“I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
Ursula Block’s seminal catalog of art records and anti-records, entitled Broken Music, includes several artifacts that today are coveted by collectors of unusual records. One seminal item in that catalog Njeqove Olovke Glas, a.k.a. His Pencil’s Voice, a “record” produced by the conceptual artist Braco Dimitrijević:
The piece is an LP jacket with a piece of cardboard inside; the “record” is a piece of cardboard inside the jacket. Dimitrijević used a pencil to draw a spiral on the cardboard record, meant to represent the its grooves. The title, His Pencil’s Voice, is no doubt a reference to the early record label, His Master’s Voice:
Little is known about His Pencil’s Voice, so I emailed Braco Dimitrijević to learn more. He is a man of few words, always keeping things to the point when conversing via email. He explained that His Pencil’s Voice was created for a solo exhibition in London’s Situation Gallery, which was a linchpin of the modern art scene in the seventies.
“What bothered me always was the process of realization from the idea, the sketch to the final art work,” he explains. “This was not only in visual arts, but in music too. So I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
In essence, Dimitrijević saw His Pencil’s Voice as a more direct way of producing a final art product, cutting out the laborious production process. “I drew by hand the spiral on the paper and brought it to printers to make a zinc plate to emboss and print the label,” he recalls. “In other words, unlike a classic record where the music is written as notes, which are then played by one or several instruments, recorded, and listened to, for my record what is written is played directly by the record player.”
Dimitrijević points out to me that he has made analogous works using photographs and stone as media, but doesn’t elaborate. I suspect he is talking about the series of works from the start of his career that began life in 1968 as “Accidental Sculpture” and “Accidental Drawings and Paintings,” both projects he started while still in art school in Zagreb. On one occasion in 1971, he made a “portable monument” — a stone plaque that could be placed anywhere, which bore the inscription, “This could be a place of Historical Importance.” This seemingly satisfies the same criteria as His Pencil’s Voice, in that Dimitrijević is bypassing the creation process by designating any environment as artistically significant.
The other analogous project is his “Casual Passer-By” series of photographs, which is archived at the Tate Modern art museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For that work, he took portraits of people that he encountered on the street. His rules were simple: he took the first person he encountered that was willing to participate, documenting the person’s name along with the time and date. This image was then pasted, like a billboard, on a London bus for two weeks. By bypassing the usual selection of a formal “model,” as well as the typical methodology done to prepare for a photo shoot (makeup, lighting, set design), he again skips the typical artistic production process in favor of something more direct.
Dimitrijević isn’t sure how His Pencil’s Voice ended up in Ursula Block’s book, but he does tell me that it was included as the final record for an exhibition called “The Record as artwork: from futurism to conceptual art,” which was assembled by the famous Italian art historian Germano Celant. Celant is known for introducing the term Arte Povera (“poor art”), referring to a process of creation that breaks from the traditional practices and materials used in art, instead favoring cheaper and more rudimentary materials. One can see this tendency in His Pencil’s Voice, which substitutes graphite on cardboard for a professionally reproduced vinyl record.
Over the years, Dimitrijević has produced an extensive body of work, and I reflect that he may regard His Pencil’s Voice as one minor work among many. To wrap up my questions, I ask him what his thoughts are on this piece, nearly forty years after the fact.
“I did a good job,” he tells me, with characteristic brevity.
Thanks to Braco Dimitrijević for the interview. Visit his website here.
“I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about.”
While perusing an old issue of Preston Peek’s marvelous zine, Exotica / Et Cetera, I came across an article by a Dutch collector of abnormal and anti-records named Ed Veenstra. In that article, Veenstra provided brief descriptions of thirty or so bizarre records from his extensive collection. Several items stood out and are worthy of discussion on Anomaly Index. One particular favourite was a record made out of rusted metal. Named Hör Zu, it was produced by a German industrial group named Lyssa Humana.
Little information survives about the band, who were based out of Regensburg. However, I was able to get in touch with former band member Tilo Ettl, now a visual artist, to find out more about this unusual record. At first he couldn’t remember which anti-record I was talking about.
“Well, first I must admit that I destroyed everything I had from the Lyssa Humana time, because there was no interest at all by anyone,” Ettl responded. “After 15 years of storing the stuff I said to myself, ‘Why the hell are you keeping all that material?’ That was a quick and lethal decision, lethal not for me but for the anti-records I made. So I’m not sure whether Hör Zu is the disc in plaster or the tape with the mummy!?”
I ended up having to tell him it was neither. With that said, those unusual releases are interesting in their own right. The plaster record was called Ramstein Trash. “I took an old vinyl disc, mixed the plaster, quite fluid, then poured it onto the vinyl disc. Waiting until dry. That´s all. Sure you can play it. In fact it’s a negative of the original vinyl. If you are not afraid of ruining your diamond you can play the disc. At least two people did play it. (Great success!)”
Ramstein Trash is a little reminiscent of John Bender’s 1981 LP, Plaster Falling, which was a record that was coated in plaster, designed by Bender with the visual artist CV Mansoor. You had to pull a string embedded in the plaster to get to the record itself, which meant that collectors had to choose between listening to their record or preserving its value as a collectible. A Faustian bargain.
With regard to the Hör Zu disc, Ettl explains that he sourced his rusty metal from a factory near his hometown, Schwandorf. “[It was] quite easy to steal because there were no fences or security after they finished work at 6 pm,” he remembers. He was using that metal for his own sculptural art at the time, so it made sense to use it for an anti-record, too. The disc was named after a weekly German magazine for “ordinary families,” which included TV listings.
Ettl tells me the record was all about destruction and nihilism. “I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about. Fuck everything.” He compares this to the aesthetic of noise music, citing the Einstürzende Neubauten track, “Hör mit Schmerzen,” or “Listen With Pain.”
He tells me a little bit about the mindspace he was occupying around the time he conceived this negative-centric record. “I was very ‘anti’ at that time, unsatisfied, unhappy, studying at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart in the painting class,” he says. He and the four other members of Lyssa Humana shared an enthusiasm for industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, and would occasionally host performances in Regensburg. The band existed from 1986 to 1990.
Because of their short lifespan, Lyssa Humana now registers as little more than a blip on the late-eighties industrial scene. Ettl explains that this lack of longevity boiled down to the band members’ different personalities. “Edmund von Bachmeier was older, sort of a professional musician playing with [fellow Regensburg industrial band] Delir Noir. He was the ‘provocateur,’ but, because he had a real job, he had some money. William Kretschmer had been a student for 10 years and was pretty much into literature and movies. Walter Heilmeier was a semi-musician and really Bohemian, earning a living via some short-time jobs. And me, I was more into art and was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. I still wonder how it worked for so many years.”
The band was sometimes accompanied by Heilmeier’s girlfriend, Margarete, who “wasn’t very active but also participated in performances and was something like a female alibi for a boy group.”
A tape has been uploaded to YouTube and serves as a capsule of the band’s approach, which in this case is a combination of sampled radio, bass guitar, and what sounds like someone playing with some metal junk:
Ettl dates Hör Zu to approximately 1988 or 1989. Being the art student in the group, he was responsible for crafting the metal records himself. He figures the other members may have been involved in planning the release. “It is one thing to have great ideas, but another thing to realize them. William [Kretschmer] planned, for example, an opera — an industrial opera with singers singing in destroyed cars after a car accident. Good idea but it ended in some attempts and some beers. The performances were true collaborations, everyone put some ideas into them and was supported by the rest.”
Regarding Hör Zu, Ettl cites the influence of other unusual records and anti-records. He pinpoints two creations by the notorious Rudolf Eb.er as sources of inspiration. One was the Zerstückelte Denkkurbeln compilation on the Schimpfluch record label, which had a plastic fork glued to the cover. And then there’s Lieder Zur Analytischen Selbstverkrüppelung, a record by Eb.er’s project, Institut für Psycho-Hygiene; it came in a bizarre cover coated in black paint and a tampon. He also mentions Honeymoon Production’s infamous Manipulation Muzak, which was a solid wad of vinyl that came with instructions for the owner to create their own record by heating it up and flattening it. Lastly, he points to the power electronics opus All In Good Faith by Con-Dom, which came wrapped in a shroud inside a hollowed-out hymn book.
Ettl also cites the influence of writers like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard (specifically Crash), and Kathy Acker, as well as the performance art of the Survival Research Laboratories, which he describes as “an American group of weird people making weird performances with machines made of scrap metal, fighting and destroying themselves. Fire, explosions, noise.”
“Maybe you don´t remember the times before internet came up,” he explains. “It was a challenge to find ‘censored’ material, films, books, VHS-tapes, and we thought we were rebellious by showing that material in public. Maybe it was — because people like you are doing research 30 years later.”
He estimates that only eight or nine copies of Hör Zu were produced. “Four for us and one or two sold,” he says, laughing.
Ettl intended this record to threaten the listener with the possibility of turntable destruction. Yet those brave enough to play it might not have faced the intended result. “I remember that I actually played the disk. Unfortunately the effect is not what it is supposed to be: the arm of the record player runs very quickly to the center, playing only for three seconds or so. It´s more the fear that is spread — shall I play it or not? What is the outcome? Is it worth it? What weird stuff is that?”
Years ago, I came across a peculiar CD called Music For Multiples which was attributed to a mysterious artist named Bloggs. It was an intriguing collection of sound textures, reportedly created using “metal bowls, clarinet, contact microphones, saxophone, trumpet, PVC pipe, harmonium, piano, etc…” According to the catalog number (lensone), it was the inaugural release on an obscure record label called Fresnl.
Years later, while putting together a book chapter about anti-records, the Bloggs name came up again in the form of CT Sketches, a clear record with irregular hand-etched grooves — that is, if you can call them grooves, since many of them were perpendicular to the path of a turntable stylus. Even more perplexing, the catalogue number was lensezero, suggesting that it may have preceded Music For Multiples.
