MORE DARK THAN SHARK - FEATURE
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
OPAL INFORMATION (NUMBER 19, 1991)
Opal Information was a publication that discussed the on-going work of Brian Eno and other artists released by his Opal Music label. Produced by Opal Ltd., it appeared on an irregular basis from 1986 until 1996. Each of the twenty-seven issues was comprised of approximately fifteen to twenty pages. The following is the complete text of Number 19, featuring Harold Budd and Brian Eno -
"Ever since I was a boy I absolutely adored music that went right for the jugular, and art that is extremist without tricks."
Harold Budd doesn't have tricks, but his music is full of illusions, revealing layers of meaning with each listen to his elegiac melodies. With his newest album, By The Dawn's Early Light, the keyboardist and composer has created his most organic work since his 1978 recording, The Pavilion Of Dreams. With musical guests ex-Be-Bop Deluxe founder and guitarist Bill Nelson, pedal steel player B.J. Cole, violinist Mabel Wong and Harpist Susan Allen, he's orchestrated a dark, translucent chamber music that's framed by imagery-laden poetry.
Budd's music has always had poetic allusions with titles like Ice Floes In Eden, Wind In Lonely Fences, and Algebra Of Darkness. Many of them come from a journal of phrases that he kept, but he only began writing actual poems after returning to Los Angeles from a three-year stay in England. "Well, I'm not sure how the poetry came about," he ponders. "I love coming up with titles and I love writing letters. So that's the extent of my expertise as a writer. When I moved back to America a year and a half ago, I started to turn my proclivity for coming up with emotionally loaded titles, shall we say, and putting them into some form of coherence that formed a narrative, i.e a poem."
But then, Budd took another step and began hearing the music lying dormant in his words. "I stumbled across a magnificent book of pastels, with words by the Italian painter, Sandro Chia, and suddenly a light went on in my head. I said, of course, why am I just sitting on this, when my own writing is fecund with the possibilities of making music to it."
Rather than make a poetry and music album or an interweaving of the two, Budd uses the poems to frame a suite of compositions. They begin, centre and conclude the album like a prelude, commentary and recapitulation. It's potent imagery that Budd conjures up, laden with memories of his childhood in the desert. You can almost feel the heat and dust rising around his words.
A definitely different different
flat plateau you know kind of
flattened sandstone that flakes
when you hit it with your heels
and Christ you're doing a
2-step like Jesus-on-fire
- No Name
Hearing Budd's words, you can understand even more the music he's made for the last thirteen years, the sense of serenity that the desert brings with an underlying sense of danger. "There was one in particular I thought was very strong," he reflects. "It was called Boy about 10, which was rather autobiographical, looking back on certain small, emotionally charged, important aspects of my own boyhood. I put it into a form where it looked like it would mean something to someone else, rather than just kind of unloading psychological baggage on people. You know, sort of distasteful new age stuff, may I say."
Fat boosters throwing rocks at rattlesnake
Xylophones rattle as the snake whirls
then slows to stupid circling
- Boy about 10
Budd has always been wary of being called New Age. It's an association he's abhorred since he collaborated with Brian Eno on the albums The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984). As part of Eno's Ambient Music series, Budd has often been linked with background and meditative music, but as he'll be the first to tell you, it's as far from his sensibilities as you can get. "I think that New Age is lightweight mysticism and completely antithetical to my concerns as a composer in America," he asserts.
It's easy to forget that Budd was part of the '60s avant-garde in California, creating minimalist works that involved conception and tolerance like The Candy-Apple Revision, a twenty-four hour work for solo gong. Even his first move towards a more melodic style was marked by controversy when he had his angelic Madrigals Of The Rose Angel performed by a topless female chorus.
That work - sung by topless females - is part of his 1978 album, The Pavilion Of Dreams, where he began exploring a more lyrical sound for small chamber groups. It included jazz saxophonist Marion Brown, whose soulfully sweet alto saxophone is the centrepiece of Bismillah Rrahmani Rrahim. In addition, it was produced by Brian Eno and contains performances from composers Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman.
It's this album more than others that bears reference to By The Dawn's Early Light. While Budd has often relied on the feeling of the moment for his albus, this one is through-composed, although with ample room for individual expression. "It is free and open," he says. "On many of the pieces, it ends when it seems psychologically fit to the end. There are sections in it that are left open purposefully to take advantage of the fact that something is really clicking well. And everybody has their assignment and knows what to do. And with simple eye contact we can see that things are going well and we are going to stretch this, expand this idea out a little further before it changes."
By The Dawn's Early Light reveals more gems with each listening. You might get snared on Bill Nelson's sinewy E-Bow guitar solo on Down The Slopes To The Meadow, the gentle harp and pedal steel duet of The Child In The Sylvan Field or the haunting viola melody of The Photo Of Santiago McKinn.
Budd eschews the synthesizers that have marked his last two albums, The White Arcades and Lovely Thunder, moving instead towards a grittier and acoustic sound. "Yes, I'm bloody sick and tired of that," he exclaims. "They just don't offer anything that seems very crucial and pertinent to me at the moment. Hitting a note that is a kind of sampled trumpet sound, it's not the thrill of pointing to a trumpet player and then hearing the sound from another human being coming at you, fraught with all the frailties and intonation mistakes and everything that's there, that you don't have anything to do with, really."
