By Ben Judson
Alan Licht digs deep. In underground music circles he is known not only for his often challenging solo recordings, including Rabbi Sky, The Evan Dando of Noise?,” and Plays Well, but also his collaborations with avant-blues guitarist Loren Connors, free jazz drummer Rashied Ali, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. Although Licht’s solo recordings have mostly dealt with minimalist themes, he is able to explore these themes from a fresh perspective on virtually every record, weaving in noise experiments, samples of popular disco songs, and blues riffs.
Licht is also widely respected for his critical writing on music and sound art, which has been published in magazines such as The Wire and Modern Painters. Licht’s writing has helped to create a resurgence of interest in the work of American minimalists such as La Monte Young, Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad. He covered the work of these and many other musicians in his writing for Halana magazine, which published his influential “Minimalist Top Ten,” a list of hard-to-find minimalist albums. Several of the deadly-rare albums he wrote about have since been re-released and are now readily available. His first book was published by Drag City in 2002, and his new book, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, is forthcoming from Rizzoli in November.
Licht grew up in the suburbs of New York where he became fascinated with music and film at a young age. He took up the guitar at the age of 10 after Shaun Cassidy’s TV performance of “That’s Rock N Roll” convinced him that he liked rock music after all. Although much of Licht’s work has challenged conventional notions of musical structure, he has written plenty of pop songs for his now-defunk bands Run On and Love Child, and even played guitar for a recent incarnation of Arthur Lee’s seminal folk-rock band Love.
Licht recently agreed to discuss his work with music and sound, as well as connections between music, visual art, and even acting.
Ben Judson: Could you describe your experiences with music as a child?
Alan Licht: My favorite record as a kid was one my mother had of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with real cannons being fired on it instead of tympani. I mainly liked classical music until I was ten or so, but I never learned an instrument because playing in an orchestra or a recital didn’t look exciting, and my friends who played piano had to spend hours and hours practicing, which I didn’t want to do. I wish I could tell you I became interested in rock music because I saw the Sex Pistols on TV or something like that, but it was actually seeing Shaun Cassidy singing on the Hardy Boys TV show. The inside gatefold sleeve of Wings Over America — a painting of them onstage with a light show happening above them — is what made me want to get a guitar; seeing The Kids Are Alright and Rust Never Sleeps in the theater, when they were released, really solidified my wanting to play electric music. So it’s really visual influences that are key in pursuing guitar as actively as I did, not so much listening to the radio or records.
BJ: Given this context, it makes sense that your forthcoming book on sound art deals so much with the interplay between the visual and sonic arts. You also studied film in college, and are a member of Text of Light, which pairs improvised music with experimental films. Can you talk about the internal and/or external forces that led you to focus on music rather than the visual arts?
AL: Interestingly what got me into film was also still images — stills from movies that I would see in books. What got me interested in punk was the photos in the book 1988 by Caroline Coon, not really from hearing it. Fortunately, I like to read, so when I got something like Hollywood Babylon out of the library to look at the pictures, when I was a kid, I would also read the text.
Originally I was much more interested in art, but not modern art. I would draw all the time, but music had much more urgency — there was the Top 40, it was something other kids were listening to as well. A symphony concert wasn’t visually interesting, but a Who or Neil Young concert was so it seemed to me that it combined the interests in visual art and music. It’s funny because now I read interviews with people like Christian Marclay or Kim Gordon who talk about how they gravitated to rock clubs in the seventies when they were art students because that’s where the action seemed to be rather than the galleries and, in a funny way, I guess I sensed that also even though I was obviously way too young to be going to clubs.
BJ: Of course, these people have also been involved with galleries to varying degrees while focusing on music. In one of your own gallery-based sound installations, you used a recording of yourself chanting at your Bar Mitzvah as source material for a permutational minimalist piece, perhaps drawing a connection to the spiritual focus of other well-known minimalists such as La Monte Young and Eliane Radigue. Do you see your work in music (or sound) as a spiritual practice?
AL: I was interested in the parallel between the permutations of the melodies in the haftorah and those in minimal music. The actual content of the haftorah had nothing to do with the piece. In fact, during the Bar Mitzvah I didn’t even know what I was singing, really. Similarly, A New York Minute has nothing to do with the weather, but rather my daily ritual of turning on the radio to find out what the weather forecast is. I’m much closer to Phill Niblock’s quotidian associations of minimalism, via his films of people doing repetitive manual labor, than I am to either Young’s or Radigue’s spiritual connotations (which I why I chose to put that piece on a CD that he was releasing, on his XI label).