I dug around for an answer, hunting for an email address for the man behind Joe Bloggs. As it turns out, the term Joe Bloggs is a British placeholder name, something like the “John Smith” of the UK. But through some digging around, I was able to learn that the Joe Bloggs of this record’s fame has recorded under a number of different pseudonyms, among them Ralph Haxton and Damon Cleckler. After reaching out to a completely different Ralph Haxton who runs a YouTube channel about cooking, I found the man responsible for all this, and Damon Cleckler seems to be his real name.
Despite the layers of obfuscation that had to be pulled back to find him, Cleckler generously provided me a wealth of background about CT Sketches and his broader experimental music exploits, which represent an interesting tangent of the American avant-garde music scene.
Cleckler first became interested in the mechanics of music in third grade — 1975 — when he disassembled an old stereo in an effort to figure out how it worked. “Mostly it was the speakers that obsessed me,” he tells me via email. “I would take apart old speakers I found at the dump, or from trashed-out junk-yard cars, and would daisy-chain them together in my room to try and make a bigger sound from my old portable stereo. I had no clue about impedance or power. I just knew that the shapes and sizes of the speakers (without enclosures any longer) had different frequencies and really seemed to sound better all together versus just the two that came attached to the portable. I used to lie on my bedroom floor surrounded by these speakers, listening to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ over and over again. It was amazing!”
Growing up in a rural area of Northern California, not far from Oregon, he was sheltered from the “cool” record stores of big cities, but did experience punk rock vicariously by reading about it in Creem and Circus magazine. But a couple of things changed in sixth and seventh grade. For one, he bought an 8-track copy of Never Mind the Bollocks from the local record store. Then, a UK exchange student stayed with his family and introduced Cleckler to a world of punk rock and new wave records.
Experimental music came later. “As we traveled every summer down to the Sacramento valley to visit relatives, I’d had started a ritual of combing through the radio dial when we got to my grandmother’s house trying to find more underground new wave or punk rock,” he remembers. “She had a shortwave, and it was incredible the things you could pick up. Even just the sound of tuning between stations was fascinating to me. I had a portable cassette deck (the kind that looks like a brick with a handle), and I used to record with that held up next to the portable shortwave radio. I only had a couple of tapes of this, but I can remember recording some of the weirdest noise/art/sound stuff I’d ever heard with no back announcing that made it to the tape.”
In the early eighties, he found himself recording radio broadcasts from UC Davis’ college station, KDVS, while staying with his aunt. “The best shows were at night, and usually involved some form of punk and hardcore, or at least just pretty odd stuff that really sounded like nothing else. I still remember the song segues to this day from all of those tapes.”
He ended up applying to only two schools after high school, then choosing UC Davis solely in hopes of deejaying at KDVS. “I was really a big fan of a weekly hardcore show that I’d been recording for some time. It was a show that had a few hosts over the years, but when I got to school it was this team of Mike (Trouchon) and Kristina. I listened religiously, Wednesday nights at 10 to midnight. I wound up meeting the two of them when they invited me down to do a show with them one night, and that led to me taking over the show the next fall quarter after both had decided to take a break for a while. I’d not had a proper training in the 3-6am ‘newbie’ time slots, and wound up with a primetime show through a side door connection.”
Though he initially selected geology as his major — to which he now simply reflects “who knows” — he switched into music that fall, specifically composition and theory, but was stumped when they required him to perform a musical instrument as a compulsory part of his degree. “Although I’d played the trumpet between 4th grade and senior year of high school, I quit playing when I went to college and never wanted to pick it up again. I just wanted to be surrounded by music while I was in school, and for whatever crazy reason, my parents were okay with it. And the music department was willing to work with me creatively allowing me to include electronic music studio, work at the radio station and performing in the choir as ways to satisfy basic performance requirements.”
He also started playing bass in a Big Black-inspired band called Nest of Saws, powered by a Roland drum machine. “It later evolved into something more of a noise/punk/funk-ish power trio with a real drummer, but that’s because it was the late 80s and that’s just what happened.” He also performed in a lost-to-the-annals “free jazz/situationist/noise ensemble” named Tuba Mirum.
Cleckler teamed up with Mike Touchon, who had ushered him into KDVS, along with another friend, Pete Gomez, to record some improvisations in the studio KDVS used to record live performances. “Mike had wanted to call a band ‘Ralph Haxton’ and this was to be that band,” he tells. “We never got past a few jams, and some poor attempts at writing songs. Alas, school came first, Pete had to relocate back to Santa Cruz to finish his degree, and we had no time to make it happen.”
“As I recall, Haxton was a character that Mike told us would frequently appear on botany tests and other materials whenever some kind of crackpot science or buffoonery were being used in the examples. I may not have that exactly right, but it’s effectively what we carried forward with years later.”
After losing touch for awhile, Touchon and Cleckler regrouped in San Francisco, where Cleckler had been doing some solo composing. They decided to revive the Ralph Haxton name and set about performing noise music, sometimes with their other friend, Simon Whickham-Smith. “That eventually turned into the gyttja label we co-founded,” he explains. “We put out five or so Ralph Haxton releases, some work by other artists (Roy Montgomery, Loren Conners, Crawling with Tarts) and the first rhBand recording. Probably worth mentioning rhBand had originally been called The Ralph Haxton Large Ensemble, as we’d brought in a couple of our friends to add to the explorations.”
