Interview with David Grubbs about His New Book

Following on the heels of the release of our latest issue, “Noise/Silence,” on music and sound in the arts, we continue the conversation with the addition of a new regular feature column to our website, “Klang Körper,” devoted to music and performance. The current installment deals with a new book by musician and author David Grubbs, which is a long-form poem, “Now that the audience is assembled,” that concerns both music and performance. Berliner Gazette co-founder Krystian Woznicki recently sat down with Grubbs to talk about this unique work and its implications for what music writing can potentially accomplish today.

In April 2018, Duke University Press published “Now that the audience is assembled,” the second book by musician David Grubbs. Grubbs describes the work as “an experiment in music writing,” a book-length description of a fictional concert of improvised music in the form of a long poem. It pivots from “Records Ruin the Landscape,” Grubbs previous study of experimental music’s vexed, complex relation to commercially-released recordings, in that its focus is on the moment-by-moment unfolding of a performance event, one riddled with all manner of interruptions and discussions.

Krystian Woznicki: Your poetic text is a highly political text, as I see it. The political dimension is already signaled by the title “Now that the audience is assembled,” which is also the first phrase of your prose poem. It is so suggestive of a political potential to unfold: now that the audience is assembled. It is also suggestive of alternative becomings, alternative collective becomings. The title evokes an audience that is more than just an audience; they are a desiring crowd that is about to become part of something bigger—a human/non-human assemblage of sound. What is it that is so fascinating for you about this moment of assembling, given that you have a long history of participating in such moments as either performer on stage, or as the invited guest of a performance?

David Grubbs: I’m glad to see you connect the title both to the potential embodied by the assembled crowd and to the fact that the phrase appears as the first line of the text. It plays upon the convention of employing the first line of a poem to give a title to what would otherwise be untitled. For me the title has the quality of being happenstance—of being a found object and suggesting that the text resists having a title, or that the present one is provisional—while at the same time underscoring the importance of the audience to the performance itself. By this I mean not only the importance of the audience in the sense of its effect on the performer, but also the spectatorial pleasure of really looking at and listening to an audience.

I recall a stunning, seemingly spontaneous (I still wonder about this) moment just prior to one of Throbbing Gristle’s final concerts in Brooklyn a few years ago. The group had taken the stage, and the house lights had just been turned off when Genesis Breyer P-Orridge took the mic and said something along the lines of, “Turn the lights back on—let’s look at you!” The lights stayed on for the entirety of the concert. It was a simple choice that had a decisive effect on my experience of the concert in that I found myself spending much of my time watching the audience—and it was an amazing collection of folks representing different generations and subcultures—and the spectacle itself was altered in that its scope was broadened, decentered, and made impossible to take in at a single glance.

KW: What comes to mind when reading your prose poem is that the worlds of late 1960s happenings (in the context of performance art and music in general) and early 2010s assemblies at public squares somehow echo one another. Perhaps both mutually disclose themselves as the forgotten potential of the other, and thus, when thought together, they point towards the political moments and threads of crowd formations in the late 1960s and towards the artistic aspects of assemblies in the early 2010s. Taking into account that you studied the late 1960s in your book “Records Ruin the Landscape” and that you live and work in New York and experienced the Occupy Wall Street movement taking off in the early 2010s , I wonder whether and how these worlds connect in your perspective, and how the links have informed your work on “Now that the audience is assembled.”

DG: When I finished writing “Records Ruin the Landscape”, I knew that I wanted to write about the experience of duration in a single concert, and to step aside from a project that had proposed the comparative study of listening cultures separated by five decades. By the end of my research for “Records Ruin the Landscape,” the 1960s seemed further away than ever—OK, the research was done over a number of years—but also distant culturally and politically. I’m still assessing the reasons that much experimental music and performance of the 1960s experienced a return or revisiting in the 1990s, as well as again at the present moment—I mean, I was just skimming my calendar to see when I might go see the Judson Dance Theater retrospective at MoMA.

The assembled audience for a concert of experimental music at present seems quite distinct as well from a crowd assembled for a political demonstration. The book focuses on the etiquette and cultural mores of audience behavior, as well as interruptions both familiar and unpredictable. As much as political demonstrations often have a familiar arc, incorporate similar chants, and so on. I still feel the possibility of unexpected action much more so than I would at a concert. One suggests the other, but my focus is on how divergent the two will likely be.

KW: The book is complemented with art works by John Sparagana, an artist who works with visual documentation of crowds from contexts as different as rock concerts to uprisings, including the recent one at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

DG: I asked John to consider creating a work based on a newspaper photograph of a riot—a relatively modest one—at a rock concert in Louisville, Kentucky because I admired his large-scale collage works that often use the imagery of crowds and demonstrations (the Tahrir Square series is extraordinary), because his source material tends to come from newspapers, and because I wanted to signal, tantalizingly, that the book contains scenes of audience misconduct. No actual chairs are thrown in the poem, alas. The book was nearly complete when I asked John if he was up for the task, but I’m happy that the series continues, and that he’s still producing new works from this one image.

KW: Looking at his work with crowds at rock concerts, the notion of the riot comes to the fore. And that is an interesting point, even if it is one that is not so much on our radars these days. After all, the riot is often taken to be an instance of “civil disturbances,” related to social struggles, but not to entertainment or art. However, it is also not only a common gestural element at punk concerts but, in addition, it can even break out in these contexts. Sparagana's treatment of visual documents brings these seemingly disparate aspects into dialogue with each other and allows the viewer to look at them in conjunction on a horizontal plane – avoiding a simple hierarchy with regard to the political and performative tension of such riotous acts.

DG: One result of John’s collage technique is that a viewer is likely brought much closer to the image, and will examine its component details. There are dozens or hundreds of framings within each of his collages. For the cover of “Now that the audience is assembled,” there are two faces in particular—the one of the main figure hurling a chair and that of a shirtless man stalking behind him—that are isolated by John’s technique and thus given a particular visual emphasis. This technique made me look at the images differently, in that they brought my focus in to such relatively small details. At one and the same time, his collages also push me away. When encountered in an exhibition space they make me step back until the sliced and mixed image comes back into focus in something like its totality—although at that point it has ceased to be an image from a newspaper. If you’re interested in John’s work, he and Reto Geiser made a terrific small artist’s book called “Reading Revolutionaries”; it’s a cheaply produced, small-format paperback book that renders a single work of his as a sequence of blown-up views.

KW: What is taking place in “Now that the audience is assembled” is characterized by a specific time quality. The present moment, the Now, seems ever-lasting. But rather than the schizophrenia of an endless present, the reader, as well as the subjects of your prose poem, experiences the intense duration of the Now – we experience time at a micro-level. This enables perception to be mobilized in surprising ways. I find myself reminded of films and the “time-images” of films, without being able to place exactly where the references/echoes lead. I also find myself reminded of “cinema for ears”-approaches in music, including your work with Gastr del Sol, for instance. Against this backdrop I would suggest reading your prose poem as a “soundtrack” (all texts do sound after all!) for the buried links between the late 1960s and the early 2010s – also bringing to the fore what it means to experience the duration of time in the moment when an assembly turns into an occupation of a concert hall or a plaza. Does such a reading make sense to you?

DG: Yes. I think what the poem generally shares with what Jim O’Rourke and I did in Gastr del Sol is a distortion of the experience of time; in Gastr del Sol, this might happen with an extremely brief song. For example I’m thinking of the track “Eight Corners,” one with very little repetition, that is followed by a coda of nearly ten minutes that seems entirely out of proportion to what preceded it, and that if the miniature song seems to require a particular kind of moment-by-moment concentration, that that mode of concentration can be equally apt to a vector-less, all-the-time-in-the-world kind of instrumental music.

Again, the 1960s strike me as especially distant both culturally and from the standpoint of the present political crisis, one that for better or worse does demand all the resources of our attention. Where I find the 1960s coming back relative to the current political moment is as much of white America slowly awakens to the fact the gains of the Civil Rights movement that they took for granted—or the promise of a turning of the corner with Obama’s election—count for little in the face of the Republican Party and the current administration.

KW: And what about the difference or connection between this “awakening” and “the year of dreaming dangerously,” as Slavoj Žižek called the political moment of the Occupy movement in the early 2010s?

DG: As regards the meanings of Occupy, I believe that we are further than we once were from knowing what its more enduring results will be; so many things are in flux—in profound danger—in the United States at the present moment. One doesn’t know, for example, if Trump’s outrageous corruption will be the regime’s undoing, or if the fact of its being ignored—in the way that accusations of sexual assault against Trump are widely disbelieved by evangelical Christians—will strengthen it through the further destruction of democratic norms. I genuinely feel that I don’t know what will be the arc of Occupy, although I can say at present that the crises to which Black Lives Matter and #MeToo respond feel that much more urgent, and more capable of mobilizing tremendous numbers of people.

KW: Expanding upon the aspect of experiencing time, especially long durations of time, and coming back to the notion of how perceptual capacities are stimulated along the way – I would like to address the motif of sleep that is so prominent in “Now that the audience is assembled.” It is a motif that enables you to test the limits of cognitive states, blurring the boundaries between them, and what is so wonderful about it in your book is that it is not limited to an individual experience of sleep, but rather stages sleep as a collective process.

However, you are not mobilizing the notion of a “society of sleepers” with its inherent implication of impaired perceptual and political capabilities: people as passive automatons in states of mass somnabulance. Rather, you take the reader to a liminal space, where the question of perceptual and political agency arises as such. What did you have in mind when creating this motif of collective sleep?

DG: Thank you. That’s a marvelous reading—that the significance of the sleeping audience (or the half of the audience that is asleep at most any given time during the overnight concert) is not their being checked out or unable to act, but rather that sleep—because they continue to experience and to respond to the concert, even if by snoring—is presented as a collective experience. I also think of it as a dissident action, a particular mode of refusal and self-care.

