Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 4, 2017
David Grubbs Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 248 pp.; 19 ills. Paper $23.95 (9780822355908)

In 1982, after eating a macrobiotic lunch with John Cage in his West 18th Street loft, I brandished my Sony TC-D5M cassette recorder. “I have one just like it,” he said, “David [Tudor] told me to get it—I’ve never turned it on.” Everyone who knew Cage heard him proclaim at least once, “I don’t use records . . . unless I do something else with them” (as in Credo in US; 1942). I was unaware of any composer who accepted these as words to live by, let alone anyone who resisted the curiosity of playback. Cagian arguments stress that recordings unjustly represent indeterminate music. Yet, many composers and pedagogues passionately acquire records in an endeavor to grasp as much music as possible. Others are avid collectors. I plead guilty on all counts. During the several times Cage stayed with me in Chicago, I spun a record only once—a cut from a Futurism musical anthology. He was unaware that F. T. Marinetti used structured silence in his Five Radio Syntheses of 1933. Similarly, I played few records for Morton Feldman, but he recognized the prestige of appearing on commercial labels and saved recordings of his work.

In his excellent and meticulously researched book, Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording, David Grubbs takes Cage’s mantra seriously—so much so, that he thoroughly examines his words and several early recordings along with a number of post-Cagian minimalists and free improvisers. In conflict with its title, the book paints an admirable landscape that eschews both steadfast criticism and resolute defense of recordings. The additional cast of characters includes La Monte Young, Luc Ferrari, Glenn Gould (!), and icons of free improvisation: the late Tony Conrad and Derek Bailey, and the group AMM. The entire first chapter is devoted to iconoclast Henry Flynt, whose rejection of conventional venues delayed recognition of his 1960s experiments until this century when his work surfaced through recordings, internet streaming, etc. Besides showcasing Flynt’s contributions, this chapter is a preamble for justifying the historical and pedagogical value of recordings.

Early on, Grubbs hints at Cage’s approach to sound as similar to that of visual artists who hear it as sculptural. Indeed, to my art students, engagement with sound as material is second nature. As Cage abandoned intentional relationships among sound events and the hierarchy of a “beginning, middle, and end,” the idea of setting a performance in stone seems antithetical (the Italian word incisione, “LP recording,” is apt here). It would objectify the free conceptual space prescribed in pieces like Earle Brown’s Folio (1952), etc. The ensuing onslaught of music by La Monte Young et al., where the score moved beyond graphics and often to textual descriptions, further supports the notion that the performance’s intent is ephemeral. Grubbs indicates that Young later bemoaned the fact that no label would record him. His high expectations were undoubtedly best met when he produced his own recordings like Dream House 78’17” (1974) and The Well-Tuned Piano (1974).

Grubbs acknowledges that conceptual and open-form works are poorly suited for recording. Those of great length from the minimalists, or by Feldman, are not served well by the temporal constraints of conventional formats. He provides a valuable survey of borderless online resources like UbuWeb, DRAM,, which are no doubt changing the current landscape. This is not to say that one was unable to work within the traditional time limits. Each of Igor Stravinsky’s two Ragtimes (1934) required enough time for one side of a 78 rpm disc. The corporate bosses also weighed in, as when the CEO of Sony decreed that one compact disc alone must hold his favorite recording of Beethoven’s 9th. No composer escapes the loaded inquiry of the concert promoter, “How long is your piece?”

A chapter entitled “The Antiques Trade” focuses on the practitioners of the type of improvisation close to Grubbs. He quickly draws attention to Bailey’s depiction of records as endgame. “Played again they become background music” (107). In 1984, when Cage spoke at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a student immediately asked for his definition of music. Cage paused and said, “I would say that music is something that requires your attention.” Here he would perhaps agree with Bailey in that repeated hearings of records relax one’s concentration, precluding the directed thought during a live performance. Today “listeners” are attached to earbuds while texting and checking social media and refreshing browsers. Whatever familiarity exists comes with repetition. Even with an instructor’s blow-by-blow accounts, students can hardly concentrate to the extent that Cage or Bailey had envisioned. Grubbs explains that Bailey’s improvisatory style on guitar, though described as free, is “immediately recognizable,” by way of his “vocabulary of his preferred dissonances” (114), and that Keith Rowe of AMM employs his guitar “as a locus for extended techniques . . . strategies analogous to John Cage’s prepared piano” (115).

