forged a group sound that is ultimately singular. The early incarnation of the band was halted for one year (’80-81) when Watson and Plowman enrolled to study Electronic Music at the University of Utrecht’s Institute of Sonology in Holland.
“At the institute there was a lot learned about sound and recording, but mostly it opened our minds to the inclusion of using pre-recorded tapes and source audio in our music. Our experience in Holland widened our scope to include some ‘musique concrete’ moments on our records.”
Watson and Plowman can be heard performing together on Richard Lerman’s Travelon Gamelon, which was released on Folksways Records in 1981. The album centres around music created using amplified bicycle spokes, performed live at Melk Weg in Amsterdam.
“I think that year or so was also a period when all of us went through heavy music listening, lots of great music of the time sparked all of our desires to create something of our own. If you could tally all of the music that we all began to become inspired by, it would be an enormous and diverse list. It pretty much included everything, each one of us leaning in a slightly different direction and the sum was the difference, the negative space, or something like that.”
Originally published at Audiovisual Salvage, September 2009.
Alan Licht is a musician and writer, based in New York. Since the early nineties, Licht has been gaining praise within varying musical circles for his involvement in indie bands Love Child and Run On, as well as countless experimental and improvised musical line-ups – notably Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans, ongoing duos with Loren Connors and Aki Onda and the improvisational music and cinema project, Text of Light. His solo LPs, most recently YMCA, have mixed inspired guitar explorations, minimalism and investigations into recontextualising familiar sounds from popular music and everyday life. In the course of these activities, Licht has managed to make connections between seemingly divergent musical practices.
Licht has also been well noted for his articulate, insightful and often humorous music writing. He has published two books to date – An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn, in which the music of the eighties and nineties is placed in the context of the political and social atmosphere of the times, while Licht charts his own changing tastes from high school music fan to adult musician, all with apparent ease and wit. Sound Art is the first book in the English language to attempt a clear definition of this art form and trace its development. Collectors and adventurous music fans alike were sent hunting, when Licht published each of his Top 10 Minimalism lists, documenting underappreciated minimalist music across the decades. Licht has also contributed to The Wire, Bomb, and Rhizome amongst other publications, in print and online.
While the first decade of Licht’s artistic activities has been covered well in previous interviews, I felt that there were some gaps to fill, dots to connect and some catching up to do, with regards to his recent endeavours. In a recent email interview, I asked Alan to trace his recurring interests back to his early days and across his work, in order to get a clearer sense of the various ways in which he continues to explore them today.
Yusef Sayed: Your interest in minimalist music has been a significant factor in your musical output and is something that you have written about on numerous occasions. Yet it seems that your interest in minimalism extends beyond music. Can you give me some examples of non-musical minimalism that are key reference points for you?
Alan Licht: Certainly Michael Snow’s films Wavelength, Dripping Water, and La Region Centrale are favourites that take a simple combination of elements and make a perceptual feast from them. James Turrell’s light works would be another example. I also like Samuel Beckett’s late writings like Company or Westward Ho which use permutation and repetition to great effect. And I enjoy watching tennis–I think tennis is pretty Minimal, in a way, although obviously you tend to pay less attention to the structure of the game than to the players themselves.
Michael Snow is somebody with whom you’ve collaborated recently, on record. When did you first come across his work and how did it resonate with your existing ideas? Can you also articulate his importance as an artist in general?
I saw Wavelength as part of a class screening at college. I can’t remember if I’d read about it before that, or if I knew ahead of time that it would just be a single zoom from one end of a loft to the other, but anyway I really got into the rhythm of it when I was watching it. I even thought of it as a kind of escapism, not the usual fantasy/adventure/show biz kind but of having a set-up that becomes completely predictable, where you could relax and just watch it unfold. I was already a fan of process music like Steve Reich’s phase pieces and Eno’s Discreet Music, I might have connected Wavelength’s structure to those also. I would say that it helped form my aesthetic, in terms of what I like to work with and what sort of feelings I’m trying to evoke, rather than resonating with existing ideas. I was still a teenager at the time.
This probably isn’t the space to go on at length at Michael’s “importance”, but what I think makes him great is that his best works are so fully realized – they take a idea and exhaust every conceivable possibility for it, and the process of exhausting those possibilities is pushed to the foreground and becomes, in turn, a big part of the work. And when you think about it, free improvisation in music is about watching and/or listening to a composition process in real time – so it was also fantastic to learn that free improvisation music was part of his artistic practice too, and that he was instrumental in the development of that aesthetic (by having Ayler et. al. just dive into improvisation in doing the soundtrack for his New York Eye and Ear Control film). This demonstrates that he not only follows through on an idea completely within an individual work, but also within himself as an artist working in film, painting, photography, sculpture, music, etc.