The Bloggs Years
One day, Cleckler was describing the origin of the name Ralph Haxton — a generic name used as a placeholder in geometry word problems. Accoring to Cleckler, that friend replied, “Oh, you mean like Joe Bloggs?”
“I had no idea who that was, and he went on to explain the commonplace everyman concept of Joe Bloggs in English culture. I’d been looking for a way to do my own solo stuff, and in an instant Joe Bloggs was born. The modern day everyman.”
Whereas the gyttja label had been “a bit of a pisstake on noise artists,” after recording a seven-inch single under the Joe Bloggs name for the label, he decided he wanted to get more serious about recording. As a result, he started up his new label, Fresnl. A “pure vanity label” by Cleckler’s description, it was designed to release his solo work, since he wanted to keep gyttja as the primary outpost for his and Mike’s collaborations.
The CT Sketches single was, indeed, the first release to come out on Fresnl. Interestingly, this anti-record actually came about as a result of the materials being used for a different record altogether. He had ordered 50 clear blanks from a local pressing plant called the Bill Smith Pressing Plant, which were to be used for the packaging of a 1995 Ralph Haxton single put out on gyttja. “The intent was to use two of them as a protective cover sandwich for the actual record, which was mounted on a post with a screw in a fold over package, complete with a unique polaroid cover photo. It was just a special edition thing we’d done for friends, and solely intended as a hand-made giveaway thingy.”
“[The pressing plant owner] Bill thought I was crazy and assured me he was going to charge me as if it were a regular pressing anyway, but he happily obliged. He’d never done something like that as far as I recall, and he thought it was kind of cool.”
The idea of creating a record with irregular sounds went way back. “Mike and I had long toyed with producing a ‘home loop kit’ that would include various sized circular (or not circular) things with a spindle hole in the middle, as well as other things that could be used to restrict or manipulate the tone arm to keep it in a position of stasis or lock on a track,” he explains. “I’d made a few of these for myself out of heavy paper and used them with a portable turntable as some of the background noise on the Ralph Haxton track ‘Bogota is Cold in Winter.’ It was just an easy hack way to get a certain sound without a sampler, and it was kinda Dada in its randomness. We were more serious than not about producing the ‘kit,’ but never actually made it happen. I think in some ways the blanks were sort of an experiment with that idea, but we never made it known in the packaging that you could use these as a looping tool for a larger record underneath. We figured we get to that as an actual project later.
He only used about 34 of the blank records for the Ralph Haxton single, so he decided to do something with the rest of them. “One day I took an X-Acto blade and cut some grooves into one side, perpendicular to a normal playback groove, just to see what would happen if I were to play it on the turntable. Seeing the stylus bounce around violently but also sometimes gently in the glassy portion inspired me to play around with it a bit more. I tried different patterns and angles on a few more sides, and then came up with the idea that I could actually make an anti-record that was interesting to look at, and no two would be the same. I only had 13 blanks left, so the edition of 13 was born.
“I did the cutting over the course of a couple of days, designed a simple label, and christened the record with a matrix of “lensezero” with the goal of making other non-records following that same pattern.”
I asked Cleckler if he had been inspired by other anti-records when putting CT Sketches together, and he responded by pointing to a number of sources of influence. “Seeing a Christian Marclay show at the Hirschhorn in Washington DC in 1990 was most definitely an influence. The piece (or pieces) where two records had been pieced together was very cool, as you could just imagine listening to it. Also the vinyl flooring that you could walk on really seemed like a cool idea, but I thought he got it wrong; it would have been better if the records didn’t have any pre-existing sound on them. That always stuck with me.”
He also mentions the seminal art catalogue Broken Music, which collected works of art that incorporated repurposed vinyl records, as well as various other conceptual pieces. He checked it out of the UCLA Music Library in the early 90s, right after he moved to L.A. “I recall photocopying several pages of records I had hoped to track down some day,” he remembers, singling out a number of memorable items covered in the book. In particularly, he mentions sculptor Harry Bertoia’s Sonambient record series and Marcel Duchamp’s visually stunning Rotoreliefs. “The Duchamp pieces in particular have always been at the core of everything I do, but I don’t know that I’ve ever said that. I tried to make an homage to one with the Fresnl label ‘logo’ which I’m sure is super obvious. Broken Music was just so astounding for the sheer mass of creative ideas in it.”
“There was always a running theme of not really being able to play a lot of anti-records, so it’s just an idea or an implication of sound. Those that can be or are intended to be played, are ultimately just a variation of Cage’s ‘Cartridge Music’ sonically, and are often designed to do damage to some part of your system.” In that seminal Cage composition, the performers were instructed to insert small objects into a record player’s cartridge, then “play” the turntable at their discretion.
