Now that the audience is assembled

Now that the audience is assembled

by David Grubbs


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Following his investigation into experimental music and sound recording in Records Ruin the Landscape, David Grubbs turns his attention to the live performance of improvised music with an altogether different form of writing. Now that the audience is assembled is a book-length prose poem that describes a fictional musical performance during which an unnamed musician improvises the construction of a series of invented instruments before an audience that is alternately contemplative, participatory, disputatious, and asleep. Over the course of this phantasmagorical all-night concert, repeated interruptions take the form of in-depth discussions and musical demonstrations. Both a work of literature and a study of music, Now that the audience is assembled explores the categories of improvised music, solo performance, text scores, instrument building, aesthetic deskilling and reskilling, and the odd fate of the composer in experimental music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371472
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/13/2018
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

David Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording, also published by Duke University Press. As a musician, he has released fourteen solo albums and appeared on more than 180 commercially released recordings. Grubbs is known for his cross-disciplinary collaborations with poet Susan Howe and visual artists Angela Bulloch and Anthony McCall, and his work has been presented at the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou. Grubbs was a founding member of the groups Gastr del Sol, Bastro, and Squirrel Bait, and has appeared on recordings by Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Will Oldham, and Matmos, among other artists. Grubbs has written for The Wire, BOMB, Bookforum, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Read an Excerpt


Now that the audience is assembled for the musician's bruited first contact with an instrument we can't yet visualize and cannot imagine what it could be made to sound like

The figure slowly makes as if to remove an instrument from a case whose contours remain obscure. For all we know the case has always been leaning in the corner of this darkened, already stage-lit room. Always behind the door that just closed itself. Or was closed by a swift, unnoticed hand. There was a door ajar upstage center and then it was closed and the room sealed.

When's our start time?

The instrument waits in a case that's free of the first sign of wear. For all we can see it looks as if it has never left this room. The room itself is newly painted — a blackened gray-blue, a color to absorb sound — and free of dust. It looks as if it has never left, never been left, never been anywhere but behind the door.

The audience conducts last-minute stretching exercises in their seats.

Regarding the concealed instrument's design it would be inadvisable to say anything other than nightfall in the covered cage. Nor is it possible to hazard whether the instrument is in tune, if it will function as it should, even the extent to which it can be made to cooperate. How should it function? Not now. What's the occasion to rise as if there had been no waiting, a hush, a wave rushing the length of the room silences exchanges, catchings-up, now time's upon us. Do you recognize the figure

The gangly silhouette crossing the stage area — the lighted rectangle without chairs, without audience, its rear two corners touching the back wall of this circular room — might be this evening's wrangler, a stagehand or tech person qualified to decide whether what's in the case formerly behind the door is ready to function as an instrument. Is ready to rodeo. There are degrees of cooperation, and we've all seen instruments that refuse to cooperate and are no less the instrument for it. Are ready or not to play nice. Perhaps they're less desirable from the perspective of the performer, or less desirable from the vantage of the audience, but there will be no angry tearing off of stripes, no shaming, no expulsion from tonight's event. The tickets have been time-stamped, everyone clocked in

the audience is upon us, time's gathered

when stepping fully out of shadow the figure becomes recognizable as tonight's performer, a musician inclined toward for lack of a better term improvising, accepting, making do, jerry-rigging, thinking on her feet, famously hashing it out in public; real-time instrument invention, construction, demolition, repair, and referral; solo repurposing, duo repurposing, trio and large-ensemble, not to give too much away but tonight solo and in first contact with and maybe one-time contact with the waiting instrument.

How could it be made to sound unrecognizable instrument laid bare in the musician's x-ray gaze, that supersensory sometime dividing line between performer and audience, upstage where there had been a door and where now there's just door erased and sketched-in, blue-gray, blackened space? Space of audience and performer — solo performer, real-time and shared-time instrument builder — and of the brightly lit rectangle of stage abutting these listless, stretching bodies. Every seat is occupied. If the instrument is unrecognizable, how should it be assembled? Downbeat. What sounds occur in the process of preparing the instrument we can't picture and can't picture sounding? Gambit. What's shared time?

