David Grubbs has been making notes and noise for decades, from his involvement with bands like Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and the Red Krayola to his many solo and collaborative efforts. His and Jim O’Rourke’s record under the Gastr del Sol name, Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (Drag City, 1994), remains a post-rock touchstone. He still composes and plays, but he has also gracefully eased into academia. After the excellent traditional scholarly work of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014), Grubbs has moved into literary territory more akin with his music.
The kind of improvisation that Grubbs tends toward thrives in live performance. The tension between playing live and recording was part of what Records Ruin the Landscape explored. In Now that the audience is assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), Grubbs turns specifically to live performance, with “the patience of a grand piano, parked and unattended.” Unlike his previous book, this one is built of both prose and verse, sometimes recalling the tetrads of Marshall McLuhan:
It disappears into and emerges
from; disappears into
Grubbs switches to the strangeness of recording and the recording studio, where no audience is assembled in The Voice in the Headphones (Duke University Press, 2020). Here there is more tension. A different kind of tension. A tension he is all too obviously familiar with. Where live performance includes feedback from the audience, the recording studio represents the “absence of pushback.” Even in this absence, or perhaps because of it, one must maintain a composing composure. His knowledge of these pressures is palpable in lines like, “File under another future no one wanted.”
These two books combine writing about music with a musical style of writing. They are as much compositions as any of his recordings.
Speaking of, his latest, his second with Taku Unami, Comet Meta (Blue Chopsticks, 2020), continues the duo’s explorations in sound and silence, together and apart. The slow dance of sparse guitar, piano, and various drones mixes with air, background noise, and often a meaningful pause.
This is as much poetry as any of the above.
It’s a lengthy journey from David Grubbs’ scrappy Squirrel Bait days, but the landscape between here and there is littered with documents of both word and sound.