“I didn’t set out to make something special or unique, but I wanted an anti-record that could be played and would not necessarily damage a stylus,” Cleckler expands. “So accidental cartridge bumps, occasional grooves, and some patterns at play with the spiral of the disc kind of naturally fell into place. There’s an element of chance, like the Johnny Moped ‘Mystery Track’ or the K-Tel ‘Chance a Tune’ single, as well as some structure that may allow for occasional repetition. I find few things as comforting as the sound of run out groove playing endlessly, so it’s all intertwined I suspect.”
At just thirteen copies, most copies were given to friends. Cleckler doesn’t know how many have survived to this day, but he does know four people who still have theirs, and figures the fifth is in the hands of whoever created the Discogs entry for the release. “But the rest of them? I’m just not sure. I may have written it down somewhere, but I don’t think so. It was just sent off as a ‘here you go’ regular record package, and probably not much else. What I do know is that the folks who got one were people who had helped or participated in the gyttja releases somehow.”
Anti-Records After CT Sketches
After 1997’s CT Sketches, the Music For Multiples CD followed in 1999. It was produced in an edition of 1000 and given proper distribution. Tantalizingly, Cleckler tells me there were two other anti-records, both even more limited in production quantity than CT Sketches — which is remarkable, given that CT was an edition of thirteen. “Though I possess one of each of these still (or parts at least),” he says, “I don’t know that anyone else actually does.”
“One was called Vinyl 12 Inch (lensezed), and was a 12-inch linoleum floor tile with a center spindle hole. Those turned out to be very hard to stamp and dremmel into, so I abandoned finishing the edition, but some folks got one. It fit very well next to any other regular LP in ones collection, and it was kind of the other extreme to [Christian Marclay’s Footsteps, in which records tiled the floor of an art gallery.]
“There were two others, neither of which were distributed at all. One was Stylus for Anti-Record (lensenaught), which was never completed beyond the prototype, and Sleep Never Rusts (lensenull), which was an edition of one. Stylus was based on a stack of about 20 identical, unused seven-inch circular saw blades, all very old and very rusty. The intent was to metal stamp the title, edition and matrix, and then use a very heavy paper contraption as it’s container. Unfortunately it remains incomplete to this day. Rust was a single, 12-inch square, quarter-inch thick piece of steel that somehow had a hole in the middle just about the size of a spindle. It had great patinated patterns, and looked very nice on the shelf.”
Today, Cleckler works in tech, “primarily user-experience and requirements.” Following the release of Music for Multiples, he focused his energy on work and his work with his group, rhBand. “Somewhere in there a marriage fell apart, rhBand folks started having kids, I started focusing more on architecture and design as interests, and before you know it, I am remarried and have a kid of my own,” he tells.
Today, he primarily finds himself listening to music. “There continue to be amazing releases of both new and reissued material getting issued on vinyl all the time. It’s fantastic. I find much of it inspiring, and often think about making work again. But I have not. Yet.”
He still does play music, mostly long-form drone stuff in a “bloggsian” (his term) mould, and also plays with rhBand now and then. Despite his day job being fully computerized, he loves analog recording, and is lukewarm on digital production. “Our latest thing is setting up drones that just go on for several hours in a particular room in a house. We’ll change our experience with the sound by moving to different rooms (indoor, outdoor) and may occasionally change some dimensions to the overall sound. We carry on conversations, move in an out of the sound. It’s impossible to capture, but fantastic to experience. Kind of like [La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s] Dream House, but without purple neon and no rules about conduct.”
I finished our interview off by asking whether Cleckler owns many other anti-records, apart from those he released as Bloggs. He does own a copy of Marc Behren’s clean-clear, which was a cardboard record originally done as centrefold for an art magazine called Rogue. He used to own copies of the RRRecords locked groove records, RRR-100 and RRR-500, and was also apparently asked by RRRon Lessard to contribute to one of them, but declined.
“Most of what I have is experimental music or non-music oddball things, but none are really so much about the object or the art of it,” he tells me. “If it didn’t bring me pleasure to hold on to, or more importantly, to listen to, I have generally thinned my collection over the years. I no doubt must have had some anti-records from others but no idea what they would be now. Again, I was inspired by these external ideas, but it wasn’t so much what I had set out to do or was seeking. They were just ideas I had.”
Update: Cleckler found an old prototype of Ct Sketches in his archives. Take a look:
In 1985, the seminal experimental group The New Blockaders put out a 46-minute cassette of silent audio named Epater Les Bourgois, which translates, minus spelling errors, to Shock The Bourgeois. Released on a short-lived eighties label named Frux and limited to merely 25 copies, the release has nonetheless attained a mythical status, leading to two separate reissues. The most recent re-release appeared in 2017, courtesy of a Swedish label whose lavish re-boot included a special version housed in a handmade box with a t-shirt and sundry other goodies. As the venerable noise blog Do or D.I.Y.? opined, “If you listen to this collection of tape hiss for longer than ten seconds, then you are beyond pretentious, and beyond help……and probably Middle Class/bourgeois.”
Although there is limited supporting documentation about Epater available, its absurd uselessness as an audio object is consistent with the New Blockaders’ credo. In 1982, they published a manifesto that was a rallying cry against art:
Blockade is resistance. It is our duty to blockade and induce others to blockade: Anti-music, anti-art, anti-books, anti-films, anti-communications. We will make anti-statements about anything and everything. We will make a point of being pointless.
In his PhD dissertation, writer William Moran Hutson argues that The New Blockaders regarded their noise performances as distinct from music altogether:
Their concept divided all artistic expression into two categories: Art and Noise, which they equated with anti-art.
He reflects that their noise was simply a byproduct of the performances themselves, which were conceptual in nature, located more closely in the performance art realm than the music realm. He views the subsequent boom of noise musicians, who peddled tapes and records through the eighties, nineties, and beyond, as diverging from the main point of The New Blockaders’ sound. While they enjoyed and perpetuated the sonic properties of noise, TNB’s motivations were conceptual, not sensory, in nature.
TNB’s extensive body of abstract noise tapes, records, and CDs stands as a testament to this philosophy of purposelessness, though by this metric, Epater seems like the conceptual apogee of their body of work. How better to subvert the expectations of music than with 46-minutes of silence on tape? It was an idea so good that they repeated it in 1991 with their blank tape Simphonie In Ø Minor, which much later was reissued on vinyl.
I reached out to Richard Rupenus, core member of TNB, to help shed some light on Epater and his other silent work. Epater was the first silent composition they released, but not the last, and he generously outlined the full history of TNB’s silent compositions, which I’ve summarized in a table at the end of this post.
Regarding the motives behind Epater Les Bourgois, which he refers to in its properly-spelled form, Rupenus seems somewhat unsure. “I can’t recall what the ‘concept’ behind Epater Les Bourgeois was, if there even was a concept. Some reviews assumed that it must have been influenced by John Cage’s (in)famous ‘4:33’ but that wasn’t the case. The Pulp (w/ David Jackman) 7” had been described (by Paul Lemos in Unsound) as ‘Relentless musical violence, the most savage aural attack ever committed to vinyl’ so perhaps I wanted Epater Les Bourgeois to be the polar opposite of that?!”
He then provides some background on the title. “‘Épater les bourgeois’ is a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Arthur Rimbaud. It will not translate precisely into English, but is usually rendered as, ‘To shock the respectable classes.’ As stated in the sleevenotes to the the Nonchalant Acts Of Artistic Nihilism CD: ‘…Volume isn’t always the end-game. Silence is often far more interesting.’”
Frux was a short-lived record label run by Mark Lally, who was a teenager when he put it out. “I was one of those punkee kids that wrote to Crass and asked them questions when I was about 13 and I was going to do a punk zine,” he tells me via Facebook. “I was getting my records then from Probe Records which Pete Burns from Dead or Alive used to work for. He looked like Marilyn Manson in 1979, with dark contact lenses and a nun bone necklace from Bryan Gregory of The Cramps. I am from one of them underclass UK council estates about a mile in size, so it’s a proper no future thing. I funded my label with my 25£ a week wages and college grants and put any profits from releases back into the next release when I got the label more organised with distribution through Rough Trade.”
Epater Les Bourgois was the third Frux tape. His first, a compilation called Not By Chance, featured tracks from Muslimgauze and Band of Holy Joy. Second in line was a collaboration release between TNB and Organum. He heard about the artists for these releases from Dave Henderson’s seminal Wild Planet column in Sounds magazine, and via suggestions from mail correspondence with artists, then reached out to them to contribute to Frux releases.
His connection with TNB was, similarly, a function of networking. “I just heard about them somewhere in 1983 to get a track for my compilation LP, Born Out of Dreams.” They submitted a silent track entitled “Seinsart.” “I liked what they did and their manifesto so I just asked if I could release something else, whatever it was.”
“They might have done it as a joke or they might have been doing very anti music but I just released it anyway,” Lally explains. “It was a manufactured tape from the cassette copying place. It cost money to do, was not just a blank tape put in a cassette case. I did the label bit of the artwork for that tape — the expensive recent reissue copied that style. They might have sent me a blank tape which was copied or something. Have you been in touch with them about it? They do not say much. I did not tell them I was a kid releasing stuff.”
“The tape sold out at the time, quickly,” he recalls. “I do not know if people knew it was going to be silent though.”
Reissuing a Silent Tape
Kenny Johansson is a Swedish noise artist who records under the name Obskyr. He is also the owner of the Obskyr Records label, which in 2017 took on the extraordinary task of reissuing Epater Les Bourgois.
By Skype, Johansson talked to me about this unusual project. Johansson recalls obtaining the original tape years ago, only to be pleasantly surprised that the tape was blank. “I was like ‘Oh, yeah this is so great… oh wait there is nothing… even better!’” He has been a long-time fan of The New Blockaders’ irreverent take on music.
Ten years ago, he emailed Richard Rupenus, one of half of The New Blockaders, asking for his address to send some materials. “It felt natural to send gifts to a great guy like him. He and his younger brother Philip made ‘noise’ to what it is today and I am forever grateful for their work.” They ended up striking a friendship and have collaborated on many releases ever since, including a bizarre KISS tribute album under the name Torpedo Girl.
In the late 2010s, Johansson was working on a reissue of a New Blockaders seven-inch single from 1992, “Epater Les Bourgeois,” to be released on a Japanese experimental label called Siren Records. Though that single shares almost the same name as the tape (except properly spelled), it had more typical noise fare on it and was not silent. But it occurred to Johansson that the silent cassette Epater might be worth reissuing too, albeit on his own label.
“I asked Richard if we could do a reissue as it is a favorite of mine,” Johansson recalls. “Richard was very skeptical at first. But when I told him about my plans, he later agreed and we both had a blast working on it.” Johansson requested the master of Epater from Rupenus and received one in the mail.
“When I sent the master tape to Tapeline who made the tapes, they sent me an email saying, ‘Sorry but the cassette was empty, please send a new one.’ Ha! I sent an email back, ‘The tape is not empty, just silent, please proceed with the duplication!’ I think they raised their eyebrows a lot!”
Johansson acknowledges that there is some tape hiss on the reissue, which means it’s not entirely blank. It’s the magnetic equivalent to the pops and cracks that appear on the surface of silent records – reminders of the medium itself.
Epater Les Bourgois, tape (Frux, 1985). Later reissued on CDR (Kubitsuri Tapes, 2009) and tape (Obskyr Records, 2017). The original release was a blank tape.
“Seinsart,” track on Born Out of Dreams compilation LP (Frux, 1985)
Simphonie In Ø Minor, tape (Hypnagogia, 1991). Later reissued on LP (Harbinger Sound, 2009) and included on a 4-CD boxset, Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology (Hypnagogia, 2003). The original release was a blank tape. Soon to be reissued on Menstrual Recordings, along with Simphonie in X Minor, described in Sound Projector magazine as “a full panoply of wild sounds: junkyard percussion, racing cars and industrial power tools, all providing a sense of unstoppable forward motion.”
“Null Bei Ohr,” track on Gesamtnichtswerk: 20th Antiversary Antiology 4-CD boxset (Hypnagogia, 2003). The audio, according to Rupenus, is “pure digital silence.”
Adapted from Richard Rupenus’ list of TNB silent works.
About nine years ago, around 2011, a strange record turned up on Discogs, titled 8705640 and credited to an artist named Mark Pawson. I came across it while cruising a list of silent records compiled by a user named “type.” The record’s title corresponds to a strange barcode on the front cover, and it was listed as an anti-record because, as the images showed, the record itself had crude, hand-etched grooves, leading to a warning:
Could be played, but WILL cause severe needle damage.
Curious about this anti-record, I tracked the artist down. It turns out he is a mail art veteran who has published books and staged exhibitions of visual art.
How did the idea for this hand-etched record come about?
Through play and experimentation, and using readily available materials/techniques. I was about 19 when I made this and making printed materials such as spraypainted postcards, photocopied leaflets and an assembling publication. Distributing to personal friends and via the mail art network. I think this was a one-off – (probably) made as a contribution to a specific Mail Art project/exhibition.
Were you aware of other hand-etched or damaged records, or records where people are encouraged to carve their own sounds into the grooves? Was there any conceptual/philosophical background? (Yours is one of the earliest incarnations of this theme).
At this point in time no, but I’d seen self-released records, with folded photocopy/handprinted sleeves, rubber-stamped labels, etc — so that DIY/self-made aspect was more of an influence. The felt-tip pen spirals on the labels were inspired/copied from one of those. My idea was for patterns and textures on the sleeve, labels, vinyl,
What else was going on (in your life, in your musical life) around the time the record came out?
It was the period between school in my hometown, Lymm, Cheshire, UK – the address which is on the sleeve – and moving to London to attend University. Very active in the Mail Art Network – which was my art education. At this time made some very rough tape overdubbed ‘music’ (but nothing since then). Listening to the John Peel radio show, buying a few records (but i didn’t have a record player for a long time!) and going to gigs – when I had the money – and when I could get a lift. Locally – Dislocation Dance, Mudhutters, in Warrington – Membranes, Drones, A Certain Ratio, At the Manchester Apollo – Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Skids, Altered Images, Vic Godard & Subway Sect, most of the 2-Tone bands, The Clash, Orange Juice, The Mo-dettes, Diagram Brothers, Stray Cats, Barracudas… At the Hacienda in Manchester, Undertones, New Order, The Final Academy -PTV/Wm Burroughs/Brion Gysin…
Can you take me through how you made them? What was the process for creating the covers and for creating and etching the records? (Were they blank records or recycled records?)
Cover – I used this photocopier-generated print for several projects/purposes, kind of as a generic device. Record was re-used, it was hard to scratch with any accuracy/precision, think I used the end of a screwdriver and pressed down really hard.
How was it distributed?
How many copies were made?
I think this was a one-off, it is possible there might have been a couple more, don’t think I still have any.
What did people think of the record? What was the response like?
I don’t know!
Do you have any interesting stories related to the release?