Picture breath striking solid.

Picture breath and mineral, brilliantly polished mineral. Breath-polished mineral. Picture breath and unbreakable retrofuturist compound. Picture breath unopposed, breath unceasing, breath and flesh and the audience softly inhales. With breath traversing aperture, with breath funneled through aperture, with breath so vigorously tunneling. The audience exhales, all those sated lungs. The audience breathes in a bit closer to unison, and we still have time — shard time, scads of — to act as one, it will be done.

Picture the instrument in no one's memory. Picture the instrument yet to be summoned. Picture the instrument the musician hasn't in fact held or beheld, the instrument the musician's far from assembling. Picture breath stopped short. With breath artfully diverted. With breath whistling across aperture in the dark.

A longer rest, a slower rest A merciless combining of shorter rests A downshift and a density change

The musician breathes in and the audience breathes out, a mid-air meeting. The faintest overture of aerial skirmishes. The musician exhales, with breath striking cord. With breath exciting cord. With breath zinging the length of fleshy cord, with breath exciting increasingly shorter divisions. To sing. With breath to sing these progressively smaller lengths of cord doing their damnedest, voiceprint and thumbprint, to color, to jab, and to smear, to cast one's lot and one's ballot, to find and satisfyingly hold aloft

a pitch, a purple thumb present and accounted for upon the memory surface of audience. Breath and sounding body now without stopping, now without separating one gesture from another, held and ongoing

and so an unheard next.

Without repeating Without recognizing repetition as such Without believing repetition

Now it's the audience's turn. It exhales still more convincingly with a single breath. The musician inhales, bends her steps upstage toward the door erased. Feedback is the consequence of listeners' intensity of focus. A musician occasionally may fool an instrument and an amplifier into believing that he or she represents the will of the audience, acts as a delegate. The musician breathes in and sounds the deciding vote.

Time's upon us all with eyes

on the lighted rectangle. With breath guarded, with breath surrendered. With flutelike reanimated voice, with holographic unsteadiness, with swagger and flicker. With a satisfyingly husky stripe of feedback, to sing, delivered at the volume of a reassuring speaking voice, to some so reassuring a voice as to trouble. With breath and body sundered, the stuttered vowel resolves itself into an o captured and stretched like so, a human o in red laser.

A dogged worrying of a modest patch of ground the quietest feedback scaled to the volume of flutelike voice

Feedback swims aboveground.

Feedback swims about our heads. Feedback swims in mid-air, by its nature seeks to exhaust itself, fails. Feints, fails, falls forward, falls end over end. Pratfalls downbeatlessly. Flails. It's a nervous habit of occasionally gorgeous footprinting, an animal shifting of weight from hoof to paw to hand, infinity catching tail.

So give it back. Share alike this unamplified o, unending vowel, our holographic feedback. Feedback sustains, is nothing but interior, audience and musician alike enclosed no matter how quiet.

A rip curl closes. A ribbed sphere, a magnetically charged interior. Feedback impresses not as object but as location, even this o. Unprepossessing feedback. So.

The sine wave can always be counted on to thread the needle. Deathlessly penetrate the immobilized eye. How can the audience inhabit so modest a sound? Indifferent feedback, where there had been a door. Sound to envelop a lighted rectangle and more. A diagnostic red laser touches retina, radically expands. So quiet inside this o and yet upon us it seizes breath. It holds breath. Without separating one gesture from another, without repeating, without recognizing, without acknowledging repetition as such, without believing, and without to anyone's satisfaction describing, it clicks off.

Red aural afterimage.

With breath held, I could have you expelled. Encounterpoint

of two opposing breaths. In the absence of feedback, however quiet, the audience resumes the exercise of breathing as one. One breath for now after the last and after the next. A hush, a wave, a sequence, a series, and


no longer listening within a sound. Within an interior now voided. Within an interior now forgotten. The wave crashed. The curl ripped. The rip had it, had had having had it. With breath following breath, with breath hocketing breath, audience and musician encounter one another as airily unvoiced instruments.

