• Peter Coffin
  • David Grubbs

A couple of months ago I interviewed former Chicagoan David Grubbs about his excellent book Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press), a highly readable and illuminating examination of the role sound recordings play in the dissemination of experimental music. In the book he writes about how important recordings have been an educational and aesthetic tool, a medium that brought him into contact not only with work made decades before he was born, but also music that was rarely if ever performed in Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up.

This weekend Grubbs will appear at Corbett vs. Dempsey on Saturday afternoon to do a reading from the book, discuss its ideas with John Corbett, and give a short solo electric guitar performance that will focus on material from Dust & Mirrors (Blue Chopsticks), his superb new album with Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia, a dazzling pair of Italian experimentalists now working with Mike Watt under the name Il Sogno del Marinaio. That effort is one of three releases from Grubbs over the past year, a veritable onslaught of new music following a period of relative inactivity while he worked on the book.

Drummer Belfi and guitarist Pilia—known for his work in 3/4HadBeenEliminated, as well as collaborating with Rokia Traore—also turned up on last year’s The Plain Where the Palace Stood (Drag City), one of Grubbs’ singer-songwriter records more or less. It’s a dynamic, guitar-driven collection and one the singer’s most aggressive efforts in years. There’s a spare, witty song called “I Started to Live When My Barber Died,” which comes out of an essay Grubbs had written a few years earlier about recordings (it’s clear he was thinking about them a lot as he wrote his book). The opening lines of that essay were “I am a recording. I don’t age. Perhaps the recorded object ages. I don’t. Perhaps the style of music of this particular recording ages. It may age more or less well. I don’t.” He adapted some of those ideas for the song:

I don’t age.

I don’t.

The style does. I don’t
Depart from this date.

Few current musicians embrace the sound of language as much as Grubbs, and there’s no doubt that many of his most evocative lines scan a poetry. In the pretty, almost breezy “Ornamental Hermit” he intones, “Dust tracery / Dirt-cured, untrammeled, seemingly enameled / Lacquered, literally knackered,” and while the words certainly convey an image to me, the music of their sounds hits harder. The lyrics are also interrelated, clearly in reference to an idea within the album title: “Ornamental Hermit” opens with the line, “A view of the mesa,” which also happens to be the title of an instrumental deeper into the album. The instrumental tracks are uniformly great, from solo acoustic guitar pieces like “Second Salutation” to charged electric pieces such as “A View of the Mesa,” on which Grubbs uncorks some wonderfully knotty lines. One of my favorite pieces is the title track, which features some excellent playing by C. Spencer Yeh, whose violin’s high-register whinnies suggest an Arabic flute more than a string instrument—check it out below.

David Grubbs, “The Plain Where the Palace Stood”

Dust & Mirrors, the second album Grubbs has made with Belfi and Pilia, is more abstract than The Plain, but after working together in various contexts over the last few years, there’s little question that the musicians have developed a strong rapport and intuition that’s transformed their collective compositions into things that are more song-like and cogent—it would be hard to argue that a piece like “Brick Dust” is anything but a song, and three of the seven tracks include lyrics and singing by Grubbs. As much as I loved their 2010 album, Onrushing Cloud (Blue Chopsticks), this new album is more impressive. The construction of the album carries on the experiments with scale, arrangement, and texture that defined much of Grubbs’s work with Jim O’Rourke in Gastr del Sol—although there’s no confusing the two outfits. Below you can check out the epic opener, “Charm Offensive,” an instrumental in constant transformation.

Belfi, Grubbs, and Pilia, “Charm Offensive”

Finally, late last year Grubbs released Borough of Broken Umbrellas (Blue Chopsticks), a ten-inch record containing a meditative two-part solo guitar improvisation. There’s both a contemplativeness as well as a supple, melodic sensibility that’s guided Grubbs’s work, even at its most abstract, for decades—residue from his early post-punk sensibility and time spent poring over details embedded in recordings.

Today’s playlist:

Harold Ousley, Tenor Sax (Bethlehem)
Bengt Hallberg, All Star Sessions 1953/54 (Dragon)
Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani, Orvieto (ECM)
Bessie Jones, Put Your Hand on Your Hip (Rounder)
Mia Doi Todd, Cosmic Ocean Ship (City Zen)