It was interesting to see that it appeared on Discogs!
Just to make sure I understand — this was only produced in a single edition of 1-3 copies? And then it popped up on Discogs without your intervention?
I know that, apart from this, you are involved with numerous artistic projects, including zines, books, and visual art. Your website is amazing! I wanted to know a little bit more about you — some background on where are you from, roughly how old are you, and what do you do outside of your involvement in arts?
Website and Instagram gives a pretty good idea of what I get up to. I’m 56, live in East London, I’m a bookmaker, book seller, Lecturer, artist, writer…
Atrax Morgue, born Marco Corbelli, was an Italian noise artist obsessed with the concept of death. Over the course of a long career on the experimental music avant-garde, dating back to 1992, Corbelli issued a stream of releases dealing with the subject, from 1993’s In Search of Death (which was more industrial than noise) to releases like Autoerotic Death (a C60 of analog synthesizer improvisation released on BloodLust! in 1996, and later reissued in a deluxe box edition by Urashima) and Close to a Corpse (a live performance from 2001 issued in a 3-CDR set). Many of these came out on his very own Slaughter Productions.
Corbelli, sadly, died by suicide in 2007, though reissues and even new releases of his work continue to trickle out, reflecting the impression he made on noise listeners.
One of Atrax Morgue’s more unusual releases was this item from November 14, 1995, also released on his Slaughter Productions imprint. Reported as a limited edition of “00000000000000000 copies,” it was a box for an old VHS tape which, when opened, revealed the mangled parts of an audio cassette laid on a bedding of burnt cotton.
Corbelli’s motivations behind this release aren’t fully known, but the packaging includes a clue, the cover describing it as “an example of real ‘dead music,'” which suggests this was yet another manifestation of his long-standing fascination with death. Corbelli also warns the anti-tape’s recipient:
"do not use a tape recorder for listening just use your brain and think that music is DEAD."
Incidentally, it has been written that, prior to releasing music under the name Atrax Morgue, Corbelli produced several A5 zines under the name Marco Rotula, namely The Pleasure Agony, Sick, and Murder. These apparently dealt with themes of “sadism, schizophrenia, insanity, murder, psychosis, necrophilia, diseases, and most importantly, death.” To my knowledge, none of these zines have materialized in digital form — I wonder if copies are still out there and, if so, whether they might find their way online.
Twelve years back, a strange anti-record turned up on Discogs, credited to a German duo named Spiegelsplitter. Images revealed a grooveless LP that appeared etched with the band’s name in stylized letters, alongside a Xerox-collage cover. A note was included in the listing:
Not released for commercial, only send to stores, radio stations, discotheques etc. to promote the debut-release “Spiegelsplitterspitz”
Spiegelsplitter was the duo of Dirk Schlömer and Peter R. Deininger, responsible for one lone 1981 single called Spiegelsplitterspitz, which was released on both the seven-inch and twelve-inch formats.
Intrigued by this unusual artifact, I spoke with Schlömer via Skype, and he generously filled me in on the story behind the release. He told me he was a guitarist in a conventional rock and new wave band called Cöln when he decided to leave and form a synth-wave duo in Berlin within the Neue Deutsche Welle mould. His friends were shocked by the change.
The concept behind Spiegelsplitter, whose name referred to a mirror breaking, was to de-prioritize the guitar in favour of sequencers. Schlömer was the instrumentalist and Deininger was the singer.
Spiegelsplitterspitz was recorded at Hansa Tonstudio, just next to the Berlin Wall — the same studio where David Bowie wrote the lyrics to “Heroes,” Schlömer mentioned. The A-side is up on YouTube; it’s a jagged post-punk opus with abrasive samples that estimate the sound of a shattering mirror. Schlömer told me they had recorded enough material for a full album, though it was never released, apparently because Deininger joined a travesti troupe and no longer had time for the band.
The anti-record in question was crafted by Deininger, and was actually one of two promotional items produced to help draw attention to the release of Spiegelsplitterspitz. The other item was a series of mirror pieces with a similar design on them, a reference to the single’s name, which refers to shards from a broken mirror. The blank LPs were individually stamped with the band’s name using a hand-crafted stamp created by Deininger. “It was a promotional tool,” Schlömer explained. “The idea, as always, was to cause some curiosity or some questions, like you have now. It was sent mainly to radio DJs or music journalists.”
He estimates that there were between 300 and 500 copies produced, the blank vinyl coming from a pressing plant. He stressed that the record was not intended as a conceptual statement, but instead to help promote the actual single. It came with some unusual liner notes which included photocopies of Schlömer and Deininger’s passports. “We really wanted something strange, something disturbing, but not politically, but more in a Dada way, or, as said, surreal. That is why we put in copies of our passport, and the only photos that music magazines had, were those passport photos you see on the paper.”
He wasn’t aware that it had been posted to Discogs, and was tickled to find the release there. Since Spiegelsplitter split up, Schlömer has been involved extensively in music. To this day, he runs a studio and record label called AmygdaLand, which has, as of late, released some great guitar-based music in a drone / ambient vibe.