In the wake of a recent surge in nationalism, you might think that By The Dawn's Early Light was a commentary, but Budd says no. "Not at all, no," he says emphatically. "It just refers to America, not necessarily in a patriotic way. I would say it refers to America in the same way William Burroughs' By Twilight's Last Gleaming does. It's one of those phrases in the American lingo that has a catch to it. You know exactly what you are talking about suddenly. You are talking about this great land of ours with all its ghastliness and all its wonderfulness."
He used to call his compositions "pretty music". For Harold Budd, that doesn't mean sweet or sentimental, but music that's beautiful in the extreme. "I still don't mind the label 'pretty' because my only concerns as a composer are to make it devastating, and if it calls upon out and out prettiness, then God, I'm right with it. Absolutely!"
HAROLD BUDD INTERVIEW (WITH DAVID SNOW)
DS: The record you've just finished is quite different to your last release. Is it a new departure for you?
HB: In some ways. It's a return to interaction with other musicians, and it's largely acoustic-based music.
DS: Where did it start, and what direction did you take?
HB: I wanted to get away from what I had been doing in the past, the solo albums made at the Sousa Studio for example. That work was of its time, and I didn't want to do it again - it had run its course. I wanted to get some 'feedback'. I hate the word, but there it is. I needed to get some charge from what other people were doing, some input from where they were coming from. And I wanted to involve certain sounds that I love very much, such as pedal-steel guitar and harp, which I had stopped using.
But it occurred to me that to do that I would have to get back to writing, because I would be working with musicians whose primary way of playing music was not improvisational at all. They would need to see what was required. I had to find a language that accommodated people who could only read music, and people who couldn't read music at all, and made them both feel perfectly at home and unafraid of one another's skills.
On my return to L.A. I had started to write poetry. Lots of it. And some of it, I thought, was really quite ok, and I thought maybe they might be lyrics soe day. I wanted to do a songs album, and was really looking for a strategy for making a composition, in fact a whole album of music.
To cut a long story short, I was in a bookshop in Tokyo and came across a booklet of pastels and words by an Italian painter named Sandro Chia, whose work I already admired. And a light went off in my head - and it just dawned on e suddenly - and I said "Christ! I've been writing all this stuff, why not use it as a basis for generating a composition? One that really means something, that isn't just plucked arbitrarily out of the air, but is really illustrating emotions and the processes by which we change". It just came to me in a flash, I swear, and it solved everything. All I had to do then was get to work.
DS: Prior to this point, you had decided that you were finished with previous methods? Did you have any idea of what the next thing might be, or were you fishing?
HB: No, I was fishing.
DS: And at the time the poems were just your sort of emotional locket, they weren't intended to be any more than that?
HB: Exactly right. The poems had no other purpose, they were just existing in a vacuum at the time.
DS: Was writing poems, or doing any sort of writing, something you had returned to? Was it an old habit that you had stopped for a while, or was it something completely new?
HB: No, I hadn't written any poetry in the past.
DS: But you'd written a lot of titles.
HB: Yes, come to think of it, that was my version of poetry. I'm a real whizz at titles, that part's the most fun. Unfortunately, this time, I already had the titles pretty much all set to go. I remember my son Terrence spending an afternoon with me, walking over to the piano and saying "Christ! Dad, you must be the only composer who's writing a piece called Dead Horse Alive With Flies!" It really is a great title.
DS: So now you had a strategy on how to proceed. What happened next?
HB: Well, this is where it gets difficult, because I didn't want to start coming up with music that would cheapen such a bitchin' idea. So it was a matter of really being very careful. Careful is not quite the right word. Being very suspicious of what I thought were initially good ideas, which turned out not to be, or ideas that were so obvious that they were cheapening in a way. In other words, I had a kind of inbuilt editorship, and a very critical one too. I have a horror of letting something out that I think is cheap in the pop sense, like cheap emotions, or common everyday love twinges. I think there can only be so much of that, and I don't want to be responsible for any of it. But of course it shows up in everybody's work sometime. You write really shitty things, even though they are well constructed, that don't match up to the level that you demand of yourself.
DS: So the inspiration came from the poems, and the challenge was to come up with a sonic interpretation?
HB: Well, I think that's being too high falutin'. I was just trying to create an emotional aspect, where both these aspects could live side by side.
DS: And the challenge was to make the musical part of it not sound stupid.
DS: That both aspects had equal weight.
HB: Yeah, exactly. That's hard.
DS: Can you give us an example? I don't know if I'm asking an answerable question but...
HB: (laughing) You know, I'm not sure if you are either.
DS: Can you give an example of what you would have thrown out?
HB: I swear I just can't. I don't know.
DS: I'm just trying to see your cheap side! OK, but at the same time you were also having to write both for musicians who only read, and musicians who don't read at all.
How do you do that, because at this point you had already chosen some of the people you wanted to work with, right?
HB: Yes. It sounds like an impossible situation, but in fact there was nothing to it. It simply took care of itself. I found it to be that simple, nothing had to be solved. I don't know by what alchemy this happens, but there was absolutely no problem. It just required the combination of A plus B, and as long as you don't bend the rules and don't try to turn A into something that they are not, these people can do it.
