In 2014 former Chicagoan David Grubbs published a wonderful book called Records Ruin the Landscape that explores the historically conflicted relationship between experimental music and recordings of it. Grubbs, who made his name in the bands Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr del Sol in the 80s and 90s, generally had his first encounters with 1960s experimental music—New York School composers, Fluxus artists, pioneering minimalists, the improvised sound works of UK group AMM—through recordings, yet many of those artists expressed antipathy toward them, insisting on the experiential nature of their work. Recordings freeze a performance in time and make it replicable, but of course they lack the sometimes crucial environmental elements of a live concert—and no one could argue that one is a perfect simulacrum of the other.
On Friday, Grubbs will publish his first book since then, a formally adventurous prose poem called Now That the Audience Is Assembled (Duke), which obliquely describes a fictional musical performance that incorporates text-based score, free improvisation, instrument building, and durational extremes—the point of view shifts without warning and seemingly arbitrarily from third person to the mind of the musician to members of the audience. I’ve only read the 140-page book once, and I know I missed many of its nuances, but its audacity and provocation nonetheless moved me.
The experience of reading the book (as much or more so than its actual descriptive language) does an admirable job approximating the experience of attending an experimental or improvisational performance: its structure and techniques simulate sudden epiphanies, boredom, sloppy execution, uncertainty, and so on. Some people in the audience are dozing off, while others shift forward in their chairs to get closer to the action. In the book’s final section, the unnamed female musician, after performing with a trunk filled with broken trash as her instrument, sits at a piano in another room. She knows that the audience members who are eager to flee will have to pass her, and also that those who are hungry for some kind of encore will eventually find her when they give up and shuffle toward the exit. She plays a bit, reflecting on the piano as the instrument she first learned and internalized but eventually rejected because it had become too familiar, too predictable. “Years ago I stopped playing the better to start again,” she thinks. “Moments ago I did the same. What you just heard was reacquaintance, preliminary measurements, fitting fingers to keys.”
Grubbs will read from the book this weekend at two separate events: one at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park on Friday at 6 PM, the other at Corbett vs. Dempsey on Saturday at 3 PM. He’ll follow each reading with a solo set, which is an especially promising prospect because last year he released one of the most satisfying and pleasurable recordings he’s made under his own name, Creep Mission (Blue Chopsticks)—and he hasn’t performed in Chicago since then.
The album’s seven tracks are instrumentals built around Grubbs’s nimble, knotty guitar playing, and they include the gorgeous, spindly acoustic excursion “Return of the Creep,” the slinking improvisational collage “Jeremiadaic,” and the tightly coiled, propulsive art-rock of “Skylight,” which recalls the earliest days of Gastr del Sol. He’s supported on a number of pieces by percussionist Eli Keszler, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and electronic experimenter Jan St. Werner (Mouse on Mars). Below you can hear the title track, a shape-shifting masterpiece that moves between stormy atmospherics and densely unwinding hard rock.
Ian Pace, More Light: Ian Pace Plays the Piano Music of Christopher Fox (Metier)
Anthony Braxton, Seven Compositions (Trio) 1989 (Hatology)
Natasha Barrett, Puzzle Wood (Aurora)
Emerson String Quartet, Chaconnes and Fantasias: Music of Britten and Purcell (Decca Gold)
Offa Rex, The Queen of Hearts (Nonesuch)