David Grubbs is on the phone while looking at drawings in his Brooklyn College office. The associate professor of music is, for the moment, a visual artist; the drawings are tests for an installation at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. “They look pretty good,” he decides.
The occasion is a List Center series called “Open Tunings”: a three-month project to “explore the various ways in which the ephemeral forms of sound and performance can inhabit the exhibition space,” as the description puts it. For Grubbs and his collaborator, composer and percussionist Eli Keszler, the ways are various indeed. The starting point, Grubbs’s text “One Poem,” will be refracted into performance, image, installation.
Friday night is the performance: Grubbs reading, Keszler playing. The words will appear in written guise, as drawings on the walls of the space. The drawings will be accompanied by mounted boxes containing electronics, processing, manipulating, and broadcasting cut-up recordings of Grubbs reciting the poem. (The project is the first of three, by three different artists, that the series will feature.)
“The installation and the performance are two very different experiences, and ideally I would encourage people to experience the both of them,” Grubbs says. “The word that kept coming up when Henriette [Huldisch, the List Center’s curator] was talking with us about the show was ‘residue’ — that there’s a performance, it’s not a big bang, but a medium-size bang, and then there are consequences afterward, there’s residue on display in the gallery.”
The poem reflects Grubbs the writer: His first book, “Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording,” was published this year, a virtuosic deep dive into the rich opposition of the deliberately ephemeral nature of a lot of experimental music and the equivocal benefit of having such music permanently recorded.
“I wrote ‘Records Ruin the Landscape’ very slowly, over a long time, and enjoyed finishing it so much I decided maybe I would finish another book,” Grubbs says, laughing. “One Poem” is a work-in-progress: “a book-length poem I’ve been working on for about a year and a half.” He’s already used parts of it in another performance — he jokes that the uncertain prospect of actually finishing the poem is probably why he keeps getting “happily sidetracked.”
In a way, Grubbs’s career has been one productive sidetrack after another. He gained attention in the 1980s as a cofounder of the Louisville hardcore punk band Squirrel Bait. That led to a more experimental band, Bastro, and then the even more experimental Gastr del Sol, a duo with fellow guitarist and avant-garde/indie-rock fulcrum Jim O’Rourke. Grubbs, it seems, has always plied his trade at an indelibly influential cutting edge.
These days, Grubbs divides his time between teaching, writing, occasionally doing solo performances (his most recent album, “Borough of Broken Umbrellas,” a collection of acoustic improvisations, came out last year), but more often collaborating on projects like the one at MIT (“it becomes difficult to challenge oneself in solo performance the way one is challenged in the context of collaborations,” he says). Increasingly, that has put his work into spaces more nominally dedicated to visual art — and thus, into the amorphous category of sound art.
As he does with any categorization, Grubbs regards the term with skepticism. “As the domain of what counts as music has kept growing and growing and growing,” he notes, “it’s reached this point where there are some people now comfortable asserting, in a very reactionary way, this idea that what you’re doing shouldn’t be considered as music, it should be considered as something called sound art.”
But Grubbs likes the idea of music in galleries and museums. They allow a practical optimization of the performance experience. “They seem endlessly reconfigurable,” he says. “The museum and gallery people I like working with are kind of very open-minded about sitting down from square one and asking what might be a good spatial configuration — for performers, for audience, for amplification, things like that, in the ways that concert halls or rock venues are not so easily reconfigurable.”
Moving performance out of obvious performance spaces also fits Grubbs’s disinclination to draw boundaries. Much of that comes from his own experience-as-education: “It’s like Melville says, his Harvard College was a whaling ship.” Grubbs’s “Acushnet” was the Red Krayola, the noise-rock band that originated in Texas in the 1960s and has continued, in countless iterations, into the 21st century.
“When I was playing in the Red Krayola, around 1993 or ’94, most of the people in the group identified primarily as visual artists, and that was really how I learned about contemporary art,” he says. “You didn’t have to choose to pledge allegiance to art or music; if you were a musician, you didn’t have to pretend that what you were doing was art, or vice versa — the two could co-exist in these kind of, again, multivalent actions.”
“Does that make sense?” Grubbs wonders. He tells another story, of being called into a curator’s office ahead of a group show. “I remember the curator kind of putting me on the spot, and saying, ‘Give me the pitch! Why sound art?’ It was like a job interview or something, for which I was utterly unprepared.” Grubbs did his best, reiterating the hospitality and flexibility that he, as a composer and performer, had found in galleries and museums. “I think it was not what this person wanted to hear, because I think they really did want to hear the pitch for sound art as a category distinct from music.” It’s a pitch Grubbs is not likely to make: “It seems like a really unnecessary distinction to me.”
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.