For LOLA, I wrote about Tony Conrad, specifically the late artist’s interest in control, autonomy and resistance:
“A throughline which runs adjacent to Conrad’s interest in authority is his attention to psychological manipulation, and the interior experience of shifting one’s perspective. Whether by way of linguistic content, sonic or graphic animation, Conrad was fascinated by the phenomenological and psychological effects of sociocultural structures, and the media technologies that might operate within these structures.”
For the Notebook at Mubi, I wrote about William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop 1.1.
“As evening descends, the cityscape below is bathed in shadow first, giving a Magritte-like surrealness to this most surreal of American days: September 11, 2001. The title of the painter’s ‘Empire of Light’ might be applied here, with an additional descriptive: fading. Not only will the natural light ebb from the picture, shifting first through red hues and darker blues; the musical motif on the soundtrack, too, will slowly wear away to little more than a resonant drone.”
For the Notebook at MubiI wrote about Tony Conrad, who died 9th April, 2016.
“In creating endgame works—such as the ever-playing Yellow Movies—that resist subsequent extension and modification by other artists, as well as launching open-ended interventions into social and artistic history using different media, Conrad was continually alert to the ways in which cultural values and styles become entrenched. His work provokes further critical rethinking about accepted modes of film and music practice…”
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.”
Jim O’Rourke at Super Deluxe, Tokyo 17-22 June 2013.
Originally published online at Audiovisual Salvage, December 2013.
As shifting arrangements of dots are moved across four sets of magnified staff lines projected onto the back wall of the music venue, and the unconventional notations slowly reveal themselves to be isolated fragments of a blown-up, halftone, TV guide cut-out of the face of Aunt Esther, the complex and comical sensibility of Jim O’Rourke comes into focus.
The transposition of an old weekly listings clipping into the arrangement for a composition; the creative displacement of an icon from a popular ‘70s US sitcom into the rigours and free play of experimental music in a club in Tokyo, where memories of Sanford and Son are as good as non-existent; and the realisation that there is still so much to learn about and from the work of O’Rourke were characteristic of a surprising and wide-ranging showcase in June of this musician’s formidable talents.
Playing six consecutive nights in his current city of residence, and offering a rare opportunity to witness him revisiting material from the past, both solo and accompanied by a variety of groups, O’Rourke’s tireless approach to music was plain to see, and hear. Avoiding the commonplace ritual exhumation initiated by ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, the work history that O’Rourke presented stretched back to certain periods in which it is unlikely anyone in attendance would have seen him perform, and happily looked to the future too.
Appearing uneasy about returning to ground covered more than twenty years ago, O’Rourke’s replication of the style of his earlier interactions with a six-string launched the Six Days event. The opportunity to see the handiwork behind the type of prepared guitar playing that appears on Remove the Need revealed an array of interventions by O’Rourke that went beyond a checklist of tricks that has given even this non-normative use of the instrument a predictable traditionalism. Remote control interference and curious extra-circuitry adaptations sent screeches through the speakers, tempered by hand to muted emanations and, at times, a gorgeous ambient drift – the unstable discordances and the gentle melody of extended technique.
The shadow of O’Rourke’s younger self was literally cast during the second set of Day One, onto the side of a tent. Camped out indoors with only tape machines for company, the crowd were left out in the wild, immersed in throbbing, babbling, brutal analog tones tearing through the monitors. Recent archival LP releases have provided a wider picture of O’Rourke’s explorations of electro-acoustics, which have been ongoing for many years, but the unexpected performance setup was a reminder of the non-academic trajectory of his research.
Day Two began with a version of the 1990 composition Mizu No Nai Umi, the original drone work played back and accompanied by several performers who moved around the floor space sounding various percussive, resonant objects. The clink of beer bottles and chime of crotales thickened the cloud of overtones. Screened at the same time, a looped and processed video clip of a commercial plane landing at sunset – a notoriously painstaking and expensive shot excerpted from Brian De Palma’s widely reviled film, The Bonfire of the Vanities – provided a visual complement to the music. The shifting colours and contrast of the golden image, already blurred by the warm air currents of the JFK runway, the pools of light and the deepening shadows, mirroring the nuance and microtonal movement in the shimmering sound. A ten-second shot extended to last thirty minutes, a cinematic drone of equal density.
Aunt Esther dates back to O’Rourke’s college days, and is emblematic of his challenges to the strictures of the Academy, the piece’s untypical notation interpreted by an ensemble of improvisers playfully switching classical snippets into free jazz fits and starts. No doubt a failure in the eyes of his tutor, the composition reflects both the discipline and humour which together defined much American and English experimental music after John Cage, a tendency seemingly forgotten by many dour contemporary experimentalists. As with much of O’Rourke’s strongest work, assumptions were gladly upended.
The young performers of String Quartet and Oscillators – Atsuko Hatano, Hiroki Chiba, Eriko Teshima and Masabumi Sekiguchi – might not often be tasked with sustaining tones for long durations, but their combined, concentrated bowing built a moving wall of pitches. Swapping the classical, romantic melodies usually associated with a string quartet for stacked harmonic rapture these players too showed themselves happy to dismantle expectations. Waves of acoustic frequencies swept over the buzzing of oscillators, stripped of extra-musical referents down to thick tone colours and textures. Like the work of American minimalists Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad, the result was physically captivating.