DS: At this point you knew at least what instruments you were using.
HB: Well, I had messed around with quite a number of combinations, most of which were really very, very nice, but they were taking away more than they contributed. For example, I wanted a very large string section for a while, but that would have required so much writing, and I could get the same effect just by not having them there. I mean I got something else instead. Something a little bit rawer. Maybe that's my version of minimalism - to not use stuff that doesn't really help a lot, so what you are left with is something else. That is, you get the full measure from the smallest possible quantity. I think that's what minimalism is anyway. But I'm still going to be accused of that. I'll go along with it.
DS: You chose Bill Nelson and B.J. Cole?
HB: Right. And then Mable Wong, a viola player from New Orleans, and Susan Allen who was a student at Cal Arts all those years ago. In the back of my mind I always wanted to use her because she understands all the kinds of shorthand I like to use for a harpist.
DS: Was the recording fast, and was it all live, including your parts?
HB: Yes, quite fast, and yes, all live.
DS: How much did things change, in the recording process, from what you already had in your mind at the beginning?
HB: Well, for example, at the start of the piece called Boy About 10, I wrote out some parts, the principal part being the viola solo, but for the rest I just had notes. They heard the chords, the mood, the atmosphere, and after a few run throughs they understood it. But almost every piece had a different kind of problem with a different kind of solution. After each piece was tracked there was a long, pretty involved situation of cleaning things up, of making it nice. It wasn't exactly 'push the tape, start playing, ah, stop the tape' and we're done. It never happened that way. You get the main recording done, but then find things that just aren't working, which you can't predict. You go back and you do them again, separately, again and again, take things out, put them back in again. Like at the end of recording Boy About 10 for example, a little harp thing appeared right at the end which wasn't there at the beginning, and I gave Suzy a funny look, and she started talking while the microphone was still on, and I said, "Well, I thought the piece had ended". So I had to go back and erase "Well, I thought the piece had ended", and then tell her "the piece hadn't ended, and please put in one more of those will you?
That's a simple example, but it's a process like that the whole time. But I must say that I really knew what I wanted in almost every instance, and I think that's one of the reasons the recording went so efficiently and so quickly. I knew when a piece wasn't working, and I promised myself that I would not waste any time on it. That happened on quite a number of occasions. At least four or five pieces were abandoned.
DS: Did the ones that did work, the ones that you kept going with, turn out pretty much the way you imagined they would?
HB: Yes. It's quite a rush to actually hear something when it has been just imagination for four months. To actually hear it done was a real thrill. You know, you are kind of patting yourself on the back saying "you were right!" That's a great feeling.
Obviously I couldn't predict what, for example, Bill Nelson's solos were going to be. I just knew that they were going to sound like him, and that they were probably going to be very good.
DS: You had some sense of what they would feel like?
DS: Which apparently is what you are more interested in anyway, isn't it?
HB: Yes, exactly. Because the last thing I wanted was a session musician, someone who could do anything, with great skill and technique, but with no personality, who would not just contribute but occasionally be confrontational, who would say "well this is the way I think it should sound, because it's e playing it", and you would say, "my god, he's right".
DS: That happened?
HB: Sure. Certainly.
DS: You also wanted your music to be the result of an interaction with other people? And you knew who you wanted to work with?
HB: Yes, and it went wildly beyond my imagination. Even classical composers write things out, as several of my good friends do. They write things out very accurately, then they give it to a group of anonymous people who knock it out for them. Now that must be a kind of thrill, but you're not learning anything from them.
DS: This may be obvious, but in one way this is your most autobiographical work.
DS: I can say that because I know something about you, but I think that would also be the uninitiated's conclusion, that you find out more quickly, more easily about someone from their words than their music. Are the words about you?
HB: Yes, they are. I don't mean to put the focus on myself in an egocentric way, I don't mean that, but they simply are.
DS: It's also the most, sort of, geographically specific thing you've done.
HB: That's also true.
DS: Because we've talked about places, and I recognise them when you talk about them. I think they really invoke a feeling, so that even if somebody hasn't been to that precise spot, they will be familiar with some place like it to be really taken to a specific place.
HB: Well, I thin that's a great American tradition. I think you can say the same thing of Jack London, Henry Miller and Robinson Jeffers. They are people who write of places which I'll never go to, but I still have a sense that I have been taken there because of the jar it gives your soul. You feel you are sympatico, because of the honesty of the written word.
DS: What role does the place play?
HB: I think that actually, even as early as 1981, I probably started in a tenuous way documenting the places that were important to me, beginning with The Serpent (In Quicksilver). That meant something to me. I'd totally forgotten about this. In fact there was a time in the '60s when I did a series of California pieces. I totally forgot about them. I think there were about a half dozen of them, made specifically for California places. They didn't evoke the mood of the place or anything like that, they were simply names, so they could be distinguished from another piece, and were pretty cold-blooded. But I chose California place names to do that, and rather obscure ones. Some people who knew these places said "Oh, that place. I was there once. Doesn't sound like it at all". (laughs)
DS: So you are effected by places.
HB: Oh I think we all are. But it's not a requirement to be affected, or to know anything in the world about it. I do believe that a piece, any piece, should stand on its own, absolutely. Even if it was badly titled it should stand on its own. It should be a piece that you can recognise inside of yourself, so you can honestly say to yourself, "Oh yes, I understand, I agree to that, that's correct. And it works".
