Like his music, Ian Nagoski’s name has been emanating out of Baltimore in subtly quiet fashion for a few years, and though the number of those who hear Nagoski’s music isn’t a large one, most who do are entranced. He’s only got three albums to his credit, but Nagoski’s a busy man, having recently entered into The True Vine, a store he co-runs in Baltimore. Ian’s latest album, Effortless Battle was put out by Recorded last year.
For source material, I now use only feedback circuits and a vibrating metal plate instrument called the Wild Wave invented by my friend Dan Conrad. They're both unstable systems that require your full attention in use and the sounds they produce have all kinds of nice feathery edges and tunable “fundamentals” which mesh well with each other and themselves when superimposed.
I started superimposing single sounds because of the possibilities for creating rich - overwhelmingly rich - vivid physical environments. That's what I wanted to do, and the tools I had for doing it (two Tascam four-tracks, a $10 tone generator and some delay pedals when I started out) were cheap. After having gone down some blind alleys in attempts to be educated as a musician, I had decided that I already was a musician and that I didn't need anything but my ears and whatever sensitivities or personality I already have. So, with what was at hand, I just started building these sounds and seeing how they would act in a room and how they would react with each other. Then, I tried to make pieces that satisfied my own emotional needs and my curiosities. And then another and another up to this day.
Spatial illusions, particularly the sense of continuous expansion or opening of a physical environment, have always been a goal. Sustained tension has been both a tool and a goal, although as I get older release is finding its place within tension. A relationship between additive and subtractive processes has become a major concern through conversations with electronic musician Michael Johnsen and poet Bonnie Jones. And delirium as an aesthetic criterion is in the air within my milieu, and I've embraced it heartily. I give delirium a big hug whenever we see each other. Sometimes, usually when we've been drinking, I give delirium a big kiss on the lips, although I always feel weird about it the next day. You know how it is.
I also love Eliane Radigue's music, for instance. I feel very close to it. When I heard about it from my friend Jason Glover, it was as if he was describing something I had always wanted - that enveloping warmth of it, the slow, purposeful unfolding, the sense of continuous awakening. And Z.M. Dagar's music - the sense of a song that arises so slowly and naturally from the field and without ceasing to be entirely a part of the field. And La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House where the songs in my mind gurgled up from my unconscious. Of course those musics and many are all very close to my heart.
The similarity between Eliane Radigue's music and cicada-infested woods is that they both ask me to stay still and be receptive and in return, they take me deep inside myself so that I can hear who I am and observe my senses in operation. This is a kind of private habit of mine, like picking my nose. Something irrationally gratifying. But nourishing. Wonder in the fullness and richness of things. I mean, the patterns that insects beat - if you feel connected to them, does it indicate something you have in common with them?
I listen to a lot of music. I go looking for it where I guess that it might be best hidden and most precious. Lately, for instance, I came in possession of twenty or so orange label Okehs of Polish comedians from the late 20s and early 30s. They're quite worn and demand more patience than I usually have to listening to them. They're just these voices sputtering out patterns within the sound of the needle grinding through shellac and ash. These are private ceremonies - it's not nice to talk about them - but the world brought these sounds and I together. It may be confusing to say so, but I experience them like a two-way mirror, the Polish funnymen and I seeing each other. What is the world is trying to tell me when I hear them? I plan on making a piece by superimposing them - just pile them up and listen to them together - the thick haze of hissing and crackling with the patterns of voices buried deep within. Just for my own curiosity to see what effect it might have on me, to see if I might learn anything about what the senseworld is trying to say from that little corner of circumstances that produced these sounds - that endless abyss of circumstances!
I do a lot of shows that are throwaways or a chance for me to try something else or make a fool of myself or challenge myself or just get loose. But I don't put that stuff on records. Something I bang out in an evening, although it may be a good time, isn't something I'd want to spend a thousand dollars putting into the world.
The piece I've been working on for the past year will likely not be done for another six or eight months, but when it is, I'll find a way to put it out. I'll probably pay for it myself, as I have done for two of my three records so far, if only because I'm sure I want it to be an anonymous, uncredited object, and what lunatic would drop the bread to put out a record he could never sell and which he could never add to his roster of brand-name artists?
Meanwhile, I contribute when I can to other projects. Right now, my biggest priority is recording and editing an LP of the poet Blaster Al Ackerman, which is about as meaningful a project as I have ever worked on. And I'm recording something to be played during the birth of my daughter in October - something peaceful and consonant for once. I have also committed to producing a reissue of some records I came into possession of made by the Victor Talking Machine Company in Laos around 1930. And then there's the big ethnic music box set, which is slated for mid-2006 - a four-CD anthology of early 20th century non-English-language vernacular recordings demonstrating tendencies in humans to fulfill certain emotional needs through music.
