Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange:

David Grubbs Interview pt 2

Conducted by Krystian WOZNICKI (critic and curator)

Last year David GRUBBS's first solo album, Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange, which from the production to the performances was solo in every sense of the word, was released by the Atlanta-based Table of Elements label. The second part of our interview with Grubbs deals with his varied and flexible musical concepts, including his study of John CAGE's aesthetics, forming the band Gastr del Sol with Jim O'ROURKE, and producing music for films. The interviewer, Krystian WOZNICKI is based in Tokyo, where he curates and writes about contemporary art.

Krystian WOZNICKI (KW): On the last Gastr del Sol album you play a piece by guitar innovator John FAHEY called "Dry Bones in the Valley" on which Tony CONRAD plays violin.
Both are highly individual musicians and composers. I wonder whether the fact that they both in their own way catalyzed rock music at a crucial stage had any impact on your work?

David GRUBBS (DG): The impetus to have Tony play on "Dry Bones in the Valley" came from seeing Jim (O'Rourke) play it alone onstage as an encore to a Gastr del Sol show in Atlanta and standing next to Tony Conrad, who was literally dancing with excitement. So yes, I'm sure it would have been possible for us to come up with the idea of bringing these two figures together who each have so much history attached to them, but what made it palpably obvious was this small, epiphanic scene of seeing Tony weaving and bobbing and really thrilling to the music.

KW: Does your current project aim at being a "program" with reference to influences and legacies?

DG: Playing with people like Mayo THOMPSON or Tony Conrad or coming into proximity with John Fahey makes my relation to their history less abstract. That is, I don't find myself working on solo material or material in Gastr del Sol that explicitly tries to articulate my senses of influence or precedent. To give a concrete example, on The Serpentine Similar--the first Gastr del Sol record and the only one made before I knew Mayo-- I worked the title of a song from Mayo's solo record into a lyric as an homage. Since working with Mayo, I haven't expressed that sense of influence or precedent compositionally. I guess it's because now to get his attention I call him on the telephone.

KW: Using the title of a song from Mayo's solo record in a lyric as an homage was only a way of trying to get his attention?

DG: It was not exclusively an attempt to get his attention, but that was a component of doing so. It's also about trying to get the attention of those people for whom the reference to Mayo's solo record would have meaning, and in particular some sort of emotional affect. A surprise.

KW: Does a sense of influence or precedent come to expression in any way other than compositionally?

DG: Sure. It can be expressed in all matters of conception, from modes of sociability to business arrangements to matters of style and image presentation. It's expressed in all modes of self-representation.

KW: In thinking of "expectations" one cannot overlook an immense sensitivity on part of the consuming public nowadays: Isn't it time for yet another "neo" and aren't the composers just mentioned (unwillingly) a part of it?

DG: I don't see that any particularly incisive "neo" has been put forth. There are attempts at loose groupings. The Wire talking about new interest in minimalism or the connection between minimalism and folk music or dance music. And I do think that a lot of the connections being made are a propos in, for example, speaking of minimalism as a more informal practice, having at certain points had participatory ideals that are not apparent in speaking exclusively of canonical figures such as GLASS, REICH, or La Monte YOUNG. But making these sorts of connections is not the same thing as making convincing "neo" categories. Maybe someone will coin another term that does the work that the term "post rock" did for some. But you have to hope that it will be more convincing (thus, more interesting to engage pro, con, or otherwise) than "post rock" has been. I mean, has "post rock" been enunciated any further than Simon Reynolds' description of a vaguely post-humanist, inorganic, essentially combinatory style? Has anything been added to that description?

Writing the Aural East

KW: John CORBETT's comments about your solo pieces accompany the album. He refers to Morton FELDMAN...

DG: I didn't quite know how to respond to the Feldman reference in John's notes. I certainly understand the reference, but yes, there was something strange about having it printed on the back of your record. I decided to trust John and to trust Jeff HUNT's (director, Table of the Elements) impulse in having a description and a critical appraisal as part of the package. I think what ultimately appealed to me was to have John's notes appended to this otherwise rigorously abstract CD design...that in some ways it flies in the face of the wordlessness of the layout, but that the excessive abstraction and potentially excessively literal description of the recording were appealingly contradictory. It would never be in my character to say, "No! The design forbids text!"

KW: There are however other ways of having text(s) accompany music. I, for instance, remember when you first told me about the work of Bernhard GUENTER and that you were writing something that would account for his "abstract" compositions...

DG: I would like to write something for Bernhard Guenter in part because his music seems so forbidding of words and voices (except perhaps for wordless voices). I've made a couple of preliminary attempts, none particularly satisfactory.

KW: Could you dwell upon some of the difficulties?

DG: I have been doing nothing but dwelling on the difficulties, and that's why I haven't completed anything for him! OK, that's a joke. His work demands such focus from the listener, and it seems to me again and again that putting words into his compositions would shatter the listener's concentration; it would shatter the concentration that is required of something as unfamiliar as Bernhard's music by bringing in linguistic reference. But I have by no means given up...

KW: It is sort of telling that reactions to some of Gastr del Sol's compositions, and the acoustic live act (two guitars/piano), and also comments about your solo album often include the expression "beautiful."

DG: It is an odd fate to make beautiful music. It is odd to be told that what you've made is beautiful. It is usually pleasing, but also leaves you thinking about what other sorts of responses you want to trigger. It's like being told that you're handsome. It's like everyone around you being high. Of course making beautiful music is not my fate. It is a gratifying response, but the judgment "beautiful" also tends to preclude conversation. Often you say something is beautiful and leave it at that because "beautiful" is your way of signifying ineffable experience, one to which words do no justice. And I do find real pleasure in many of those aspects that people find beautiful. But for me the words always come pouring back in.

KW: This is exactly what I am trying to get at: How to redirect words into being a non-descriptive means. If wanting to escape the limitations of academic writing, is subjective "lyricism" the inevitable choice?

DG: I don't particularly have an ideal of "non-descriptive" words. I've always gone back and forth over Cage's way of honoring JOYCE by saying that he went further than anyone else in making noise out of words. There's something in the abstract that's very appealing about Cage's suggestion, but I also cringe when thinking of particular free-improvising vocalists making profoundly unfunny avant-garde comedy, you know, bubbling like babies or holding forth like inspired lunatics. Playing the Shakespearean fool. It also makes me think of cloying, really bad performances of SCHWITTERS' "Ursonate," and how truly painful that can be. That manner of presentation in the name of making words into noise really makes me insane. And I think it makes me crazy because there is so much about bringing out the thorniness or fecund ambiguity of words in their very materiality that appeals deeply to me. It's what appeals to me about Cage's mesostics or much of Louis ZUKOFSKY's poetry (for example, "80 Flowers") or also the poet Susan HOWE's work with textual elements such as marginalia and draft versions. It's what I like about Charles OLSON's "Maximus" poems and much of what I still like most about POUND's "Cantos."

Last Answer

KW: Let me ask you something bluntly. It's my last question. Could you talk about the signifying aspect of your new album?

DG: The use of the fruit market sign is akin to the use of street names in Gastr del Sol songs. There's a deictic, pointing function that is a pleasure in the making literal. It's like the pleasure in taking snapshots--that sign is literally there and who could improve upon it?
Why would I want it any other way? It is music-- beautiful music--to me.

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