DS: These poems were what you created the music from? Had you originally intended that the words and the poem itself would be part of the recording?
HB: No, not at all. My original intention was to take Boy About 10, which I think is ten lines, and to make them one minute pieces. So for example, I had ten minutes of music and I started to gather ideas and screw around with imagination, and I saw that a minute for each piece was preposterous. I couldn't get off the ground with that. So then I'd try to make two or three minutes average. I'm thinking to myself, "Thirty minutes, that's a hell of a long piece". I had this idea that people would listen to the music, they'd see the title, and then they could track right through the poem. That was an idea I got from Sandro Chia, as a matter of fact. It was a direct rip-off. But then it began to dawn on me that was rather didactic and academic, and it just didn't have enough eccentricity to it. It was just kind of slavishly following a plan. It didn't allow for anything accidental or goofy to happen, where some odd thing could occur that didn't seem to have anything to do with the poem. I saw that was an untenable position, I couldn't pull that off. So I kept relaxing the rules until it got to the point where it is now, where the poem is the generational thing, but I'm not slavishly hanging on to it. It's already done its work. I'm very grateful for that, but I'm not illustrating the damn poem by any means.
DS: Essentially, titling each segment of this with a line from the poem is a very roundabout way to get your poems published. But there's something I like about it!
HB: Yes, it's been implanted, it's very subversive.
DS: So in fact, what looks like titles on your record...
HB: Are very definitely lines in the poem.
DS: Whose order may be changed around?
HB: Yeah, exactly.
DS: So it's evolved
HB: It's only a portion of the poem anyway. Not every line is there.
DS: So actually saying these things into the microphone was an afterthought?
HB: Oh absolutely.
DS: In New Orleans?
DS: I don't want to suggest it was a difficult thing to do, but did you hesitate before doing it?
HB: No hesitation at all, it was just an experiment. I've never done anything like it before, and I wanted to see what would happen. If it was a real turkey, well then no one would hear it. I wanted to do it. And I didn't know what the musical part was going to be at all, or even if there was going to be one, it just kind of grew organically, I guess maybe that's the way art is made. You get a hunch and you've got to follow it. You've just got to let it become its own disaster...
DS: Well in that sense it's not really surprising that all these things co-exist nicely together. They come from you, but also, one part has been an inspiration to the other.
HB: So here's a good question, which one is better? How soon do I keep the music off the tracks?
DS: You have talked a lot about where you fitted into a bigger circle in the '60s and '70s. So what now? Where do you see yourself, and who are your contemporaries?
HB: My contemporaries are, I'd say, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jon Hassell and John Adams. I was thinking about this the other day, as I was telling someone that I would bet that there were less than ten American composers who compose for a living. It's a very small minority, as opposed to Europe, for example, where it's a subsidised society. There's lots of composers my age, but I don't think they are, by and large, doing anything that would remotely be classified in the same kind of school that those composers are in.
DS: How can you describe the school now? It's not avant garde, or is it?
HB: Not at all, no.
DS: Does it have a label right now?
HB: No, I think it's too frightened. I think everyone has gone off or stayed put. They've either stuck in where they were for centuries, or they have fused into a different language altogether. I certainly have myself. Certainly Hassell has, and some of the others.
DS: You've said that they're your contemporaries, do they affect you at all? Do you pay attention to them?
HB: No, I don't as a matter of fact. Other thanb to say that Terry Riley, I think, is the most astonishing improvising musician I'm ever likely to hear in my life. He's humbling. He's awfully good.
DS: You don't work as part of that scene somehow.
HB: Well the Europeans have certainly got everyone pegged. (Oh, I forgot about Michael Nyman and Brian. They're both in my age bracket.) Some are minimalists still, others are post-modern. That's a big buzz word in Europe. Deconstruction and all that crap.
New Age was the awful label. God, I thought that would never go away. Goodness, was that awful. Well, somebody in France finally - you know, that concert at the Theatre de la Ville billed me as Post-Modernist. I nearly kissed her. I thought, "God, at least that doesn't embarrass me". Wrong as it may be, I was so thrilled.
DS: So you don't see yourself as part of any margin in this family?
HB: Not really.
DS: That doesn't bother you?
HB: Well, quite the contrary. I haven't been influenced by other music in ages. And I don't listen to anyone's music. It's not that I don't think they are absolutely great and doing wonderful things, but it's just, I'm not a music fan. And the only pop music that I listen to (and I never do anyway) are the ancient records of Waylon Jennings for example. But goodness gracious, Los Lobos are good. I haven't a clue what anyone is doing, and, I'm embarrassed to say, I'm not really into it.
DS: So in terms of influences or inspirations, usic isn't one of them. So what is? Art?
HB: Visual artists. I'm a real fan, almost to the level of wanting autographs. In fact I visit a lot of art shows and stuff like that and I get a real jazz from that. And I like seeing what other people, like architects, are doing. I love reading about them, projects that they are involved in. I like the arts generally, but I'm not terribly interested in the bohemian aspect of art. I like the work, I don't like the style.
DS: Are you interested in any particular architect?