Two breaths vectored Two breaths insensate Two breaths just sliding past Two breaths shaped and detached Two breaths set on glide, the both unaware Two breaths exiting opposite, and neither moves the other

merely cords and their divisions, stacking and balancing multiples on multiples within multiples. Crossing divisions. No breath stilling cord, no cord stilling breath. The fill before the expand before the just sliding by. No breath stills another. Hexed human cords sensing, blackly picturing, shaping each breath — hexed cords coordinated just o — and the mirrored breaths rushing past one by one to disappear soundless stage right and left.

Broken specters long since fled.

No breath and no memory, let's do it again.

To produce no sound and to provoke none.

The mystery of what's inside the case climaxes with the musician's comic theatrical stumble and sudden unnecessary dusting (an exclamatory exhale, breath striking solid with no visible result) and perfunctory sleeve-polishing, a skeleton key fingernail inserted with a brief, suspenseful wriggle in its oversized lock, four clicks of the latches, and it's a brief matter of time upon us breathes the audience.

Then an awful clattering shake

and spills forth disassembled, manifold truly unrecognizable as instrument a dirty heap dominating the stage dumped inconclusively out.

The musician considers the spill that covers the stage. She looks every bit as surprised as the audience, every bit as disappointed.

Audience, musician, heap.

The performance begins or begins again with the selection, inspection, and sounding of parts. The categorizing and the sorting of parts. The task of sounding parts individually, parts representing any number of potential instruments to emerge from, to be assembled from cast-off elements slumbering within the pile. For some in the audience the process begins with the least urgency, the least physical effort, and not without provocation.

In the absence of mind's-eye touch In the absence of mind's-eye breath striking In the absence of scale, degree, even of continuum

The performance initially impresses as little more than pauses, hesitant touches, and nearly soundless breaths.

The musician walks lightly atop the heap of parts, lest it should shift and she damage the instrument or herself be injured. She steps cautiously and comes to a halt only with exquisite care. The audience attunes to landslide, cratering, potential onstage avalanche. With a tenuous footing she bends down to select from this filthy, rusted glacier a promising pebble covered in ice-blue cellophane. Before the marveling audience she unwraps a piece of whitish translucent candy and pops it into her mouth.

One part vanished, just like that. The musician dispenses with the hard candy in several loud bites. The heap appears to all eyes undiminished. The musician paces, and the audience stiffens. The musician bends at the waist, shakes her head, and resumes her slow steps, sifting through the rubble with her feet, from time to time squatting or kneeling down to gather a handful of detritus. To select, to sift, to let fall, and occasionally to sound the individual piece whether by striking, squeezing, blowing, rubbing, chewing, or swallowing. Footsteps through the snowdrift in self-interrupting sequence.

A slow march.

A frozen march, an icebreaker.

Surely the instrument need not be so complex. Of how many pieces should it be composed? Nothing requires it to be so artfully scavenged a thing. The musician's criteria remain obscure, are glimpsed only intermittently through abrupt assemblages and sculptural false starts. She sounds the search for the right handful. This is a solo performance; how labor-intensive an instrument can one individual execute in the time that's upon us? Bowerbird amid the spill. To assemble to her satisfaction, however irrelevant that word. The audience sinks deeper into its seats. We may be hard to read out here in the darkness, but we're not without concern.

The effect of the audience on the tempo of unfolding on scale, given the tempo of this our exhale

The musician's pacing gradually begins to reshape the heap, to sculpt with her feet the starting gun's spill, the rusted fishes and loaves.

Once there was a door and simpler times before the performance began. Now the instrument's case lies within the heap. The musician continues to truffle wrapped candies, absently popping trompe l'oeil chunks from a tetanus-blooming glacier.