If I keep up my current pace, I should be good in about 25 or 30 years, then hopefully I'll have ten years to do some really good work, and I can stop a week or two before I die. This is all, of course, supposing that I'm not taken out in the street in the middle of the night and shot in the back of my head during the war or something.
You know, there are these hyper-locational speakers available now. You can place a single sound in a single place in a room. The sound will stay there, and you'll only here it when you pass through that place. This is really what I need now - many of these devices and a programmer to help me set them up and a system incorporating conventional speakers. I could make the air in a space really bloom open like a million chrysanthemums. But advertising agencies, the military, Milton Babbit's heirs and a bunch of other goofballs will get to it before I do. Such is life. But I have something to look forward to.
Being ambivalent about performative gesture, visuals get me away from putting on a show and get the audience into taking in my work and someone else’s work while observing the ways in which they mask or reinforce each other’s qualities. Playing with visuals can get some good cross-rhythms within and among the senses. It’s been a multi-year conversation with Dan Conrad, who plays a colored light performance instrument of his own invention called the Chrommacord Light Organ. If you haven’t seen this, check out http://citypaper.com/music/story.asp?id=8290.
It is owned by Stewart Mostofsky, Jason Willett and myself. We’re open 11-8 Weds-Sat, 11-6 Sun & Mon, closed Tuesday. The address is 1123 W 36th St, Balt, MD 21211. I’m theoretically here every day but Sunday (and Tuesday), although as we’re getting started here, if you call at 2AM Sunday night, I’ll probably answer. CDs and LPs, about 50-50, and new and used, also about 50-50. We also sell interesting 78s and books, and we’re working on the world’s greatest retail CDR selection. We have paintings, drawings and sculpture on the walls that are also for sale, and we have shows on an energy-based schedule. In the four months we’ve been open there have been dozens of shows here, some of them among the most fun shows I’ve ever been to, ever.
It’s pretty good job and not a bad way of life, despite the normal small-business owner concerns.
The idea for the store came up as a drunken conversation years ago between myself, Stewart Mostofsky and an electronic musician cohort. It was imagined at the time as kind of Baltimore’s answer to Twisted Village, Other Music or Aquarius. But I had a good job at the time working for a rare book dealer, and nothing happened until last winter when I found out that I'm going to be a father, and a week later, lost my job. So, I called Stew and asked, "you still want to do the store, like, right now?" He said, "write a business plan, get it together, and we'll see what's up." I moved ahead real quick. By the time we talked to the third fellow, we were on different pages, and he bailed, but Jason Willett joined on, and if you know Jason’s music at all (check out his record label Megaphone, his dozen duo records with Jad Fair or his work with Jac Berrocal, Ron Anderson, X-Ray Eyes, the Jaunties, the Dramatics, the Can Openers, the Pleasant Livers, Leprechaun Catering and many others), you know that he is not like any other creature on earth. He’s amazing - truly a force of nature and a great contributor to the shop.
The idea is to fill our comfortable and convenient space with flabbergasting material-of-the-spirit and overwhelmingly textured experiences. And it’s a hoot.
I fell completely in love with LY and MZ’s work around the time I was 20. Its ecstatic, utopian qualities and vibrant sensuality resonated deeply with me. For a year or two, I had a relationship with them with culminated in my moving to New York and living in the Dream House for six months, working as their plant-waterer/ laundry-carrier/ dishwasher/ errand-boy. It was a confused, lonely, mixed-up time for me, but it was great knowing them. They're wonderful people, and they taught me a lot - not just how to wash lettuce and what's in a vindaloo, but also how to approach one's own work with care and devotion and how to be kind and generous toward those close to you. And because of that time, I came in contact with Henry Flynt, whose work has been a source of nourishment ever since.
It's important to keep in mind that minimal musics are just another manifestation of a larger human impulse. If we're talking about the drone music of Young, Conrad, Palestine, Radigue, Dempster, Coleclough, certain pieces of Spiegel's, Amacher's, Oliveros's or whatever - these are just versions of the same music which fulfills the needs of the people who play slow airs and piobaireachd in northern Europe or the slow passages in csardas or the adagio movements of Romantic instrumental writing or organum etc etc. The meaning of the impulse has been complicated by classicist aesthetics that insist on personality-cults for composers and inventor-like bright ideas, as well as orientalism and the awareness of Hindustani classical music, gagaku, and other Asian musics which are more developed rhythmically toward a stilled or hovering time in relation to the implied movement of the body in its rhythms, and lastly by the expansion of or emphasis upon what is called "timbre" as a key issue of Modernist music. The latter aspect is nothing but old art-history talk derived from a world-view that assumes the centrality of human progress from an origin to an ending. Since it’s pretty clear that things don’t work that way, it makes about as much sense to continue with that line of work as it would to get a doctorate in writing fugues. (To anyone interested, Bergson's Duration and Simultaneity explains an insightful view of time as well as anything I've seen. You can even skip to a chapter with no numeric formulas and get the idea pretty well, although many readers will understand with only a bottle of cough syrup down the hatch.)
