David Grubbs is a musician, performer, professor, and author. For the past ten years he and the poet Susan Howe have collaborated on a series of sonic realizations of her poetry, the most recent of which, WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER, was released in August 2015 by Blue Chopsticks. Howe’s The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, has just been republished by New Directions, alongside a new selection of her essays, The Quarry.
John Tamplin (Rail): How did your collaborations with Susan Howe begin?
David Grubbs: In 1990 I started graduate school at the University of Chicago’s English department, and my focus was primarily on 20th-century American poetry: earlier modernist poetry, particularly Pound, Oppen, Zukofsky. But Susan’s work was the work I was most excited about that was happening while I was there. In 2004 we were invited to work together through a commission from the Fondation Cartier. Dominique Fourcade had recently translated two books [of Howe’s] into French, so we did a bilingual performance, with Dominique reading in French, Susan reading in English, and my contributions for the two poems “Thorow” and “Melville’s Marginalia.”
We had a really great conversation about sound and poetry, and mutual disappointment at folks’ lack of attention to the sonic, particularly in readings—even for poets for whom there isn’t so much of interest happening sonically in their writing, but who barreled through a reading. Or if they collaborated with a musician there was a definite foreground/background, “I’m-going-to-read-while-someone-improvises-at-the-piano” thing. We found ourselves talking about in-between examples. She gave the example of John Cage’s reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project sometime in the ’70s. She said you could speak of it as a reading, or you could speak of it as a musical performance, and it was one of the most quietly commanding performances she had ever encountered.
Rail: Were you already familiar with the sound of her voice?
Grubbs: I had seen her read at the University of Chicago a couple of years before we met. She was reading from the book The Birth-mark,which cuts back and forth between prose and writing that more resembles her poetry. I remember her sort of switching gears and switching voices and being incredibly captivated by those moments. So when we first met I recorded her reading “Thorow” and “Melville’s Marginalia.” I had familiarized myself with the printed texts and I threw them away once I had recordings, because I really wanted to attend to the sound of her voice, the pacing and rhythms of her speech. My first thought had been to use those recordings as the sole sound source for my contributions, so in “Thorow” in particular there’s a lot of cut-up material from that very first meeting and that first recording.
Rail: Do you have a performance score?
Grubbs: There is no score other than her printed text. I tend to think of—and I think Susan probably also thinks of—live performances and the recorded versions as separate entities. Neither is definitive. My guess is that Susan places more value on the live performance. I’m very taken with crafting the recorded versions; I know that the recorded versions will travel in a way that the two of us are not able to travel. I feel that the recorded versions really do have their own task to fulfill, whereas I think Susan thinks of them as documents of the performance that we’ve created, and yet somehow secondary to the experience of the live performance.
There’s no need for a score. I definitely have cues marked that are based on the text. Those are usually for the electronic or concrete elements that I really do want to line up more so than the piano part. The piano part to WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER has a looser, isomorphic relation to the text.
Rail: Has that text been widely released?
Grubbs: It hasn’t, and that’s something distinct about WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER—all of the other poems had been finished [before becoming performances]. For WOODSLIPPER-
COUNTERCLATTER, she had various materials; some are from a poem called “TOM TIT TOT.” That is the one poem where we were really sitting together in her workspace, with her shuffling the sequence of the poems. This was the first time that I was privy to or even took part in conversations about questions like, “Does this poem really belong in here?”, “Maybe this poem should precede that one.” It’s also the first piece in which she really broke ground collecting sound recordings. She had a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and she e-mailed me saying that the sound of the preparations before the doors opened are extraordinary, and that I should come to Boston and try my hand at capturing them.
Rail: Is there any rehearsing?
Grubbs: Surprisingly little. It’s pretty easy to do what we do, once the piece is created—I won’t say “written” or “finished”—once we know what the performance is. The recorded version is, if not a score, then at least a mnemonic device for preparing for a performance.
Rail: How do you approach the collage-like elements in a poem like “Frolic Architecture?”
Grubbs: Something that was very interesting that I discovered immediately is that Susan has a very clear path through those scattered pages. It’s not an indeterminate object for her, to be interpreted differently each time; she has a clear way of reading them, and she’s very precise and very regular in her performances.
When she first sent “Frolic Architecture” to me in manuscript, it was completed but unpublished. Her comment was “Here’s an un-performable work”; it was clear to me that she wanted to perform it, that her remark was a conversation-starter, rather than a conversation-ender. She clearly has a sense that every trace has its potential sonic realization, or multiple sonic realizations, and I think that she really goes for that and has attacked and figured out how to represent in sound even fragments of letters: what that half of a “t” sounds like as opposed to a whole “t” or three-quarters of a “t.”
Rail: In your book, Records Ruin the Landscape, you seem pretty sympathetic with departing from the professed intentions of artists.
Grubbs: I wanted to understand experimental music in the 1960s by taking seriously the writings of people like Cage or Cornelius Cardew or Derek Bailey. I wanted to look at the contradictions. It really jumped out at me, those moments when Cage says of records that they “make people think they’re engaging in a musical activity when they’re actually not,” because I couldn’t think of other moments in Cage’s writings where he was so clear about what is and is not a musical act. I understood him in general to expand the domain of the musical, and that seemed really kind of a sore point, one to look at closely. The weightier side is the objection to the acquisitiveness that records foster, the sense that somebody—again, we’re talking about a record culture of more than half a century ago—in the ’50s might subscribe to a record-of-the-month club and feel that they owned the Beethoven sonatas because they owned a complete set of the records of the Beethoven sonatas. They might also have felt that it represents a best possible performance or a best seat in the house, a definitive or ideal sound perspective. All things which I think would have been really repugnant to Cage; it is those objections to recordings that I’m much more sympathetic to.
Rail: Are you working on any new projects right now?
Grubbs: I’m working on a book-length poem, which was the basis for an exhibition at the List Visual Arts Center at MIT last year. It was a sequential group exhibition where three people were invited to present a performance in the gallery and were given a month after the performance to show the residue of the performance. I wanted to work with Eli Keszler, a percussionist and sculptor. The sense of the installation was that the gallery space would be very clean, but that, sound-wise, it would be clangorous, chaotic, noisy, really rough sounds. I recorded myself reading the first thirty minutes of the poem, spatialized it over four channels, cut it up, and Eli created these wall-mounted collections of transducers. Essentially they turned the reading into percussion music. There are no speakers, but my voice would be fed through solenoids that would attack plastic, metal, or wood. You get this very randomized chaotic percussion sound with the cadences of human speech; occasionally you could kind of hear my voice in there. I made a number of large pencil drawings, fairly faint pencil drawings from the text. Ugly Duckling Presse is doing an LP of us performing the piece in the studio on one side, and audio documentation of the installation on the other side, and the first thirty pages of the poem.
Rail: Have you written much poetry?
Grubbs: No. The conceit, although it’s not entirely accurate, is that it’s my first poem.