In 1992, a CD was released that was contained inside a metal box filled with salt. That alone was unusual, but the story behind it was even more unlikely.
Nigel Ayers is the main mind behind the long-running experimental music act Nocturnal Emissions, a stalwart figure on the underground music scene. In the early 90s, before Blasphemous Rumours came out, he was already an established figure, but times were tight. “I was living very preciously, struggling with debt, rent, food, and pretty desperate really,” he explains to me. “I didn’t have any other income other than music. I was working solo by then, and very focused on creating music and visual art, and working very hard at it.”
The year prior, Ayers had released the infamous Mouth of Babes, which was recorded exclusively using infant “singers” — recordings of babies that were sampled, looped, and collaged into oblivion, the result imbued with a sinister quality. Each copy came inside an (unused) infant diaper.
He had also done Magnetizdat, a series of audio zines on cassette that explored unusual religious sects, collaging audio produced by strange religious groups. The occult samples came from tapes obtained through his international mail art network. Back then, he explains, you could put out a request for cassettes on a certain topic, and people around the world would send you relevant items.
Amid this productive period, Staalplaat, a record store and label based out of Amsterdam, pitched the idea of releasing the next Nocturnal Emissions CD in a metal tin. But there was a detail they didn’t mention in advance: the tins would be filled with table salt.
“Staalplaat were very odd the way they went about things,” Ayers tells me. “They said they’re going to put it out in a steel container. So I say, oh yeah, alright.” It was only when his artist copy turned up in the mail that he discovered the full concept and was left to contemplate Staalplaat’s intentions. Perhaps the goal was for the salt crystals to abrade the surface of the CD, adding a bit of randomness to the audio? Or maybe the hope was that the CD would physically decay over time?
Ironically, because Ayers was expecting a metal box, he themed the music around the idea of permanence and sturdiness, trying to create “music that stands the test of time.” And although the salt did not cause the CD to decay, it did catalyze the metal box’s rusting process. “What happens is the packaging rusts away,” he describes. “There’s a sensational one from Brazil that looks like there’s some kind of moss or lifeform growing on it.” He tells me that it took about six months for copies to rust so extensively that they were trapped shut.
Ayers didn’t learn the full story behind Blasphemous Rumours until just recently, when Frans de Waard published his memoir of working at Staalplaat. Titled This Is Supposed To Be a Record Label, that book tells a number of anecdotes about the controversial label, including the tale of this disc.
As the story goes, the Staalplaat crew knew the experimental composer Tom Recchion, who had been involved in designing the packaging for the 1989 film, Batman, whose Prince-oriented soundtrack came in a special metal canister. Through Recchion, they connected with the company that produced the cans and were quoted a minimum order of 2000 units. “Since we had to buy 2000 cans, we’d have to use them for something we knew would sell,” De Waard explains. They chose Ayers because he was a well-known artist, then pulled their prank. “We filled 1000 cans with salt that we bought at the supermarket. Our entire premises became extremely dry and it made us very thirsty. We sealed the tins with tape we’d had specially made.”
But before he learned all the back story — on the day that his copy arrived in the mail — his immediate reaction was more visceral. “I thought, ‘What the hell have you done?'”
Amsterdam being notorious for its lax drug rules, he wondered if the crystalline powder might have been a reference to narcotics, or perhaps to Amsterdam’s moisture problem. “It’s a very Amsterdam thing to do. In our pubs they put sawdust on the floor, in Amsterdam they put salt on the floors to absorb the moisture… I was used to their sort of pranksterish ways at Staalplaat. I thought, ‘Right, okay, I put all this work into this CD and it’s going to be ruined in this salt. Put it down to experience,'” he laughs.
Indeed, since he was originally intending to produce a work of art that would convey permanence, he had put a lot of work into Blasphemous Rumours‘ audio. Ayers’ typical production style is to make acoustic recordings, then process them electronically. “It might be musique concrete, or it might be played music. But it all starts off with a real world source.”
For Rumours, he used recordings he had made of oboist/flautist Charlotte Bill, a Manchester-based musician and filmmaker. That source audio was recorded to a Greengate sampler then channeled to a reel-to-reel recorder.
Had he known what Staalplaat had in mind, he tells me he would have taken things in an entirely different direction. “I would have done something with salt, for a start. I would have worked with salt as a physical medium, the qualities of salt. Dealt with the idea of eroded sands — and if the idea was that it was to decompose the record, then I’d look at music that would rearrange and decompose. It would have that in mind when I created it.
“As far as it went, I would have been happier had Staalplaat told me that they were going to put it in a package that was going to decompose. Because I had been discussing that sort of idea with Ben Ponton of (fellow experimental group) :zoviet*france:. We were discussing putting a CD out in a Petri dish and various ideas that never came to fruition.” That idea, a play on Ayers’ own Sterile Records label, was to attach a record to a sterile Petri dish, which would, when opened, pick up organisms from the air and organically bloom. (In fact, the CD art on Blasphemous Rumours was an image of mould in a Petri dish, submitted by Ayers as a remnant of this idea).
For Ayers, this Staalplaat prank was somewhat against his ethic of artistic creation. “I do think that artists and curators ought to take one another into consideration, take their feelings into consideration.”
Ayers believes that artistic ideas are not the miraculous work of auteurs, but instead the result of people working together. “In creating art, it doesn’t always go smoothly from some sort of artist’s genius vision. Most of my ideas have come up from the people I live with, the unsung people, my partner, my wife, chatting with friends…”
He raises Marcel Duchamp, whose famous readymade artpiece, Fountain — a ass-manufactured urinal intended to be exhibited in a gallery, as a lampoon of high-art elitism — is speculated to have been the work of a fellow avant-garde artist named Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Blasphemous Rumours is a bit of an anomaly as a piece of art, since it came about as a result of imperfect communication. Ayers knew only part of the story, and his audio reflects only a partial picture of the overall concept. In a sense, it is a microcosm of the dynamics of real-life human interactions, where misunderstandings are germane. Still, for Ayers, it would have been nice to have been told about the payoff in advance.
There is a funny postscript to the Blasphemous Rumours story. “Amsterdam is under sea level, it’s all based on canals. So [Staalplaat’s basement-level record store] was damp. They were storing these metal boxes full of salt in this damp basement. I think they sold quite well, but after awhile they moved the store to Berlin, and they called me up and said, ‘Oh we’ve got a few hundred of these left, do you want to buy them?'”
“I said no thanks.”
Thanks to Nigel Ayers for the interview, as well as Frans de Waard for communicating via email.