HB: No, I like the idea of non-corporate architecture. There's still that romantic idea of the lone person out there trying to get his vision across, her vision across. Isn't that funny? There are no female architects. One of the real anomalies. I don't understand it at all. I think it's because it's such a horridly old-boy network, and they all come from architecture school. They're either from yale, or U.S.C, or Berkeley perhaps. It's staggeringly stupefying.
DS: Do you see a lot of new art work that is exciting to you?
HB: I don't see very much new work. I see some, but I don't haunt the galleries honestly. I have one gallery that I go to all the time, but they are friends of mine, and they show really exciting work by young artists. What have I seen recently that I liked very much? I went to the Lamman Foundation in Marina Del Rey. They have an installation by a painter/sculptor by the name of Nicholas Offracano that is really gorgeous. It's wonderful. Plus the walls that separate the two large expanses of room, he's done up in the same way that a very expensive interior decorator would do, with glazing techniques. And it's just as good as the work. I think this guy is great. And that wall looks like the interior of a rembrandt portrait, it's just so perfect. I like to be shocked and surprised. I love that. There's two works in LACMA across the street, and I think they are among the great works. One is a big purple painting by Billy Alvengston, which is just bitchin'. It's so decadent. It's just purple, and God, it's gorgeous! It's like popsicles, it's just so perfect. The other is a huge sculpture made of lead by German sculptor Ansel Keifer of a bird's wings, with an expanse of about twenty feet, and that one really socks you in the nuts when you see it. It must weigh tons. It's great, it's just such a shock. You think to yourself, "How dare he? How can anyone do that?" And you think to yourself "Man, you can't forget this one, this is great". I like that.
DS: I wish that was more the vocabulary of art.
DS: Say, old boy, that one really, you know, really kicked me in the nuts.
HB: That's really what it does.
DS: You don't particularly care about the theory of it.
HB: Oh absolutely no, just the shock.
In October 1990 MOMA New York's curator RoseLee Goldberg directed six evenings of performance and talks under the title High & Low, Modern Art and Popular Culture. The series sought to answer the question "How does an artist function in the Art World and the world at large, or, as the Futurists and Robert Rauschenberg put it at different times, in the gap between art and life?"
Brian Eno was invited by Ms Goldberg to give the first talk of the series on October 23. Subsequent evenings featured, among others, Spaulding Gray, Eric Bogosian and Laurie Anderson. We have reproduced here RoseLee Goldberg's introduction to Brian, and Brian's own prepared speech. In the next issue we will include the "open forum" part of the evening, which followed.
RG: Those who are appearing here are really key artists if we are going to discuss art in popular culture, especially if you consider that in the '80s it was they who came to epitomise the meaning of the code words 'cross-over artist'. Interestingly enough artists who were the cross-over artists were almost walking on a tightrope, and what happened when they fell was that they were actually in a land with no safety net whatsoever. So I think what we are looking at is not artists who even consider any longer high and low, but artists who live in some other world, a kind of no-man's land, and trying to investigate its geography, and they're really brave new world explorers. I can't resist reminding everyone here that this history of artists trying to really grab the attention of the public and break out of the enclave and the sort of very protective world of the art scene is really something that goes with us all the way back through twentieth century art. We have to remember right here tonight and salute his memory, Fillipo Tomass Marinetti, and the Italian Futurists, and his real determination to take art away from its sublime state and into the streets. Especially in the conservative '90s we need our artists to write our manifestos and to really establish some very important issues that we're looking at culturally right now.
To get to Brian, someone asked me just now, "How did you come to Brian?" Well, there's always a good story that goes with that. I met Brian Eno when he was just out of his plumed Roxy Music costume in London in 1972. Shortly thereafter I invited him to give a lecture at the Architectural Association, as part of a symposium on radical architecture that I was organising. Well, my surprise was how readily he accepted to talk on a subject that was not typically his own field, but how inspiring his comments were on space, music and indeed architecture which in those days at the AA I should say was in the early stages of deconstructing. he was such a success then that I've always thought whenever I have the chance again I will go back to Brian and ask him to come into our midst once more. And here we have that opportunity.
I think Brian was actually the first person I ever discussed cross-over ideas with in the early '70s, and was certainly the first person I knew personally who was on both sides - he could actually be a kind of extrovert pop star and also was an introvert philosopher. He was someone who was able to mix mind and body, Apollo and Dionysus, and in fact Eno gave these classical western dichotomies a very contemporary dimension, for he went ahead and mixed them all up electronically. I think we were all in awe of what Eno was doing in the '70s, and probably also very jealous, or a little jealous. There's something about people who are able to work on both sides, and it's really in acknowledgement of these very early insights that he had and his contemporary and on-going inventions that he's here tonight.
I also want to say that we're specially honoured to have John Rockwell here, and join Brian Eno in this discussion. I think we can all safely say that if it weren't for John Rockwell in the last ten to fifteen years, most of the artists would not have got to the pages of the New York Times, certainly much later. What he did for us was bring them to our attention very early on. In fact he was probably the only New York Times critic venturing below 14th Street in SoHo's dark pre-boutique days, and certainly the only one able to write about artists who choose to work in many different disciplines and refuse to be held back. So it is really with tribute to both the artist and critic that we're here.
BE: The first thing I should do is explain, for the benefit of you who don't know what I do, my background and the kind of prejudices that go with my background. I grew up in a low-art family, (laughter) then I went to art school where I studied high-art, and then when I left school I joined a rock band so I went back down to low-art again, although some people say that it was a kind of arty rock band. All the same, we made our money from record sales and not from working in galleries and so I guess we were low-art.
What I do now is some kind of hybrid or low-brid (laughter) between these things. I make records. Some of them aren't strictly speaking pop records but they do however still use the audience that I acquired through making pop records, so in a way they are parasites on the pop music industry you might say. In another way I am a parasite on the high art business because I make audio-visual installations, which are exhibited very frequently in galleries and in places that would normally have serious artists in them, so somehow or another I manage to straddle these two worlds. As a result of doing that I think a lot about the differences between them, and I think a lot about the way value is maintained in each of these worlds.
I was doing a show in the Biennale of San Paulo about four years ago, and in the show was Duchamp's Urinal (it's also in this exhibition). It was the second time I'd seen it; I'd also seen it at a Duchamp retrospective in London several years before. I was looking at this thing and thinking "how strange that this piece of porcelain, which was deliberately chosen for its unspecialness, its 'it could be anything' quality, how strange that this particular piece gets shipped around the world at what must be a very high price, I should think, and big insurance premiums, and keeps turning up, the same one". I'll show you it actually, there it is - the same piece turns up with the same signature on, and I noticed that each time the catalogue reference to it gets longer, (laughter) and I wondered whether there wasn't a kind of contradiction in this. Surely the point of what, at least as far as I can understand the point of what Duchamp was saying, he was really saying, "Well it could have been any urinal really, I happened to pick this one". This was always my feeling, that it was a deliberately anti-choice type of act.
Well this is what I continued thinking until I read this catalogue note which says, "Urinals were of course primarily designed for institutional use and hence not part of the designer aspect of a plumbing company's offerings, but within their group there were distinct grades, and Duchamp went for the least prestigious. His selection was a porcelain flat-back Bedfordshire urinal with lip, figures 82 and 83, and on the scale which started at the top with full-length wall units only the porcelain flat-back Bedfordshire urinal without lip and the tiny corner units used in prisons held a lesser place. This model was cheap, eight to fifteen dollars at the time, light, and easy to install, but it was hard to clean, had no water reservoir and tended to be unhygienic and malodorous." Further on it says, it was called 'Fountain' this piece by the way, "The first 'Fountain' may not have been a Mutt product at all." This is a real shock to me. "We can count the drain holes visible in the photographs of the original item, and their number and pattern do not match anything in the Mutt line." Can you believe that? "We are licensed to speculate that Duchamp bought from a lesser source, the holes match perfectly with those in the flat-back Bedfordshire of the A. Y. MacDonald Company, and illegitimately ennobled the object with the classier brand name association."
Well this was quite a bombshell to me you can imagine (laughter), so I wondered what Duchamp said about this. So I found a book with some quotations from him about it, and he said, "The choice of these Ready-mades, for example the urinal entitled "Fountain', was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with a total absence of good or bad taste, in fact a complete anaesthesia." Later on he said, "This Neo-Dada which they call New Art, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc, is an easy way out and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered Ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they've taken my Ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle rack and urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty."
So I thought, there's a sort of contradiction there, isn't there, between the drift of those two statements. One statement, Duchamp's statement, is saying "I was deliberately not acting as an artist" and the other one was saying "Oh yes he was really, it wasn't just any old urinal, it was actually a special urinal, in fact probably the very best urinal in the whole world that you could have chosen was that particular one". So I thought well, really, this thing at exhibitions is silly, why don't they just go down to Canal Street and buy a urinal if they want to show one? Surely the point is, the point of Duchamp's work was, that any piece would do.
So I thought, I wonder why this happens, this deification of this particular piece of porcelain. I think there are two reasons. One of them is that high art is very mediaeval in a certain way, it's very much attached to relics, to ideas of the value that accrues to something through it being touched by somebody. It's like fragments of the true cross, or St Anthony's veil or whatever he wore, he didn't wear a veil did he, no, St Anthony's leg, or in this case Marcel's piss-pot. I'm sure we don't really think that there's anything particular about this, except that Marcel Duchamp touched it, and it has a place in history, and it's very expensive to insure. But the second thing that's happening with this kind of writing about this object is that a process of reclamation is going on. This piece was made as a kind of challenge, and I think that by writing about it in this way you prevent it being a challenge. You say, "Oh no, sorry, actually the fence extends to include that as well. He's a real artist actually, he didn't just choose any urinal, it was the Bedfordshire flat-back you know, it was an artistic decision." As soon as you can claim it was an artistic decision rather than the act of indifference that he claims, then you can kind of fence it in to the world of high art as it was known, as it's still known, without it threatening to erode the plateau that high art sits on. I'll come back to that plateau later.
Well, having seen that piece three times now in three different places, geographically very far apart, I thought maybe it was time to reinstate the urinal's place in the real world. So I read some art magazines, and I heard about this thing called "commodification" (laughter) so I thought I would try to do a performance actually here, and this was going to be my performance. This is the first picture, (shows picture of man pissing into urinal from above) there's another one, here's a side view (laughter) - you need this kind of thing if you're making grant applications (laughter and applause). So I was all set up to do this and I arrived at the Museum expecting the thing to be stuck on the wall so that I could execute this performance, but unfortunately it was behind sheets of glass, so I'm very disappointed to say I couldn't do that. However, I did notice on inspecting the sheets of glass quite carefully that they didn't quite meet, there was a small crack between them. It was about three sixteenths of an inch wide. So I thought I would if I could slide a small pipette through there containing some of my urine. And that's what I did. There is the pipette, can you see it? (shows further sketches). There's a piece of plastic tube stiffened with a piece of wire, available from any hardware store, and I thought actually this would be an act of decommodification, but I realised of course that bit's an act of re-commode-ification (laughter).
Anyway, this action of mine raises some very important questions, I think. The first one is, is my piss valuable? No, I want to know actually, I'd be interested to hear comments from the audience later on about that (laughter). is it as valuable as Andy Warhol's? Is it as valuable as Andre Serrano's? I don't think it is actually, but it might become that way now as a result of that act. Does this act enrich or erode the piece? Does the act of returning it to its original usage make it a more valuable work? If so, what do I get? (laughter and applause) Will I be elegible now for any grants? (laughter) So those are questions that I shall leave hanging for the moment, and I'll just make a few remarks to conclude this historic moment in the history of art - that is, actually, my mark on art history, it's probably the only mark I shall leave on art history, it hasn't made much of a mark actually, but you probably can see it if you look carefully.
What I was talking about earlier were plateaux. When I was at art college I had a background that happened to be at a time when there was a lot of convergence in the arts for two reason. First of all because we had a lot of groups like Fluxus and so on revamping that notion that what was important in the arts was the kind of procedures that we use, the kind of systems that we use, and that those things were transferrable from one art form to another, so that you could write a score for a piece of music, a way of approaching making a piece of music, and you could use that as a way of approaching making a piece of painting. The other thing that was happening was there were a lot of bands coming out of art schools in England - they've always been the place where rock bands come from - and at the time The Who was hard at work, The Move, and a lot of other bands who were doing things that were quite similar to things that were happening in the high art scene. There was a man called Gustav Metzger who was doing something called Auto-destructive art, but this never really caught on - he destroyed it all. But it was very similar to what The Who were doing, and The Move. And we had Mark Boyle and Peter Schmidt working with the Soft Machine. There were lots of liaisons going on, so at that time it seemed quite possible that low art and high art were not so different from one another.
It now seems to me that they are very different from one another, and what I feel has happened is that plateaux have developed. There's the high art plateau over here, and there's the low art plateau over here, then there are a lot of other people in between, but scaling those plateaux is very hard. Now it's easy to see how a plateau is maintained in the low art world, the top 40 is a plateau like that. If your record gets into the top 40 it's immediately played on, I don't know, seven or eight hundred radio stations all the time round the country. Of course it then sells more, you know, exposure, it's the currency of popular art.
In another way secrecy, or shall we say obscurity, is the currency of high art. And the high art plateau works in another way. It focuses attention on a very small number of people and they become stars. And as they become stars their prices escalate in much the same way as the low art returns escalate for being in the Top 40.
Those plateaux have very steep sides, there are very few people clinging to the edges. It seems to me that you are either there, or you're there, you aren't in between the two. It's in the interests, it seems to me, of high art writers to defend this lack of continuum. It's in their interest to overstate the value of what they are dealing with, or on the other hand to understate the value of everything else outside that world. It's in their interest because there's a lot of money involved, but more importantly there's an issue of value involved. And one way that value is generated - I don't only mean financial value - one way to generate value is to increase focus, to concentrate attention.
I've got another quotation here from a review about Keith Haring. Keith Haring was quite an interesting character because he didn't really settle. "This could be tricky, especially if one wants to have a high art aura. For in order to reach the broadest audience one's style must tend towards the lowest common denominator configurations, at once instantly recognisable and comprehensible. But high art [this is of course in a high art magazine] is by definition exclusionary. In a sense it is more likely to be an appositional art than a popular one, for it implicitly insists on an absolute perspective. Popular art which often mocks this perspective by insisting upon laissez faire [less politely, anything goes] offers instead an inconsistent series of topical relative view points." This is a very interesting comment because it really lays bare the very big conceptual difference between high art people and low art people.
The notion that there is an absolute perspective, I think, is quite foreign to popular art, and I'm very glad it is. I think absolute perspectives are finished, they're old-fashioned. The idea is very rarely stated as this, but I think it actually underpins the whole of the high art structure. It's the kind of idea that there's some sort of aesthetic gold standard which everything could be reduced to if only we could find the single vocabulary in which it should be discussed. Popular art is criticised here for offering an inconsistent series of topical and relative view points. Isn't this exactly what we like about it? If we like it at all, and anyway, what's more topical and relative than that? You know, what does this mean outside of the very, very complex context that we see that in? It's the most topical and relative thing that I can imagine.
But it was important, I think, for people to establish that haring belonged. You know, if you were going to pay eighty thousand dollars for a haring and put a guy who did things pretty much like it in prison for doing them, you know, on the side of a subway car, you have to sort of defend that decision soe way, you have to build a wall around haring and say, "actually, but he's in a quite different place". Well, haring was a good artist, I think, and he was in a somewhat different place, but it's not so far away. This notion that haring was a spiritually different being, a person who really had nothing to do with all of that other stuff, haring was giving us some absolute picture of the world, some transcendental experience, whereas these other guys were just sort of reacting with spray cans. This is really not tenable, but I can see why it's maintained.
To give you another example from the same review: "scale, which does much of the work in these tour-de-force exhibitions, serves to create an effect of engulfment. In populist art this is meant to symbiotically comfort the spectator, for scale is used to simplify or thin our content, but haring's innovative use of it magnifies content. He employs monstrous scale to bring us to the verge of panic, that is to overwhelm aesthetic distance". This is crap really, isn't it? The notion that scale suddenly means something different there. What else can you say about keith haring? You think, well they're big, alright, ah but so are billboards, oh, but this kind of bigness must be different. This type of analysis seems to me so desperate. It's so desperately trying to hold him into the high art world because of the many dangers of letting go of those barriers, and they are real dangers. I don't pretend to feel anything other than confusion for this subject myself. I do understand that value is created by making these distinctions to some extent.
I suppose the reason this subject exercises my mind is that I see popular artists are in some ways victims of a situation. My feeling about the way value is created in works in not based on the old model that artists put value into a work. It's based on the idea that there's a transaction between a viewer and a work. And the quality of that transaction is very much socially modified. It's modified by all sorts of things: expectations, the current climate, social feelings about where that work stands. A very high quality attention is directed towards high art. It's very high quality and it produces very good results as well. I suppose what I want to argue for is, let's start directing that attention somewhere else as well, let's look at what other artists are doing, even if it is vulgar, topical and relative, and let's see what we start to get if we make that quality of transaction with their work. So that's my beginning.
(continued next issue)
B.J. COLE: BY DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT IN NEW ORLEANS
Looking back, there were three different aspects to my trip to New Orleans to work on the sessions for By The Dawn's Early Light. Of course, first and foremost there was Harold's music; but the overwhelming atmosphere of Daniel Lanois' house/studio and New orleans itself combined to create an unforgettable experience. Unlike the majority of cities in the USA, there is a real sense of cultural history in New Orleans; an atmosphere that is a direct result of its Spanish and French origins. How Daniel Lanois came to set up his working base in this historic city is a story in itself. It is enough to say that Dan's move to New Orleans echoed the journey made by his own French Canadian forbears, some two centuries before.
As a confirmed fan of Harold Budd's music, I was deeply honoured to be invited to collaborate on his new album; particularly as the sessions proved to be a marked departure from Harold's established formula of solo keyboard treatments. As it happened, my communications with Harold in Los Angeles over the past year had already prepared for a radical departure: this was to be an ensemble albu. The ensemble would comprise Harold on keyboards, New Orleans-based viola player Mable Wong, concert harpist Susan Allen, premier British guitarist Bill Nelson and myself on pedal steel guitar. If you're wondering how pedal steel found its way on to a Harold Budd record, I should point out that Harold has confessed to being a serious fan of the instrument. He first used it on Afar from The Serpent (In Quicksilver); the player being Californian Chas Smith.
The atmosphere for the Harold Budd sessions was heightened by an attention to atmospheric detail. The occupants of Dan's house: engineer Mark Howard, Malcolm Burn, Karen Brady and assorted sound crew, regard it as part of their job to create the ambience to suit the artist. As the music we were playing was modern chamber music of an intimate character, such details as the candles, chandeliers, and gilt mirrors combined to create a magical atmosphere in the faded grandeur of Dan's period French colonial townhouse. During the sessions, Harold managed to walk the fine line between organised intentions and meaningful accidents, liberally moderated by an astute intuition. Although he had been formulating his compositions during the previous year, these invariably took the form of thematic ideas, while Harold seemed to trust to the innate musical skills of all involved to flesh them out. An important part in this process was played by engineer Mark Howard, who seemed to find the project an ideal vehicle in which to apply his sonic landscapes. To describe Harold Budd's music in this situation is like asking me to describe what it was that drew me to his music in the first place. It deals in essences. Sounds that are a distillation of complex musical structures reduced to overtones - and leaving everything to the imagination of the listener.
To experience, even indirectly, the Daniel Lanois "no bullshit" recording philosophy was a revelation for me. As a long-standing session musician, I've seen every sort of recording studio, from back room four track to fully residential. They all have one thing in common; they're all suckers for the latest high-tech hardware. By these standards, Mark Howard's setup should belong in a museum. The recording console was a twenty-year-old API bought from the Record Plant in New York; the monitors were Tannoy Golds in ancient Lockwood cabinets, and there was a huge collection of microphones, some of which dated back to the Second World War. What's more, Mark records most of the amplified sounds, including the synthesizers, through any one of a large collection of beautiful old guitar amps; placed strategically in an acoustically sympathetic part of the house, baffled by existing walls and pure distance. In fact, Dan's house is technically not a studio at all in the accepted sense, for there is no soundproofing or acoustic treatment. The character of the recording process flowed naturally and organically from its location; and I know that all the images that I hold in my mind's eye of that event will be brought forth again each time I listen to By The Dawn's Early Light.
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