Further on, Grubbs dispels myths about free improvisation and autonomy, when there is “recognizable interplay,” even at the level of a single element. Can there ever really be a lack of uniformity? When I asked Lukas Foss why his Improvisation Chamber Ensemble (founded 1957) disbanded, he replied that the players became too familiar with each other—the sense of a work in progress was lost. I would argue that motivic development in improvisers including Bailey would constitute an undesirable form for Cage. To further cloud the murky waters of free improvisation, John Tilbury averred that “the AMM musicians were tracking sounds, in a way that a hunter tracks an animal and in doing so gains knowledge and gradually his attitude towards the hunted becomes a relationship with the animal” (126; emphasis in the original).

An idealized freedom flourished as control of one’s sounds came into question. Grubbs quotes Rowe, “It was not uncommon for a musician to wonder who or what was producing a particular sound, stop playing, and discover that it was he himself that had been responsible” (130). So it is in Cage’s Cartridge Music, where each player is instructed to arrange an overlay of several transparencies of shapes, lines, dots, circles, and a clock image. Then, she or he makes a list of when and what to execute for the concert. As pianist and AMM member Tilbury states, “with Cage generally little or no spontaneous expression was permitted during performance” (132). Of course, this was to remove the favorite riffs and egos from the players (as Cage often said in public and private, “anything goes when you have nothing to assume”). Feldman, whom Cage credits as the first to use graphic music, returned to strictly notated music because he found that he was freeing the performers instead of the music. This contrasts with the free improvisation that Tilbury addressed, “Whereas [Cornelius] Cardew never denied the performer’s history or background” (132).

Amid all of this intricacy centered on the delineations of improvisation, the chapter also grapples with the paucity of commercial recordings. Similarly, when they do appear, the question of genre arises, e.g., how George E. Lewis analyzes the “earliest wave of European free improvisers as a ‘critically important first generation who confronted issues of European musical identity and jazz’” (116–17). This backs up what Grubbs describes as the first packaged set of improvised music from DGG in 1974—records by groups from France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. He recognizes that much good improvised music was released subsequently on independent labels that often operated on a shoestring budget. He characterizes it superbly by proclaiming that “these labels almost always skew towards love” (120). Certainly such labels are not born out of an aspiration to reap profits through robust distribution. Composers themselves give them out (seventy-five percent of the new music recordings in my collection were gifted).

The chapter “Remove the Records From Texas” describes how the internet is flooded with diverse types of music through YouTube, and the aforementioned UbuWeb, DRAM, etc. In addition, video and radio broadcasts from classic to contemporary performances are easily discovered on YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud, etc. The “antiques trade” is surmounted by “antiques trivia,” as Bailey is cited as having predicted. I think of how much music history filtered out—surely some undiscovered gems, but much of which might be considered trivial. Here, the survival of the fittest is a luxury no longer afforded us. Archiving has become infectious. Worse yet, streaming sites (except Spotify, Pandora, etc.) offer little or no compensation.

Grubbs reports that for better or worse online performances now outnumber studio recordings. Hence, “it is no longer the case that the number of releases by a particular artist correlates with listener demand” (138). However, contradicting what Bailey and Cage might believe, the talented, young improviser Jim O’Rourke opines that repeated hearings of records, “can make manifest otherwise impossible to perceive details of . . . three exceptional iconoclastic musicians (Bailey, Parker and Bennink) and their brief alliance” (140). The volume concludes with the question of whether one could curate streaming websites given that the listener can browse freely. For me, this comes back full circle to Cage, who had advocated not just simultaneous performances of his work (the three-ring circus notion), but also encouraged an approach similar to the way one reads the front page of a newspaper—jumping from one story segment to another.

Records Ruin the Landscape is highly recommended and a must-read for anyone probing new music and recordings.

Peter Gena
Professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago