Records Ruin the Landscape

John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording

Records Ruin the Landscape

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 19 photographs Published: March 2014

Author: Grubbs, David

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Cultural Studies, Music > Sound Studies

John Cage's disdain for records was legendary. He repeatedly spoke of the ways in which recorded music was antithetical to his work. In Records Ruin the Landscape, David Grubbs argues that, following Cage, new genres in experimental and avant-garde music in the 1960s were particularly ill suited to be represented in the form of a recording. These activities include indeterminate music, long-duration minimalism, text scores, happenings, live electronic music, free jazz, and free improvisation. How could these proudly evanescent performance practices have been adequately represented on an LP?

In their day, few of these works circulated in recorded form. By contrast, contemporary listeners can encounter this music not only through a flood of LP and CD releases of archival recordings but also in even greater volume through Internet file sharing and online resources. Present-day listeners are coming to know that era's experimental music through the recorded artifacts of composers and musicians who largely disavowed recordings. In Records Ruin the Landscape, Grubbs surveys a musical landscape marked by altered listening practices.


“The premise of [Grubbs’s] understandably authoritative first book is that experimental music’s flowering in the 1960s . . . was incompatible with the limitations of orthodox recording formats. . . . With an engaging frankness . . . Grubbs contrasts this tendency with his own fan-by appetite for records and the documentary efficacy of the contemporary digital realm, concluding positively that the latter potentially offers unmediated, universal access to the panoply of esoteric music—something unthinkable in the 1960s.” — David Sheppard, Mojo

“An engaging book.” — David Revill, Times Higher Education

“For compositions whose whole raison d’être is to generate a drastically different realization with every performance . . . no recording of any one performance could be said to ‘be’ the piece. . . . David Grubbs’s exhaustively researched Records Ruin the Landscape explores this dilemma specifically as it affected the generation of avant-garde composers who hit their stride in the sixties, John Cage being the most prominent and outspoken among them.” — Dave Mandl, Los Angeles Review of Books

"This is a challenging study that will make you think deeply about the difference between the experience of attending a concert or club performance and that of listening to a record or a downloaded number or viewing a video via YouTube."  — W. Royal Stokes

“The risk writers run, of course, with the big questions approach, is universalising their personal narrative in order to present the big answer. Grubbs is too skilled and self-aware to run into this problem. His breadth of research in musicology and aesthetic theory is balanced in this short and engaging book with candid writing about his own experiences of recordings of experimental music. . . . It is testament to Grubbs’s sensitivity as a writer that a sympathetic picture emerges of these musicians, who seem often to be railing against hierarchies they can’t quite help being part of.” — Frances Morgan, The Wire

"One of the chief joys of this book is that [it] seeks to rediscover the avant-gardes of the 1960s in all their spontaneity, in their present-ness, as if unfolding these mavericks from their own perspectives, without benefit of current hindsight. We learn, reading this book, what the future looked like to the past. Records Ruin the Landscape seeks to prestidigitate the landscape of the 1960s back to life.  For this, one should be thankful—including for the recordings that allow David Grubbs’ act of imagination and scholarship to have taken place." — Daniel Herwitz, Critical Inquiry

“Although the future may be uncertain, with Records Ruin the Landscape Grubbs provides us a map of the territory, along with a provocative tool for unpacking / listening to the past in the present.”  — John F. Barber, Leonardo Reviews

“As a whole, it is the dialogic aspect of Records Ruin the Landscape that marks it as a necessary read for scholars, artists, and listeners across artistic and academic disciplines. Through an endlessly alluring rhetorical style combined with vast stores of primary source material, Grubbs offers new insights on old questions from a variety of perspectives, placing previously disparate discourses into productive conversation.” — Mike D’Errico, Popular Music and Society

“The monograph provides deep reflections for academics, including twenty-eight pages of references and notes, but is written in a conversational style that is sure to resonate for anyone interested in 1960s music.” — Lawrence Joseph, MusicWorks

“I find Grubbs’s focus on the never before availability of recordings to be fascinating. It’s a rare, quickly disappearing personal history he straddles. All too soon the delimiting experience of being obstructed by sheer material availability will vanish for those with adequate access to web resources.” — Patrick James Dunagan, Entropy

"A modest and useful contribution toward the reception of experimental music and will appeal to many."   — Rob Haskins, ARSC Journal

 “[A] fun read. . . .” — Kurt Gottschalk, New York City Jazz Record

"Far from ruining the landscape, Grubbs’s book concludes, records have irrevocably changed and expanded it. Now begins the fight to prevent the landscape being flattened altogether." (translated from the Norwegian) — Rob Young, Oslo Morgenbladet

