Brion Gysin at the New Museum

Brion Gysin: Dream Machine at the New Museum in New York City is the first US retrospective show of the Beat multimedia pioneer.  I have yet to see the show, so I’ll save a review of it until that time. For me, Gysin is a major figure in the history of the theory and practice of copying and it’s great to see him getting attention via this show, Nik Sheehan’s excellent documentary Flicker, and John Geiger’s recent biography, Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted and the collection Brion Gysin: Tuning in to the Multimedia Age.

Most of Gysin’s work involves the exploration of the power of repetition – sound poems like “I Am What I Am”, the large paintings with their waves of script, the light loops of the Dream Machine.  The cut up, which Gysin invented according to William S. Burroughs, is not just the act of cutting up a text, but the repeated attempt to reconfigure and rearrange the fragments through permutation into a new whole which speaks the hidden truth contained in the original.

While it’s clear that the cut up has a long history in art, Gysin, along with Burroughs, may well have been the first to explictly claim that this practice exposed the nature of reality itself: that reality is “nothing but the recordings”.  Gysin claimed that the idea of the cut up came to him in Tangier, where he was running a nightclub and discovered one day that disgruntled employees had placed a spell on the restaurant in the form of an object with a text and various magical substances mixed together.

One of the core claims of In Praise of Copying is that all copies are “objects made out of fragments of other objects”, and since indeed all objects are “made of out of fragments of other objects”, everything is, in a specific sense, a copy.  While I take this insight in the direction of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy, which makes this argument in a very rigorous and disciplined way, I think I first became familiar with it from early Industrial musicians such as Cabaret Voltaire, writers such as Burroughs and John Giorno, the turntablist experiments of early hip-hop — and Gysin, who I saw in England in the early 1980s.

The aesthetic practice of collage, montage, cut up, has mostly been absorbed into the fabric of contemporary capitalism, where Dell’s post industrial assembly line will build you a computer that is a montage of Your Choices.  But the fundamental emptiness of everything that Gysin and others intuited through the practice of the cut up (which is mistaken today for a fascination with “multimedia” — another reification) remains in some sense the political problem today. It raises the question for example of property including intellectual property.  For a few years in the 1960s, the art object dematerialized (as Lucy Lippold puts it). But the commodity didn’t.   We don’t know how to talk about emptiness, or how to live in a universe which is an assemblage of temporary fragments.  Gysin, Burroughs, Giorno and those who worked through the cut up were trying to understand how best to relate to, align ourselves with this emptiness.  That’s still a work in progress …

Brion Gysin w. John Giorno, I Give You/You Give Me, 1965

Culture(s) of Copy/ 重復 重造 翻譯

An intriguing exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Hong Kong.  Contemporary art devoted to cross cultural thinking about the phenomenon of the copy.  Third part in a series of exhibitions that’s included History Will Repeat Itself – Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (media) Art and Performance (2008) and Chinese Copy Art (2007) — this last one being an exhibition of German photographer Michael Wolf’s excellent photographs of south Chinese artists who make copies of famous artworks.

From the exhibition website: “It became clear that the term REPEAT should translate into COPY. ‘Culture(s) of Copy’ is about the phenomenon of the copy as a global cultural strategy. The discussion of intellectual property, as it has already been treated in diverse ways, is only one angle from which one can approach the topic. The ‘copy’ here is understood positively as a remake, a cultural translation and an achievement (“You have to copy a master to become a master”, “The best way to appreciate a master is to copy him”).”

No disagreement there.

Michael Wolf, “Copy Art #13, Vincent van Gogh, Euro 4.20”

Counterfeiting and Authentication in the Age of Forensics

Fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker by David Grann entitled “The Mark of a Masterpiece”. It concerns shifts in the ways in which paintings are authenticated or revealed to be forgeries — in particular,  the use of forensic techniques such as fingerprinting that claim to bypass the traditional methods of the art expert or connoisseur to scientifically validate authorship or otherwise. It’s a topic that I touched on in the “deception” chapter of In Praise of Copying, noting the complexity of all claims of authenticity.