KW: Expanding upon the social dimension of sleep, Jonathan Crary reminds us in his book “24/7” that it was André Breton who, in “Les Vases communicants,” imagines Paris being viewed at the break of dawn from the hilltop of the Sacré-Coeur. In Crary’s reading, Breton manages “an extraordinary evocation of the latent desires and collective powers of a multitude of sleepers. He conjures up in the liminal moment between darkness and light, between the restoration of sleep and the working day, a collaboration yet to come [my emphasis] between work and dreams that will animate ‘the sweeping away of the capitalist world’.”

Today, we are subjected to repetitive labor in a variety of forms, while various political strategies experiment with the interruption and disruption of the capitalist everyday engaging with the extraordinary and the excessive (such as the night-long assembly at Occupy Wall Street). It is in this context that your prose poem can be read as an exploration of the role of dreaming and sleeping as collective and cooperative acts that challenge the status quo by initiating involuntary communities to come.

DG: Regarding “a collaboration yet to come,” I imagine that much of the act of describing in “Now that the audience is assembled” is explicitly attuned to collaborations in the act of becoming. The comic version of this, which I found myself remembering at certain points while writing the book, is the beautifully interminable destruction-of-the-restaurant scene in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” as the audience divides into factions, improvises barricades, and so on.

KW: In “Playtime” the crowd gathers on the opening night of a restaurant in a futurist Paris – a machine assemblage animated by and also actively animating relentless traffic. The crowd is agitated by a live concert as much as by the “breathing” high-tech environment of the restaurant. It is a dysfunctional “organism,” as glitches occur due to accidental human and non-human errors. This stimulates all kinds of unforeseen processes. As the music and the crowd get wilder, the door to this space breaks, and the crowd becomes virtually open to anyone – an ecstatic and excessive crowd whose interactions with the space reveal the machine assemblage not only as dysfunctional but also as an instrument in itself, creating eruptions of sounds.

During the hallucinogenic all-night event in your prose poem, a distantly congenial motif comes into play: the heap. As your text says, the heap, composed of everything and nothing in particular (all kinds of things, inanimate and perhaps animate as well), can be considered “an instrument in itself.” What kind of thoughts went into creating this eerie and stunning motif?

John Sparagana, „Untitled", 2017

DG: Oh yes: the heap. What a word! Certainly no other word in the English language accomplishes the same thing. One image that I pondered when working on this description was that of Mats Gustafsson performing a solo concert at the Renaissance Society in Chicago where he stood atop a glacier of blue wrapped candies that was the centerpiece of a show of work by Félix González-Torres. But that glacier of candy—a kind of industrial sublime—quickly became something else in my imagining.

KW: The heap seems to be a strange yet familiar thing that blurs the boundaries between subject and object. It is unacknowledged but impossible to ignore as it is located in the very middle of the space where the crowd has assembled. The space, the crowd – anything and anyone becomes part of the heap and thereby turns into an instrument in itself. What inspired your re-purposing of the social world into a musical instrument?

DG: One of the signs of gentrification at present is the disappearance of the flea market where any manner of junk is for sale. Brooklyn in 2018 is full of flea markets, but as with Berlin and Chicago and dozens of other cities, these are upscale artisanal offerings, with vendors “curated” (I shouldn’t get started on this), and when thinking about a spill of detritus on the stage of “Now that the audience is assembled,” I found myself thinking about the weekly flea market I used to go to on Maxwell Street in Chicago, where you could find almost any kind of junk you could imagine, and the objects seemed wild with possibility. One could say exactly the same thing about Tony Conrad’s house in Buffalo. His love of the re-purposed—of what to many folks would just look like garbage—is one of the things that I found most affirming and inspiring about Tony.

KW: As far as your re-purposing of the world as a musical instrument is concerned, let us return to our discussion of the relationship between music/performance and politics.

DG: There are many aspects to it: the ongoing redefinition of skill and of who counts as—or, more importantly, feels the impetus to participate as—a musician; the ongoing expansion of the domain of the musical (as opposed to partitioning and retrenchments that often occur with reference to a distinct category called “sound art”); the dialogical aspect of an audience that is compelled to intervene; the audience that assembles, divides, argues, and organizes in the real time of the performance; and so on.

David Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording, also published by Duke University Press. As a musician, he has released fourteen solo albums and appeared on more than 180 commercially released recordings. Grubbs is known for his cross-disciplinary collaborations with poet Susan Howe and visual artists Angela Bulloch and Anthony McCall, and his work has been presented at the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou. Grubbs was a founding member of the groups Gastr del Sol, Bastro, and Squirrel Bait, and has appeared on recordings by Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Will Oldham, and Matmos, among other artists. Grubbs has written for The Wire, BOMB, Bookforum, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Publications include “Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording” and “Now that the audience is assembled”.

Krystian Woznicki is a critic and the co-founder of Berliner Gazette. His recently published book “Fugitive Belonging” blends writing and photography. Other publications include “A Field Guide to the Snowden Files” (with Magdalena Taube), “After the Planes” (with Brian Massumi), “Wer hat Angst vor Gemeinschaft?” (with Jean-Luc Nancy) and “Abschalten. Paradiesproduktion, Massentourismus und Globalisierung”. (www.berlinergazette.de)

Title Image: John Sparagana, „Untitled", 2017