“ I liked that he conceived this fairly off-center topic out of whole cloth and owned it so meticulously; it’s an enlightened, chin-stroking sort of read, even if, like me, you haven’t yet begun trawling the interweb archives to pinpoint the Great and True History of the Experimental Pioneers.” — Jay Hinman, Final Sounds

“[T]he driving force behind these pages, and what makes them a welcome and vitalizing addition to the growing field of sound studies, is never only theoretical: the burning core of this book is the palpable excitement and restlessness of an audiophile urging his readers less to join the dots and envisage conclusive scenarios on paper than to go and browse, to get absorbed in search trails and to be exhilarated by whatever is found there, whether anticipated or unexpected. Records Ruin the Landscape is a book where the insightful scholarship and the enticing outline of an argument function like sounding boxes for all the music that you will be driven to discover and rediscover after reading it. Not only a vital challenge to rethink online collections, but a resolute prompt to listen to them.” — Daniela Cascella, Music and Literature

“... while it is possible, if problematic, to appreciate music of this type and period without the backstory, the in-depth understanding derived from Grubbs’ contribution significantly and commendably enriches the experience and thus very much underlines the premise of his thesis.” — Chris Adams, Popular Music

“Part of the brilliance of this book is that it is a joy to read. . . . [T]his is the best kind of study that is clearly motivated by a passion for its subject, and it is executed with aplomb. . . . Grubbs’s ability to make linksacross time periods and styles is evocative of the kind of conversations one might have in a record store with a fanatical employee who knows everything and is excited to share the knowledge with you.” — Sara Haefeli, Notes

“The tension between the ever-righteous vinyl shop and the ever-changing online marketplace makes David Grubbs’s recent Records Ruin the Landscape such a timely and interesting work of cultural history and analysis.  … Records Ruin the Landscape is level throughout. Grubbs’ concerns of oversaturation are balanced against optimism for the omnivorous ears of new listeners. But his careful consideration of and deep research into the subject matter is full of implications, not just for experimental music geeks, but also for the genre’s practitioners, academics, and the art intelligentsia.” — Will Wlizlo, Rain Taxi

"Records Ruin the Landscape is highly recommended and a must-read for anyone probing new music and recordings." — Peter Gena, CAA Reviews

"Beautifully written and brimming with unexpected insights, Records Ruin the Landscape will undoubtedly inspire its readers to collect, download, and/or stream the wonderfully broad range of musicians and composers it examines. With a remarkable level of attentiveness, expertise, and care, David Grubbs's fascinating book draws upon the most intimate, oft-overlooked details of sound recordings to produce a profound new understanding of the stakes of what it means to listen to the past in the present." — Branden W. Joseph, author of Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage

"David Grubbs delivers a vital, searching treatise on the volatility of musical listening and the seeminging encyclopedic record of the avant-garde we have inherited from the 1960s, an era vastly different from our own in ways that are newly unpacked here. John Cage and his contemporaries' squemishness about the record and its 'thingness' are compellingly at odds with Grubbs's own phonophilia." — Marina Rosenfeld, composer and multimedia artist

"Records Ruin the Landscape is a pleasure to read, full of wonderful anecdotes and historical material. David Grubbs approaches John Cage and his legacy from a new and refreshing angle, by examining the vexed relationship of experimental and improvised music to recording and phonography. The questions that he poses—about the ontology and potentiality of recording in relation to live performance, improvisation, chance, and indeterminacy—are important, and he answers them in smart and provocative ways." — Christoph Cox, coeditor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music


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Price: $25.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David Grubbs is Associate Professor in the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, where he also teaches in the M.F.A. programs in Performance and Interactive Media Arts and Creative Writing. As a musician, he has released twelve solo albums and appeared on more than 150 commercially released recordings. Grubbs was a founding member of the groups Gastr del Sol, Bastro, and Squirrel Bait, and has appeared on recordings by the Red Krayola, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Will Oldham, and Matmos, among other artists. He is known for cross-disciplinary collaborations with the writers Susan Howe and Rick Moody and the visual artists Anthony McCall, Angela Bulloch, and Stephen Prina. A grant recipient in music/sound from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Grubbs has written for The Wire, Bookforum, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xxiii

Introduction 1

1. Henry Flynt on the Air 19

2. Landscape with Cage 45

3. John Cage, Recording Artist 67

4. The Antiques Trade: Free Improvisation and Record Culture 105

5. Remove the Records from Texas: Online Resources and Impermanent Archives 135

Notes 167

Selected Disography 195

Bibliography 199

Index 209
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