It’s interesting how easily the alleged forger becomes an alleged expert and vice versa.  The piece, “classic sprawling New Yorker stuff”, as the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation puts it, is elegantly written, showing how Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian art expert, debunks the claims of art world connoisseurs with his forensic methods … but then reverses itself in the second half, to examine the possibility that Biro himself is forging fingerprints in order to establish authentications.  While the author concludes that maybe the old fashioned methods of the connoisseur are perhaps more to be trusted than the flashy new gimmicks of the scientist, my own conclusion is that there are no claims of authenticity that are simply true.  Everyone is to some degree copying, and all methods of establishing authenticity can be copied.  Caveat Emptor. I think that behind the author’s faith in the connoisseur is the notion that even when two paintings look identical, the one that is the original must necessarily be the more aesthetically satisfying and that therefore someone with a refined aesthetic sensibility can not only make aesthetic judgments, but distinguish originals from copies.  I greatly admire the ability to discern very subtle differences between objects, but I find the way that this ability is deployed in making judgments of authenticity by no means self-evident.

Speaking of which, it’s striking how almost every event, every action, every actor in the piece involves money. The paintings are valuable or not, the opinions of experts cost money, even the journalist gets paid to write a piece. Which is to say that the question of authenticity, of what is original and what is copy, is an economic question. It involves commodities and commodification.  And commodification is itself mimetic, as Marx told us.  The object that appears in the marketplace, the expert opinion that is sold for $2000 a day — are already “copies”, with that dazzling power of the copy to enchant – and deceive – us.  The copies proliferate … and the more we look for them, the more we find them, everywhere around us  …


“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (traditional, 19th C, Appalachians, based on an 18th C English folk song) covered by Patti Waters on Sings (ESP, 1966)

This lovely devotional folk song, first written down by the great Kentucky song collector John Jacob Niles was given a decisive twist in the late 1950s by Nina Simone, who brought out the civil rights era politics contained in celebrating the word “black”. Patty Waters’ version, recorded in 1965, is something else again. A crude biographical reading – that Waters, who is white, is singing about her lover and father of her child, Sun Ra Arkestra drummer Clifford Jarvis, who was black – only scratches the surface. Waters’ epic thirteen minute take on the song, accompanied by mystical sub-Cecil Taylor piano, bass and drums sounds like a kettle slowly rising to a boil. You can hear Albert Ayler, who recommended her to ESP, and his extraordinary take on standards like “Summertime” in Waters’ voice, as she moves from an achingly slow, erotic take on the words, individual syllables turning into pulsating drones, to a wordless moan, then an incantatory, stabbing repetition of the word black. It all builds to a crescendo containing not just a proud erotic celebration of Waters’ love for a black man, or a political act of solidarity with African American or global blackness, but the fully unleashed feminine power of darkness. Waters becomes black Mother Kali as universal force of embodied divine energy, joyfully tearing apart the known universe and rebuilding it as a space of manifested freedom into which women like Linda Sharrock, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Diamanda Galas would walk and develop their own voices and styles. And she doesn’t even get beyond the first verse of the song. Thirteen minutes. Imagine what might happen if she sang the whole song.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005 in a feature on mutant song.


Yoshi Wada – The Appointed Cloud (EM CD)

Yoshi Wada is one of the great still unheard minimalists. Born in Japan, Wada studied with La Monte Young in the late 1960s and later with Pandit Pran Nath. He made a number of remarkable drone based recordings, which have recently begun to be reissued, such as last year’s “The Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile”. The Appointed Cloud was prepared as an interactive sound installation for the Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science in 1987, where the performance from which this recording was made also took place. Sound is produced by “80 organ pipes, giant hanging sheet metal strip, sirens and steam pipe gong” which are controlled by a computer. The sound is colossal, and builds on the resonant possibilities of the Great Hall and the just intonation tuning systems that Wada learnt about from Young. The sound is drone based, but it is quite varied, shifting from rumbling subsonic percussive sounds to passages of bagpipe like repetitive arpeggiated chords, to a throbbing dense bass drone. All in all a key addition to our understanding of the minimalist diaspora.

Originally published in Signal to Noise, 2008.

visonarystate copy

Erik Davis – The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle Books, $40 US hardback).