Patient, distracted steps, and her at times calf-, knee-, or waist-deep wading reorganize the pile into a series of ridges and paths. One can foresee the performer sinking herself into a system of canals, locks, lunar lanes.

Of shoulder-height sheer faces of paths between piles: landscape

The audience surges. It leans forward as one and completes the circuit of shoulders brushing shoulders, electron leaps, of shared commitment and empathy. Hard-won mutabilities for alien criteria. For the devising of tonight's great icy Kentucky and its on-the-fly Canal Street, Division Street, Washington, Jefferson, Market, Walnut, Chestnut,MLK, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. For spectators intending intensification of focus, briefed or breved in the perception of such and the suspension of touch, shoulder to electroquavering shoulder.

Send it down the line

and here it comes again, echoing at you and sweeping past. Greetings to your neighbor, a miniscule leap, and no one needs to understand the math. Intending a wave, intending an arc, revisiting points along a circuit.

The most helpful member of the audience suddenly locks onto the presence of a partially disinterred music stand. He springs from his seat to dig and to separate stand from heap, and in the process alters in countless ways the instrument in the making. After the music stand is placed just so, a flag marking the Iwo Jima of his precise specifications, he turns to the musician and impatiently gestures with, for all to see, three taps on an imaginary wristwatch:

Shall we start? Don't tell me that we began who knows when. Don't snow me, and don't snow us all with explanations of performance immemorial and the intermittence of listening. (An accelerated pantomime of a snore and jerking awake.) Time was when? Upon whom? The musician gapes, blinks. The helpful audience member positions himself down lighted rectangle left beside one of the heap's more impressive canals, and to the surprise of all present he indicates with a cocksure hitchhiker's thumb a scavenged, worse-for-wear copy of a score.

This should solve any questions that might arise.

The volunteer from the audience has done his best to smooth out the crumpled score, to make it readable to the musician and presentable to the audience. He stands knee-deep in trash, eager to assume page-turning duties. Three more taps, this time upon the stained front cover of the score. Are we ready? He flashes a lottery-winner smile to the audience, allows it to evaporate just as quickly, and pivots back to the musician with a mask of determination. The two figures symmetrically lean in toward the score and share a squint. The audience purrs.

We drink up the duo's silent, synchronized eye movements and their careful parsing of the ragged score. Two audience members in the back row take this opportunity to turn, lock eyes, and gently touch long-stemmed glasses of red wine — a toast to one another. A flash goes off to commemorate the alliance of musician and page-turner, and the photographer is set upon by a small mob of neighboring audience members who quietly and devastatingly reprimand him with eyebrows and glares. No more photography. No more interruptions. When the two figures onstage complete their businesslike reading of the score — mutual nods, snaps of the neck — the page-turner visibly relaxes.

Reset for the counting in.

A meaningful pause at zero time and with two hands interlocked and eight fingers interlaced and ramping up to the maximum pressure that she can exert in an attempt to pulverize between hard, dry palms another rusted treasure from the heap, the musician neglects to the clear disappointment of the helpful audience member the first and most basic instruction in the score:

Compose a gesture that can be repeated.


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Table of Contents

Now that the audience is assembled  1
Afterword  135
Acknowledgments  139

What People are Saying About This

Thurston Moore

“David Grubbs's tone poem on the vibratory consciousness betwixt performer and listener rings with an intellect both spiritual and Earth-activist. A sublime sense of provocation is at dance with the O-mind bliss of Kenneth Koch's The Pleasures of Peace, Pauline Oliveros' “The Collective Intelligence of Improvisation,” and Albert Ayler's Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. David's meditation joins hands with these critical, artful signals of love, mercy, hope, and beauty in an enlightened and welcome vision.”

Drift - Caroline Bergvall

“The three claps are sounded, and all hell breaks loose. In the band, in the orchestra, in the performer, in the gong bath, in the lifting piano, in the audience, in the concert hall, in the venue of the mind. David Grubbs's piece is a noisy page-turning hallucinatory rush. Join in!”

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