You mentioned the connection between real-time processes in experimental cinema and free improvisation in music. In your book Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories you have written about a number of other overlapping artistic practices, which led to the development of sound art. Of all the connections that you made, which only became apparent during the period of researching and writing the book?
Can you give me some examples of the connections you’re talking about?
Maybe my prior ignorance is evident here, but before reading the book the following links were unknown to me: As artists began moving natural environments into the galleries (earth, soil), composers were moving their performances beyond the concert hall; similarly composers were allowing the sounds of the environment into their works when artists such as Rauschenberg were using dirt in their paintings. In terms of technological advancements, amplification in sound seems to be akin to magnification in photography. It never even occurred to me that the deconstruction of painting into its formal elements matched the breakdown of music into pure sound. That being said, perhaps it would be more straightforward to ask what epiphanies you had throughout the course of writing the book.
It’s hard for me to remember how much of what’s in the book I knew before writing – some of the research refreshed my memory, and some was new information to me. The main thing was distinguishing between music and sound art, and connecting the dots between what was going on in other art forms parallel to the developments in sound art. I didn’t have a set definition of sound art in mind when I took on the project – in fact, coming up with some kind of definition to work with became my first task to deal with. In most of my research I hardly found anything that defined the term in more than a vague way.
To be sure, I hadn’t seen anyone else compare sound art to earthworks or land art–that was definitely a connection I made during the research process for the book. Michael Schumacher suggested to me the importance of video art in the development of sound art, and in doing research there I found out about the musical background of several of the first-generation video artists (Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman). Learning that surround sound in movie theaters was introduced the same year that Stockhausen premiered ‘Gruppen’, one of his pieces with speakers located throughout the audience, was pretty mind-blowing. The surveillance aspect of sound art, and comparing recording the “sound of the room” with regard to John Bonham’s drums on Led Zeppelin 4 with Alvin Lucier – these ideas only came to me while I was writing the book.
Also, since I knew the book would be illustrated, that there would be 150 images in the book, that affected how I wrote it – I knew there were certain things that I could show rather than write about. Obviously some of the pictures illustrate things that are in the text, but they also constitute their own text. This is where my (very) limited training in filmmaking came into use–because in making a film you have to decide what you want to show, and what you want the characters to say in the dialogue. So, even though it was prescribed by the publisher, it was an epiphany in a way but I’d never done any writing where I was conscious of the accompanying illustrations. It offered two distinct ways of communicating the ideas I was getting while doing research. I also put a lot of tangential information in the footnotes–they’re not just source citations. I always tell people to be sure and read the footnotes as they’re reading the book. I hadn’t used footnotes in my writing before either, at least not since doing school papers. So that offered another option in terms of presenting the information.
Since writing the book, you’ve had the opportunity to curate a couple of sound exhibitions yourself, the Headphone Show and Inside Out in Mexico City. Based on these experiences, would you say that the field of sound art is healthy at present (its creation by artists and reception by galleries) and can you anticipate any ways in which it might change in the near future?
Both of those exhibitions were good experiences for me, and for the artists and exhibiting venues – but I don’t think either had much of an influence on my opinion on the general state of sound art at the moment. While galleries and institutions are increasingly enthusiastic about showing sound works as well as dealing with artists’ interest in music, the fact remains that they’re often insensitive to acoustics (they’re not designed with acoustics in mind, of course) and keeping the works discrete from each other (i.e. finding a way to keep sounds of different works from overlapping with each other). I’ve also been to a couple of galleries where the noise from the reception desk seriously interfered with the experience of a sound piece which was mounted nearby. These are issues that most commercial art galleries seem oblivious to. However, galleries which deal primarily with sound art, like Diapason, in Brooklyn, and Galerie Mario Mazzola, in Berlin, have made a real effort to work around these problems, with great success. Sound art itself is more widespread now than ever before, but often what I’ve seen in recent work is some variation on themes and archetypes from the last 30 years–which, to be fair, younger sound artists may not even be aware of. Because sound art tends to be site-specific, and does not lend itself to mass reproduction, it’s hard to disseminate what’s already been done within the form. One of the things I hope my book can accomplish is to educate people about sound art’s past, so it can move forward.
Your work with Aki Onda has been a focal point over the past year, with the Family Vineyard label releasing your album Everydays. How did you find your recent tour together and can we expect further releases from you as a duo?
The tour was interesting as we created and rehearsed specific pieces for it, which then developed over the course of the tour (13 concerts). This differed from our previous European tour, which provided much of the basis for Everydays, where we did free improvisations every night. This seemed more like a live, extended recording session (we did record every concert and also spent a couple of days in the studio in Rotterdam mid-way through the tour). We’re currently shaping the studio recordings into another album.