Erik Davis is our foremost chronicler of the mutant forms religion and/or spirituality take in contemporary culture. As such, his research has taken him to some rather strange places. His first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information brought together an encyclopedic collection of examples of apocalyptic spirituality, all of them mediated by technology, from scientology, to Philip K. Dick, to psychedelics to Marshall McLuhan. His second book is a remarkable 150 page exegesis of that great artefact of 1970s rock and roll, Led Zeppelin IV whose grungy but glorious spiritual aspirations, encrypted in citations from Lord of the Rings and Aleister Crowley Davis documents and appraises in a humorous but sympathetic tone.
Perhaps no surprise then that here Davis offers us nothing less than a history of spirituality in California, told in a series of meditations on particular places of significance to that history, and illustrated with photos by fellow Californian Michael Raumer. Like most of his previous objects of investigation, California has the status of a degraded object, the archetypal, parodic embodiment of New Age, credit card assisted spiritual delusions and dreaming. The clichés and indignation that accompanies them have a long history, running all the way back to Thomas Lake Harris, who founded a Theo-Socialist commune in Santa Rosa in 1875, espousing celibacy, practices of “Divine Respiration” and visualization techniques that Davis likens to “Victorian Tantra”. Harris was forced to flee in 1892 after being exposed by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter to whom he made sexual advances. Harris, along with California as a whole, is “cheesy” but “juicy” to use two of Davis’ favorite adjectives. Davis obviously loves the paradoxes and contradictions that come with the territory, and shows how deeply California, as place, as idea is entangled in notions of spiritual renewal and reinvention, figured in a series of booms, busts and eternal returns, that run from Mormon renegade Elder Brennan, founder of the first spa in California to today’s Burning Man festival.
Davis acts as an archeological guide to a land littered of ruins, most of them built within living memory. Asian religions fare relatively well in this spiritual demolition derby: the Kwan Tai taoist temple in Mendocino, still active today, dates back to 1882 and the early waves of Chinese immigration to the west coast, while Ramakrishna and Vivekenanda’s Vedanta Society Old Temple in San Francisco dates back to 1903. Yogananda wrote his Autobiography of a Yogi in Encinitas, still the home of a thriving ashram. Isherwood, Alan Watts, Huxley, Leary, the whole parade of literary and spiritual pranksters who made their homes in California at one time or another are here.
Davis’ conclusions, embedded in a final meditation on Californian sunsets, are optimistic: “In contrast with established religions, California consciousness affirms the modern condition, in all its vertiginous freedom. But it also seeks to transcend the narrow materialism of secular rationality, even as it reconciles spirit with a cosmic sense of the material world. Awakening today is a physical matter, rooted in the body of sensation and the ecological realities that pin us to this spinning ball. But consciousness also continues to surf the cusp of novelty, discovering a Promethean sensibility that is not content with limitations, earthly or otherwise.” It is unclear what the ocean here is – America? Capitalism? Nature? The Divine? – but there’s no question that the waves keep rolling in.

Originally published in Ascent, 2007.

Various – Streets of Lhasa

Various – Streets of Lhasa (Sublime Frequencies, SF 16)
Various – Harmika Yab Yum: Folk Sounds From Nepal (Sublime Frequencies, SF 17)
Two more disks in Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies’ remarkable series of experimental ethnomusicological recordings – this time from two Himalayan regions: Nepal and Tibet. Like many of the other disks in the series, these disks are montages of street recordings, local performers and radio recordings. Streets of Lhasa gives us a rare opportunity to sample some contemporary Tibetan sounds from the now-occupied by the Chinese former capital, courtesy of Zhang Jian of Beijing base art collective fm3, who recorded the sounds in Lhasa in 2003, hiring street musicians to record. Most impressive are the songs featuring the banjo-like “San Xian”. Although not as impressive as some of the home made cassettes of the stuff for sale in Lhasa, these recordings, with their driving, stomping Dock Boggs-like rowdiness will make anyone who thinks Tibet is all chanting monks and New Age flutes, think again. Tibet remains the wild west and its folk music has a lawless, nomadic quality, even if there are Chinese police stations and army roadblocks everywhere these days. Harmika Yabyum features what are now more familiar sounds of various Indian Bollywood songs and other popular styles, alongside vibrant recordings of a Nepalese wedding procession, snake charmers, Buddhist monks performing rituals and various street sounds. The highlight is a recording of ritual slaughter for the goddess Durga that dissolves into ambient street sounds. As with other SF releases, there’s a certain essential shock here – a breakthrough into a sound-world that remains full of life.

originally published in Signal to Noise.


Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Éthiopiques 21: Ethiopia Song: Piano Solo
Buda Musique CD

Francis Falceto’s marvelous collection of Ethiopian music continues to grow and expand in unexpected ways. Like the excellent Alému Aga disk Harp of King David, volume 21 of the series is something of an anomaly, collecting records from disks of piano music by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, originally released over a thirty year period beginning in 1963.

Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was born in 1923, into an illustrious Ethiopian family. Her father, known as the Kèntiba Guèbrou, was a prominent Ethiopian educator and intellectual who gave his daughter an education in a Swiss boarding school, where she began studying piano and violin. These studies continued when her family returned to Ethiopia. In 1948 Guèbrou, disenchanted by the world of the Imperial court, joined a nunnery and later began teaching at an orphanage in Addis Ababa, at which point she took up music again, composing and performing music to financially support the orphanage. She lives today in an Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem – having forged a very different kind of musical life.

Guèbrou’s performances recall at times a stuttering Bud Powell, or percussive navigations of Ravel and Debussy’s piano music. The effect is charming, though sometimes oppressively colonial sounding, like someone trying to play their way out of a trap, the trap in this case being a piano. Falceto shrewdly observes that this is a “truly Ethiopian” music that is at the same time “absolutely atypical in the country’s musical culture”. Melodic shadows of the pentatonic pop sound of the other Éthiopiques volumes loom everywhere. It’s happy/sad music, nostalgia piled upon nostalgia, but possessing a dignity all of its own.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

The Silt – Earlier Ways of Wandering

The Silt – Earlier Ways of Wandering
Rat-Drifting(Rat-Drifting 6)
Toronto’s Rat-Drifting label has a house sound something like “Tonight’s the Night” period Neil Young broadcast through a cheap megaphone or Brazilian MPB slowed down to 16 r.p.m. The label’s various acts are mostly permutations of a group of the city’s improvising community, including Eric Cheneaux, Martin Arnold, Ryan Driver, Marcus Quin and Doug Tielli, recording under a variety of names including the Draperies, the Reveries and The Silt, whose Red Whistle, a surprising, melancholy set of avant-ballads and folk rock is the label’s biggest hit so far. Although Toronto itself feels like an East Coast city, one can drive west for 24 hours and still be in Ontario, and the melancholy of those vast spaces informs many of the city’s acts, including current break out stars like Broken Social Scene. Earlier Ways to Wander, The Silt’s second effort, is more rocking than their first, but still has that aching sadness found on some of the labels other releases, including ex-Crash Vegas singer Michelle McAdorey’s beautiful Love Don’t Change, recorded last year with Chenaux. The Silt sounds hushed against that vastness, and unlikely, gorgeous pop songs like “Sloppy Ground” and “One Day Will come” loom out of the dark like a human settlement suddenly seen on the prairie at night.

originally published in Signal to Noise.

The Reveries Matchmakers

The Reveries
Matchmakers Volume 1: The Music of Willie Nelson
Rat-Drifting CD

The Reveries are one of the core configurations of improvisers who record for Toronto’s Rat-Drifting label. Composed of Ryan Driver, Doug Tielli and Eric Chenaux (whose mutant folk stylings have recently appeared on Constellation), The Reveries are a woozy jug band that sing and play songs under conditions involving various physical and acoustic handicaps and distortions, notably tiny “mouth speakers” places inside their mouths that act like natural wah wah pedals for whatever sounds are transmitted through them. The result is a necessary drift towards what is called improvisation, a hazy psychedelia where their sweet harmonies and Neil Young guitar playing go gently off the radar. Previous recordings such as Live in Bologna and Blasé Kisses have explored standards such as “Moonlight in Vermont” creating eccentric drifting lines between Frank Sinatra and Captain Beefheart. Matchmakers vol. 1 consists of versions of a number of Willie Nelson songs – the group have also done remarkable sets of Nick Cave, Sade and Prince songs live. The concreteness of Nelson’s songs means that they are strong enough to support all manner of improvisation and digression, meaning that the pleasure of song structure and narrative are never far away, no matter what kind of spluttering storm the “mouth speakers”, “street sweeper bristle bass” and chattering guitars, which collectively sound like a drunken orchestra of mouth harps, are cooking up. In fact, the personal and lyrical apocalypses found in songs like “I’ve Just Destroyed the World I’m Living In” or “Crazy”, are almost waiting to be stripped gently but lovingly of the country and western generic shapes that they are usually wrapped in. “Matchmakers” implies an unlikely but timely and happy event of love, a moment of recognition, and the Reveries love for these songs is obvious. In this, their finest recording so far, the biggest surprise is how much the songs love them back.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.