BJ: Speaking of A New York Minute, can you talk about the relationship between this recording and Félix González-Torres’ Untitled, which is referenced on the cover of the CD?
AL: Kenneth Goldsmith suggested that image, which I thought was perfect since it’s an image repeated with a very slight variation, and repetition with variation is a musical theme of the album. We tried to license the original photo without success, so I had Aki Onda take two photos of the old clock on the wall at Tonic, but I made the two clocks only a minute apart (in the González-Torres photo they’re several hours apart, I think) since the title was A New York Minute.
BJ: So here we have a poet, Kenneth Goldsmith, recommending a visual art piece to a musician, more of this kind of broad dialogue between the arts. This is the same sort of conversation that you document in your new book. Do you have a feeling for whether this kind of dialogue between the arts has become more or less vital in recent years? In other words, do you feel that divisions between different art communities have been broken down?
AL: I think it’s always been like that. You always had artists doing covers for poetry books – Allen Ginsberg on the back cover of a Dylan album or whatever or the No Wave scene where the musicians were making or acting in films and doing publications like Barbara Ess and Glenn Branca’s Just Another Asshole. It is interesting that there were two rock-oriented shows at the Whitney (the Summer of Love) and the other rock record cover in Chicago, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967. Even looking at the old Minutemen records, where you would have the Raymond Pettibon drawings and the lyrics all running together, which were more like blank verse than rock lyrics, there was a lot more to it than just a recording of a band that was playing clubs. These were documents of a real artistic community that wasn’t really recognized as such at the time.
BJ: Do you see artistic communities emerging today that aren’t being recognized as such because the critical interest is focused on a single aspect of their work?
AL: Actually people seem more aware than ever of shared aesthetics. There was a description of a new release on Aaron Dilloway’s noise label, Hanson, that mentioned Gordon Matta Clark. When I interviewed Matthew Barney recently I mentioned that having Murphy’s Law and a mosh pit in the Guggenheim (in CREMASTER 3) was like a Smithson nonsite, and he laughed and agreed.
BJ: How is your own approach different when you are improvising alongside a film, for instance, as opposed to just playing with other musicians?
AL: Not different at all. It’s like the film is another musician.
BJ: It seems that, especially in the rock tradition, album art has been used to create a certain kind of mythology around the music and the artists. As a child, you responded initially to this imagery, and then later to the music itself. Do you think that the audience’s interaction with this art is an important part of the listening process?
AL: I definitely responded to album covers as a kind of art space, but you can tell from the popularity of digital downloads and before that Walkman/Discman or even Top 40 radio that most people don’t really care about album cover art. In fact, I think rock video really replaced album cover design as far as creating an image around the music.
But I do think that seeing a group play the music, as opposed to just listening to a recording, is what really puts the music across. I think it was Elvis Presley and the Beatles’ TV appearances that sealed their popularity, as well as A Hard Day’s Night – probably not the Elvis movies. I have a reasonably large record collection but almost all of it is stuff I’m too young to have seen or never played live. Anybody I was interested in in the last twenty years, I would go to see, rather than buy their record.
BJ: When you play live, do you think about or try to manipulate the visual experience of the audience?
AL: You mean like KISS does?
BJ: Well, I don’t assume you would go in for anything quite so subtle as that. But do you think about your physical presence as a performer? Mike Cooper has talked about how singing is a kind of acting, and that he had kept this aspect of his work separate from his improvisation until recently. His Reluctant Swimmer/Virtual Surfer release documents a merger of these worlds, and it seems that you may have played around with these ideas on The Old Victrola. So maybe “visual experience” doesn’t quite get at it, but I wonder how much your physical presence, and the shared environment, becomes a part of the work.
AL: Yeah, acting does have something to do with it. In my case, I would probably be more of a Buster Keaton than a Jim Carrey and, in a more general way, more of a character actor — one who slips into a variety of different roles — rather than a “movie star” like Clark Gable who was playing himself rather than playing individual roles.
But yeah, even looking at someone’s hands while they’re playing an instrument (I’m thinking of watching John Fahey once at CBGB where there seemed to be no connection between what his hands were doing on the guitar and the sounds that were coming out of it) makes it a much different experience to listening to a record. It doesn’t have to be a self-conscious, extraneous “acting out” of the music you’re playing while you’re playing it.
BJ: Yeah, I don’t think anyone who saw you perform could accuse you of that kind of acting. But this also leads into the question of intent. I realize you have worked in many different contexts, from playing pop songs to creating sound installations, and you probably have a different intent in each situation. But let’s say when you’re improvising, do you see this as a kind of communication between yourself and the audience? Or what do you try to achieve?