The guitar has almost always been your instrument of choice, used for your songwriting in Love Child and Run On, a stint in Arthur Lee’s touring band and wielded in myriad ways in free jazz and other improv settings. This flexibility with the instrument strikes me as fairly unique. Are there any settings in which you would like to try your hand with a guitar that perhaps you haven’t already?
I’d like to play in a jam band! Part of the way I learned to play guitar was improvising along with Allman Brothers records and ‘Light My Fire’, and none of the bands I’ve worked in have really had that kind of long modal improv structure, except maybe in one or two songs…it’s something I really enjoy.
The Total Guitar reader in me would love to ask: What’s your basic equipment set up nowadays?
Since 2000 my main guitar has been a Burns Marquee. I also have a 7-string Flying V, a Danelectro Baritone guitar, a cheap electric 12-string and a Taylor acoustic-electric. My Les Paul, which i used with Love Child and Run On, and sometimes in the Blue Humans, is in bad shape now and needs to be repaired. I have a bunch of pedals which I use in various combinations – a Digitech Whammy pedal, an MXR Blue Box, a Robotalk, a Total Sonic Annihilation Death By Audio pedal, and a couple of delays and distortion boxes. A silverface Fender Twin Reverb or Vibrolux is my live amp of choice; I have a silverface Fender Princeton at home which I use for local, lower-volume live sets.
A recurring approach in your work has been to recontextualise, as well as reharmonise, a given musical source. Key examples of this practice are ‘The Old Victrola’, ‘Lonesome Valley’ and ‘Bridget O’Riley’. Are you able to pinpoint where your interest in this approach comes from and discuss any specific aims you may have tried to fulfil through taking this approach?
I think that’s something I’ve always liked instinctively, but I became much more conscious of it after hearing the beginning of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. When I took jazz guitar lessons there were some attempts at reharmonizing things but they were probably a bit too complex for my taste. I think I like the multi-directionality that it reveals – that what you think is the tonic note suddenly becomes the minor third, and then those can become a fifth and a major third of another note, for instance. It gives you the impression that things aren’t necessarily what they seem at first, or that everything is relative – which are both good to keep in mind in everyday life, not just in music.
I like the idea that these approaches and aesthetic interests extend far beyond music. You’ve previously made reference to the following: the idea of the “remix” applying equally to ourselves as people, drawing upon Eno’s essay ‘Unfinished’ in your accompanying text to The Evan Dando of Noise; the minimalism that we all experience in quotidian existence; and improvisation about being able to deal with all things in life. So, continuing on with all of these interests, what projects do you have to look forward to in the near future? I’m curious about the show involving Luigi Russolo’s instrument designs. I often wonder whether “Noise aficionados” are aware that Russolo was an important precursor.
I’m curious about it too! I’ve seen two of the reconstructed instruments; there will be sixteen altogether and I won’t see the rest until I get to rehearsals in San Francisco a day or two before the concert. They’re noisy, but not really noise in the sense of producing white noise; they operate on the same principle as a hurdy gurdy, where you turns a handle that vibrates a taut string inside. Anyway, it’s going to be cool. Text of Light is doing a New York concert that will hopefully incorporate the intonarumori alongside our usual instruments.
Since the focus of AudioVisual Salvage is to rescue deserving sonic and visual artefacts from obscurity (though I’m aware the torrent fiends could probably find anything), could you pick out some records etc. that you think are still deserving of more ears?
Well, there’s a few weird singer-songwriter records from the early 70s that I don’t hear much about – George Gerdes’ Son of Obituary for one – he was an actor and a made a couple of records, this one was with the same session guys who played on Blonde on Blonde, and it was produced by Nik Venet, who produced Fred Neil and a lot of other people in the 60s. Actually, there was another early 70s record that just got reissued on cd by Bob Martin called Midwest Farm Disaster that also used the same backing musicians as Blonde on Blonde – that one’s more country, but also pretty interesting. The first side of McGear, by Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike McGear, is pretty cool – some pretty experimental pop, I think McCartney produced it too.
I’ve also gotten into finding the original versions of certain albums – using different versions, or mixes, or even songs, than what eventually came out. There’s the version of Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights that Gerry Rafferty produced, that they scrapped and then started from scratch a couple of years later with Joe Boyd, or the original version of the Clash’s Combat Rock with more songs and longer mixes, Get Back by the Beatles (as opposed to Let it Be), Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (all the New York recordings, before the Minneapolis sessions) and Infidels (original version had a different track listing and different versions). A lot of these can be found online; they’re not necessarily “better” than the better known, final versions (although the original Infidels is definitely superior to the released album) but usually are interesting variants in one way or another.