Review of Now that the audience is assembled
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2018
152 pp., illus. 7 b/w.
In November 2014 I reviewed Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording, a first book by David Grubbs (See http://leonardo.info/reviews/nov2014/barber-records.php). I am pleased by the serendipity of reviewing his second book, Now that the audience is assembled, in the same month four years later.
Where Records Ruin the Landscape focused on experimental music and sound recording, Now that the audience is assembled concerns improvisation. In this new book, Grubbs writes about "solo performance, free improvisation, text scores, instrument building, time killing, masochism, performer psychology, audience behavior, audience and performer bad behavior, the all-night concert, sleeping through a concert, waking up in the midst of a concert, the deskilling and reskilling of conventionally trained musicians, the curious and occasionally vestigial role of the composer in experimental music, a lifetime of fraught relations with one's first instrument, and more" (135-136). Within this context, Grubb reflects on improvisation as a process of doing things once and once only.
His reflection takes the form of a book-length prose poem, a hallucination of swirling words cascading over and around themselves as descriptions of an imaginary, but all too real musical performance by an unnamed musician who improvises a series of invented musical instruments and explores how to perform them, all before an audience that is alternately thoughtful, willing to participate (some help the musician, others join the improvisation), disruptive, and asleep. This concert is anything but smooth flowing, with numerous interruptions that become in-depth discussions and musical demonstrations, and toward the conclusion, self-reflections of Grubbs' own musical fears and revelations.
But, such is improvisation. With no planned passage, and no clear, or safe, landing guaranteed, both the reader and the writer must trust their instincts to put one note, one sequence, one line beyond another, to keep going, following, leading, creating, reflecting wherever the muse may lead.
The concert begins with the audience assembled "for the musician's bruited first contact with an instrument we can't yet visualize and cannot imagine what it could be made to sound like" (1).
After sliding an instrument case from behind a door at the back of the stage, the musician "makes as if to remove an instrument . . . whose contours remain obscure. . . . The instrument waits in a case that's free of the first sign of wear. For all we can see it looks as if it has never left this room" (2).
The musician opens the case and the instrument inside spills onto the stage, a mudflow of debris. What to make of these parts? What instrument will emerge? How to play that instrument? How to deal with the aftermath of a performance? Grubbs' pursues answers in his prose poem.
"Picture the instrument in no one's memory. Picture the instrument yet to be summoned. Picture the instrument the musician hasn't in fact held or beheld, the instrument the musician's far from assembling. Picture breath stopped short. With breath artfully diverted. With breath whistling across aperture in the dark." (7)
"The musician imagines that each performance will end in mishap. She expects each performance to proceed by way of mishap and to end with telltale overlong silence. With the wrong silence, with an embarrassed gap, with a perfunctory and polite response, with merely polite conversation, and with post-concert reciprocal avoidance. She rues the fact that she's perfectly sober and is of mixed feelings that in a few minutes she'll be drinking as fast as she can. Impossible not to overshoot one's mark one's question mark." (98)
At the poem's end Grubbs reveals himself as the musician. The uncertainties and questions are his as he considers a solo improvised performance on a piano, an instrument assembled from multiple parts. His first instrument. An instrument played in different ways, all unknown as the musician, Grubbs, begins to think of improvisation.
"A grand piano, the patience of a grand piano, parked and unattended (105). This is my instrument. I know where it ends. . . . [F]or a time I thought of it as my one instrument and also as the means of visualizing music. Then I dove into the space between keys and learned what is not piano. . . . I know the piano as touch, I turn to the piano as a machine to amplify touch, a machine to flesh out touch; it presses flesh with, it shakes hands with the machinery of my arms, hands, fingertips." (108)
"A dream, age twelve, of improvising, before the word meant anything to me. . . . I saw myself playing without reference to anything I previously had learned, I moved in a space of non-anticipation, calm compelled. . . . Toward the end of the dream I found myself searching for the instrument that I thought I had left leaning against a wall, behind a door." (117)
"What does it mean to reshuffle the deck? . . . I don't know which direction I'm headed, but the fact of the piano tells me I need a plan, and that's not how I hoped to begin." (118-119)
The musician, Grubbs, makes two false starts at an improvisation:
"The problem is that I find myself seated at a piano and don't have the faintest idea how to begin. Nor have I any impulse to do so. With each passing second it's increasingly unlikely that I'll start again, that I'll make the mistake of once again touching the keys." (125)
Begin again. Improvise. Continue.
At the conclusion of the imagined, improvised concert, at the conclusion of his elegantly and exquisitely realized prose poem, Now that the audience is assembled highlights the double duty of the long poem form. On one hand, says Grubbs, an internationally recognized musician and recording artist and professor of music, the challenge is to describe a fictional musical performance while simultaneously exploring "what it suggests about artistic production as a form of counting down—sometimes tossing sandbags out of the hot-air balloon, sometimes just moving toward zero" (136).
Now that the audience is assembled is an interesting and compelling exploration of the boundaries between literature and improvised music, of waiting for the work to age, and between various and different media presentations of its content. Working with other musicians and multimedia designers, Grubbs has realized his latest book as readings, public discussions, collaborative sound installations and recordings, exhibitions, wall drawings, and live performances.
In each, and all, Grubbs presents a noisy vision of an improvised musical performance through a different form of writing. Come early, stay all night, get on the stage with the performer, participate or you won't feel a thing.