AL: It’s not really a question of achievement, like a battle in a war campaign. If there’s any intent I have to improvising in front of an audience, as opposed to doing it at home, it’s that the audience and musicians alike are hearing the music for the first time. It’s not something we (or I) rehearsed and are then presenting to them. Although, I’ve done plenty of concerts that are partially rehearsed.
BJ: So you don’t try to communicate an idea or set of ideas with the audience?
AL: Doesn’t that go without saying?
BJ: Perhaps it does. Do you have any current or upcoming collaborations that you’d like to talk about?
AL: To clarify: It goes without saying that a performer is trying to communicate an idea to an audience, although that’s a little trickier with a free improv gig where the ideas are being circulated between the musicians and the audience is sort of observing. It goes without saying that as soon as someone picks up an instrument they’re trying to communicate an idea, audience or no audience.
Aki Onda and I have an album called “Everydays” that is coming out on Family Vineyard (and Headz, in Japan). We’ve also been playing as a trio with Michael Snow. Andrew Lampert and I have done a few performances involving film and spoken improvisation. Carlos Giffoni and I did a trio with Yasunao Tone, a quartet with Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori, and another quartet with Lee Ranaldo and Nels Cline, that he’s releasing as a CD on No Fun.
BJ: The reason I asked is that a lot of people associate music with feeling rather than meaning (as if they were mutually exclusive). And even in the music press, I think there is a tendency to talk about formal aspects of the work, or how it makes one feel, rather than ideas, as compared to coverage of the visual arts. But in an odd way, these issues might actually relate to your collaboration with Anthology Film Archives archivist Andrew Lampert. Can you describe this project?
AL: Well, people mainly play music, or listen to it, because it’s fun. That’s the other thing there is to recognize. That’s the most primary motivation, really.
Here’s a description of my “Basil Burial” performance at Reena Spaulings Gallery with Andy, part of a series organzied by Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon:
Wearing all white I lay in a coffin, eyes closed, with Toni Basil’s Word of Mouth video album (starting with Devo’s “Be Stiff”) projected onto me by Andrew Lampert. When “Be Stiff” ends, my eyes open, and I rise from the coffin. I take the projector from Andy and project the video onto his shirt, specifically a woman in a wedding dress. I then project the image onto different audience members’ torsos, moving around in a circle, one by one. Then I do swift pans across the audience, the walls, the ceiling. As the credits roll, I lie back down in the coffin and project the video onto the metal heating duct on the ceiling above me.
So obviously the audience is a major component of that piece.
BJ: And there’s also a spoken improvisation component to this?
AL: Not this one…there was another performance in Philadelphia, where I recorded a conversation that Andy and I had about what we were going to do in Philadelphia, and I played that back at the gig, while I tuned and re-tuned a guitar and Andy made adjustments to film projectors and other props. We were talking to each other about technical issues too. The idea is the performance being the rehearsal or vice versa. There might still be a video of it up here.
BJ: So in both of these performances you subvert the traditional role of the audience, making them participants in the first, and voyeurs in the second if you think of the rehearsal as a private moment. How did the audience react in each case?
AL: I don’t know if I would call it voyeurism since it takes a while for them to figure out what’s going on.
Anyway, in both cases people seemed to enjoy it.
BJ: Why did you choose to work with Toni Basil videos in the performance at Reena Spaulings?
AL: One of the themes of the series at Reena Spaulings was dance and I had just seen the Basil video in connection with the Wallace Berman art show when Kim (Gordon) approached me about doing something. I think the title, “Basil Burial,” just came to me, since the other theme of the series was the TV show DEADWOOD, and death. I worked out the performance from there.
BJ: You have a book coming out on Rizolli in November called “Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories”. Can you talk about how your book differs from previously available studies of sound art?
AL: Well, there are no previously available extensive studies of sound art – at least not in English. During my research, I found a German book from ten years ago called Klangkunst which has some superficial parallels to mine, artists’ bio in the back, for example, but I can’t read German so I have no idea what it says. The artist bios are presented in chronological order in my book, and alphabetically in the German book. Some, but not all, of the same artists are covered. I realize that Brandon LaBelle wrote some unillustrated book about sound art, but I haven’t read it. ■
Images courtesy of Alan Licht. Do not reproduce without permission.
Ben Judson is a freelance writer and web designer from San Antonio with a degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. In addition to his blog, Emvergeoning, his writing has appeared in the Texas Observer, …might be good, Voices of Art, and other publications. He has been curating art and music shows for Salon Mijangos since 2004.