Thursday, 11 July 2013

Week Twenty-Seven - Jeanette

Beyond The Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad And Arts After Cage by Brandon W. Joseph (2008)
Recommended by Max

As part of my English Literature degree, I had to take a ‘multidisciplinary unit’. This was to prove I was a well-rounded learner (or some equally questionable notion).

I chose Psychoanalysis.

In fact, I enjoyed Psychoanalysis so very much that I voluntarily chose to take another ‘multidisciplinary unit’, Psychoanalysis 2. The sequel was actually better than the original. Whereas the first unit focused on Freud and Jung, Psychoanalysis 2 went into the mad orgone theories of Wilhelm Reich, the complicated but very rewarding French psychoanalytic feminisms of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, and the linguistic crossovers of Jacques Lacan. Écrits by Jacques Lacan was a supremely difficult book, and I recall one of my classmates asking the lecturer why Lacan had to be so damn obtuse.

‘Lacan believed he was expounding very intellectually demanding ideas,’ the lecturer replied. ‘He wanted the language itself to reflect that, too.’

My lecturer’s reply, which I probably hadn’t thought on since a week after she said it, popped into my mind when reading Beyond The Dream Syndicate.

From the perspective of the infrastructure of control within which The Flicker may already be seen to be functioning, the operative distinction is no longer subversion against sovereign form or autonomy against the strictures of the disciplinary institution, but rather the connection of biopolitical forces to either hegemonic apparatuses of normalization of heteronomous apparatuses of countercontrol.

You see why this book took longer than a week to read.

Who is Tony Conrad? Prior to reading this, I had heard of him very, very, very slightly due to his connection with the kosmische musik band, Faust.

Beyond that, I guessed that The Wire magazine love him, and that there’d be tape loops in there somewhere (both true, as it turns out). I’m not super-keen on minimalist, atonal modern classical or hyper-experimental music. I have tried. But mostly I think one may as well listen to the central heating fire up.

Beyond The Dream Syndicate is not biography of Conrad, nor even a straightforward critique of his work.

Although what follows will give some measure of Conrad’s activities during the 1960s and beyond, fleshing out a startlingly diverse but underresearched figure […] the text will diverge for long periods from any linear narration of Conrad’s development, exploring the contiguous networks and connections of the downtown New York scene.

Ah! And now it all makes sense as to why Max recommended it to me.

My friendship with Max is another wonderful connection that arose from Seasons They Change. It was Ptolemaic Terrascope’s Phil McMullen who put the two of us in contact. Max was writing an academic paper on free-folk music, communities and gender (published here), and Phil thought Max and I might like to know of each other. Like me, Max had interviewed a number of artists involved in what The Wire called ‘New Weird America’:

Max and I first met when he visited the UK (he’s Austrian); I don’t think I was any use at all to his academic pursuit, but we had a lovely chat over lovely beer. As well as the musical output of free-folk, he’s interested in the dynamics and structures of a ‘movement’; its power relations both within itself and in relation to wider cultures. Talking to Max about his work certainly added another dimension to my thoughts on free-folk (and on genre labelling in general, which has endured far beyond the writing of Seasons They Change).

Brandon W. Joseph’s scope for Beyond The Dream Syndicate is similarly expansive. He begins with exploring the early output of, and musical relationship between, Conrad and La Monte Young in a post-Cage landscape. I struggled here, chiefly because my knowledge of formal musical language is rudimentary at best: Conrad and Young were doing complicated things, and I grasped on with my fingernails to them as best I could. Nevertheless, the more abstract notions of hierarchy and control between audience and composer interested me, as did (on a more childish level) how amusingly bigheaded all this lot could be. Here’s Conrad:

Though I find my own oeuvre impeccably consistent and directed, its diversity (I realize) obscures the plane of this consistency from all but the most careful analyst.

And Young?

Always extremely confident in his abilities, Young already held Trio For Strings in particularly high esteem, lauding it to Conrad the next spring as one of the best works of music ever written.

That's not on YouTube, but here's something from only slightly later:

I’ll have to take your word for it, La.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and enjoyed the book a great deal more, when it moved into territory I at least know my way around a little: the New York rock, art and film avant-garde of the 1960s. In the most fascinating section of the book, Joseph traces the pre-history of The Velvet Underground and in particular The Primitives, a made-up group ‘formed’ when Reed was a hack songwriter, that released the satirical and really rather awesome dance-craze song, ‘The Ostrich’ in 1964:

‘There was something very liberating about the whole rock thing,’ Conrad said. He moved in with John Cale (clearly the best Velvet) and Primitives sessions were recorded in the loft.

Johnson also points to the links with cinema, in particular the commercial blockbusters of Jack Smith:

Flaming Creatures was a concatenation of seemingly poor technical choices that added up to a hallucinatory new aesthetic vision. Filmed entirely on the secluded rooftop of the Windsor Theatre during the summer of 1962, Smith’s film was an ecstatic homage to the North African-themed features of the 1940s.

Conrad himself branched out into film, most notably with this:

There was initially some controversy as to whether it could be considered a film at all. Other possibilities included ‘optical experiment,’ ‘medical text for the eyes,’ or ‘a detector of the photogenic migraine’.

The chapter on The Flicker was excellent. I do enjoy reading of these visual experiments and found I was able to contextualise Conrad and Smith’s work with my knowledge of Fluxus, and with other performance artists and filmmakers.

This is a long book, and it isn’t easy to read; without wishing to invoke a La Monte Young-style arrogance, I do know my theories of the text (see House Of Leaves) yet, even so, I often found it hard to accurately interpret what Joseph meant. But I can understand why he adopted this approach. The prime audience for this book is appreciators of Conrad, Young or Cage – very smart cookies who won’t want the thing dumbed down for beginners. And I’m quietly smug that Max thought I had enough in common with these very smart cookies to recommend me this book.