It was instructive to programme the performances of Bad Timing and Happy Days back to back on Day Three, since they illustrate two ways of exploring a single musical connection, that between the folk and blues influenced concert guitar style of John Fahey and the massive drones of Conrad and Niblock. The brass fanfare of Bad Timing was sadly absent – the album performed by O’Rourke and his regular band, with Toshiaki Sudoh on bass, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums and Eiko Ishibashi on piano – but shorn of its joyous tooting horns, the signature melodies of the album were driven home with more percussive punch.
Repeatedly plucking two acoustic guitar strings against a rising storm of hurdy gurdy, whose blasting tones lent a pleasurably oppressive weight to the air, O’Rourke’s performance of Happy Days was almost scuppered by a broken string at the very end of the piece. Though evidently unintended, the hiccup seemed to be a necessary structuring element of the performance, as if O’Rourke was meant to go on unceasingly, aching and exhausted until the string could bear the tension no longer.
The blisters were allowed a chance to heal on Day Four, as O’Rourke conducted Big Band and Tapes, for a group which included firebrand saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, flanking the composer on either side and bolstered by Yuji Katsui on violin, Daisuke Takaoka on tuba, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums, Todd Nicholson on double bass, Shinpei Ruike on trumpet and Yasuyuki Takahashi on trombone. The uncertainty was clear on the faces of some of the musicians, a little perturbed by the idiosyncrasies of O’Rourke’s score. Nevertheless the exertion and musical prowess of all the performers was compelling. The intermittent blare and solo flights into the edges were riveting and unpredictable, though the overall conceptual framework of the music remained somewhat obscure. Still, with this much raging force the audience knew what a real Salvation Army band could sound like.
A new Jazz Trio kicked off Day Five with a monstrous version of ‘Back Woods Song’ by Gateway, the effortless saunter of the original being ignited by O’Rourke’s guitar shredding, the electronic manipulations of Hiroki Chiba’s double bass and the exploratory thump and clatter of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s percussion. All of O’Rourke’s stylistic predecessors may be readily acknowledged but there are few guitarists who could marry the modes of John Abercrombie, Ray Russell and Tisziji Munoz in one sitting with baffling ease.
Another trio, Kafka’s Snore played a thirty-five-minute set unfurling a single improvised piece. Beautifully paced, emerging from Eiko Ishibashi’s sparse piano motif, allowing quietude much duration within an elegiac melody, and elaborated by Yamamoto’s intelligent reassessments behind the kit, and the steadily amassed tones, chords and timbres of O’Rourke’s electric guitar and synth, the dynamic steadily moved on into a fiery rock spree to close out the evening.
A packed house on Day Six eagerly awaited renditions of O’Rourke’s pop songs. Tracks from each of the ‘Roeg’ albums that feature singing were played, as well as selections from the Halfway to a Threeway EP and the second Loose Fur record. Having performed with a regular band in Japan for some time – for song performances; in improvisational contexts; in various combinations with other musicians – O’Rourke’s music benefited from the familiarity, elasticity and invention that such extensive group playing across these contexts can encourage. With the addition of pedal steel player Ren Takada, unfortunately not involved in the earlier Bad Timing performance, it sounded powerful and assured in the club space; O’Rourke’s rarely heard vocals much fuller and louder than on record, and the sight of his fretboard navigations a further confirmation of the unassuming complexity of his Drag City albums.
From the looped, harmonised solo guitar and feedback which opened the show, to the final, urgent, bellowed refrains of ‘The Workplace’ the thrill of hearing this increasingly influential music played by a band so alert to its possibilities is only matched by the thrill of anticipation as to where O’Rourke will take his music next. Good times.
Thirty albums of music by Jim O’Rourke, including the String Quartet and Oscillators performance from the Six Days event are available at Steamroom.
My review of Working Title, a collection of essays about Phill Niblock published by Les presses du réel appears in the May 2013 issue of The Wire (#351).
“Throughout the book, evocations of the physiological impact of the performances Niblock would stage in his New York loft – the intensely loud volume of which rarely go unremarked when describing his past shows – and perceived connections with Zen philosophy are balanced by discussions of the technical aspects of Niblock’s music, as well as Bernard Gendron’s splendid history of Experimental Intermedia and the Downtown music scene in New York in the 1970s and 80s.”
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.
For the August 2011 issue of The Wire (#330) I wrote a Jim O’Rourke Primer.
“O’Rourke is one of the few artists willing to challenge the commonly accepted meaning of musical gestures and attempt to transform our perception of them. By pointing out that what you get is usually so much more than what you see (or hear), the unquestioned assumptions about how music functions come under interrogation. Taking extra-musical cues from film makers Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Downey Sr, and US performance artists like Michael Smith, he unpacks the connotative aspects of music, sidestepping expectations and allowing sound to predicate its own communicative possibilities, without recourse to personal sentiment or a tried and tested shorthand.”
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.”