Timbre is a baloney concept anyway. In a particularly sour mood, I’d stand on your coffee table and call it “fraudulent!” Many music students are still taught that it is one of the four basic elements of music, but perceptually, it is dependant on the other three - amplitude, frequency and duration - so how can it be an element? As an idea, timbre exists now only to reinforce the hierarchy that places “art music” at the top of the economic chain. So feh to that!
In his article about Baltimore's music scene for the Wire a few years ago, Lee Garnder pointed out that our city (like La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, come to think of it) has an image problem, but it is one of the four or five most vital and vibrant experimental music scenes in the U.S., and of those, the situation here seems to be among the most non-hierarchical, free, and creatively daring. There's so much good stuff happening here that it's overwhelming. Even the poetry and performance stuff being done here is extraordinary, and they tie directly in to the music scene.
It's great. I wouldn't live anywhere else.
But one of the reasons that things are so free and alive here is that no one's getting famous, and we all live in a backwash backwater that very few people pay attention to. In Gardner's article, Neil Feather (a great musician who very few people outside of Baltimore are aware of – check him out: http://www.neilfeather.org) pointed out that music-making here is "gratuitous - in the most elevated sense." Another reason for the richness of the soil is that there is a long tradition here of placing high value on being off the map - it doesn't matter which part of the map you're off, as long as you're off it. I'd gladly write a book about the aesthetic tradition of the city. There's more than enough fascinating material.
A quick key-word overview of the present situation here:
Experimental music record labels: Recorded, HereSee, Earlids, Ehse
Annual experimental music festivals: High Zero, Once.Twice, Unfold
Artist-run venues dedicated to out music: the Red Room (weekly shows), Tarantula Hill (monthly shows), the True Vine (constant shows...)
Currently active sound-artists off the top of my head: Neil Feather, John Berndt, Dan Conrad, Dan Breen, Andy Hayleck, Catherine Pancake, Audrey Chen, Melissa Moore, Twig Harper, Carly Ptak, Max Eisenberg, Peter B., Jason Urick, Richard Chartier, Stuart Saunders-Smith, Jason Willett, Bob Wagner, Tom Boram, Lexie Macchi, Peter Zahorecz, David More, Daniel Higgs, Michael Gayle, Lafayette Gilchrist, John Dierker, Jackie Blake, Tyler Wilcox, Steve Bradley, Vattel Cherry, Michael Gayle, Caleb Johnston, David Franks, NewageHillbilly, etc.
Weirdo bands: Motor Morons, Phat Cutz, Trokeneisis, Nautical Almanac, Thus, Rotten Mind Fuck, Can Openers, Pleasant Livers, Spirit Stallion, Leprechaun Catering, Snacks, Monad, the Lum and Abner of Morocco, etc.
And this is just the way-out stuff that I happen to know about off the top of my head. There's a bunch of rock and folk, of course, too... Not to mention the hip-hop scene and Baltimore Club, which is some of my favorite music. Incredible stuff leaking from every direction. I’m up to my ankles.
There's a religious component. The ritual of listening to 78s, the care with which one goes about getting into contact with the sound that lives in the air, the interactive gestures at the shrine-altar of the turntable, all of that behavioral filigree fulfills something in me. I grew up without the church and with state-owned bozos for teachers mainly and wound up a cranky, disenfranchised citizen and strident atheist, but I love music - I love its invisibility and being taken into communion with it outside of time - so I got into the ritual.
Finding for oneself is beautiful. Not being handed something but searching, discovering and teaching oneself is good in and of itself. So, for my $100, I'll take a thousand crusty, mossy old records I've never heard of for a dime a piece over a mint first pressing of whatever-it-is any day. I prefer the role of custodian to that of collector, and the connection to the process of receiving is the same to me. And I get a lot more meat to chew on.
If I could play you a few things right now, you'd understand. Like these two Hutzl Ukrainian wedding songs recorded, apparently, in LA post-war. No musician credits – not even a band name. Grid logo on the label, which I take to be a weaving pattern. But God what a performance! As good as anything I've ever heard in my life. I mean any piece of music that I ever loved, this one is right there with it. Proof positive that life is dear and sweet.