Ether Talk

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Visual. Concrete. Sound” announces the sleek, minimalist homepage of UbuWeb, giving little indication of the vast store of sonic, visual and textual treasures that lies within: thousands of MP3 and real audio soundfiles that archive a vast area in the international history of oral and sound poetry, sound art, and concrete poetry beginning with recordings of Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky and Dadaist Hugo Ball (from 1916!), passing through Antonin Artaud’s 1948 radio broadcast, a miscellany of Beats, Lettrists and Fluxus, current Wire obsessions like Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, to more contemporary sound work from the likes of Vito Acconci, text-sound composer Charles Amirkhanian and Cecil Taylor. There are whole issues of pioneer sound art magazine Tellus, an impressively complete set of MP3s of New York poet John Giorno’s Poetry Works LPs, all unavailable on CD, including the historic Dial a Poem series from the early 1970s and the William Burroughs celebration, 1978s The Nova Convention. And to go along with it, there’s a large, exquisite selection of writings that document the evolution of the sound and concrete poetry worlds.

UbuWeb was begun in 1996 by New York based visual artist, writer and DJ Kenneth Goldsmith, as a side project to a web design business he was running at the time. As the possibility of distributing audiofiles over the internet developed in the late 1990s, Goldsmith’s voracious appetite for burning and ripping obscure out of print vinyl and CDs and posting them online soon overwhelmed even the generous ISP who was donating free server space to him. Charles Bernstein, guru of language poetry at U. Buffalo (famous, amongst other things, for the presence of minimalist Tony Conrad), offered unlimited server space at the university and Goldsmith has made full use of it, making UbuWeb the largest resource for the sound/concrete/poetry nexus on the web today.

Goldsmith, who grew up on a downtown New York sonic diet of punk, funk, jazz and head music, was converted to sound art around 1990 while working in his studio in downtown Manhattan. “It was around the time of the first De La Soul LP, and somebody was walking by with a beatbox blasting and as I listened, it sounded just like music concrete to me. And I thought: wow, someone is walking down Houston Street playing Pierre Henry??? And what I realized was that it was actually a break between two rap tunes. With hip hop, you could take any sound at all, even the most abstract ones, and the minute you put a beat behind it, it’s legitimized. Whereas if you take the beat out, it becomes completely illegitimate and has no place in the culture.”

Goldsmith has made this illegitimacy his modus operandi on his WFMU radio show Unpopular Music a.k.a. Anal Magic, which has become infamous for sonic headfucks like his broadcast of the whole of John Cage’s Indeterminacy last Thanksgiving to New York City. Goldsmith’s own work has walked a fascinating path between concrete poetry, John Cage, and hiphop. At one point, his concrete poems (see picture above) were set to be presented in collaboration with rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien. Del bailed, but the project later evolved into his collaboration with Cage’s favorite vocalist Joan La Barbara as a book/CD 73 Poems. While a lot of language poetry sounds pretty academic, Goldsmith’s interest in hiphop has given his work a vibrancy that’s firmly rooted in everyday NYC language and experience. Speaking of his book No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, a vast catalog of found and processed words and phrases which he describes as “a big rhyming text”, he notes “I was listening to a lot of rap, but seeing the connection between James Joyce and rap in the compounding of words. “Funkdoobiest” could be something ripped out of Finnegan’s Wake.”

Goldsmith sees the web in the same terms. “For a long time, the URL for Modell’s wasn’t modells.com, it was “gottagotomos.com”: it’s out of hiphop culture and it’s out of Finnegan’s Wake. The web is the manifestation in concrete language terms of the meaning of hiphop and Joyce.”

For Goldsmith the future of sound poetry is digital and web-based, because of the access the internet provides to an enormous archive of sound. He walks over to his turntables and puts on Stock, Hausen and Walkman’s “Flogging” from Ventilating Deer complete with it’s sample of Henri Chopin’s sound poem classic “Rouge”. “Everybody’s grabbing stuff from the web, including UBUweb. People are going to be chopping this stuff up and reassembling it. It’s totally thrilling. I hope people are sampling the hell out of UbuWeb!”

Asked whether he’s had any Napster-style problems putting up such a vast collection of proprietary audio material he shakes his head. “If John Giorno called me and told me he was putting the Poetry Works stuff back in print, I’d take it down tomorrow because the job would be done. The distribution for these things was extremely marginal in the first place: mostly they just die, or become huge collectors items. None of the MP3s on UbuWeb are in print. The Henri Chopin all comes from out of print vinyl. I’d never take an in print Alga Marghen record and put it up. I realize there’s no economy there, and I’m not going to take money out of the hands of people that are doing good work. I’ll put up real audio files, but the sound quality there is degraded to the point that it just stimulates sales for the CDs.”

Goldsmith sees UbuWeb (on which he is an anonymous presence, and for which he receives no money) as an example of the way in which the web functions as a gift economy in which low production costs and free distribution make possible a utopian cornucopeia of hitherto unknown experimental richness. “The web is a new way of giving shit away – in a major way. And the web is made for poetry. The avant garde remains the counterculture – non-narrative, opaque, things without beats and stories, things that are weird. As the culture gets more and more oriented to pop, to beats, rhythm and capitalism (R n’ C?), this stuff is just forgotten. There was a moment where the avant garde and the main culture came together in the sixties, when the Beatles were talking about Stockhausen and Cage, all that crossover stuff. The eighties killed it. So this stuff remains as potent as ever. Nobody makes money doing this, so why not give it away? It’s beautiful.”

UbuWeb is at http://www.ubu.com. Goldsmith’s writing is at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/. His musical writings are at A Popular Guide to Unpopular Music at http://www.wfmu.org/~kennyg/.