A little over fifteen years later, Tenney’s piece had become a touchstone of the musique concrete style, which knows no limits as to what can form the building blocks of its compositions. Francoise Bayle regularly utilized crowd murmur, while Christian Marclay turned short phrases into hypnotic mandalas. But perhaps most in line with Tenney’s original vision was Smegma member Ju Suk Reet Meate, whose early recordings have been released on cd for the first time as Solo 78/79 (De Stijl, 2007). The included selections enjoyed minimal exposure when first released in 1980; they remain a relic of a form of working that’s all but lost today. Possibly the only group still carrying the torch of Tenney’s tape-splicing severity is the aptly titled Loop Orchestra.
Flashback to 1978: Ju Suk Reet Meate is an active participant in the Los Angeles Free Music Society, a fringe collective that we still don’t know that much about. Smegma records Glamour Girl 1941 (LAFMS, 1979), a bizarre mixture of avant-jazz, tape experiments, weed jams and Dada-influenced vocalizations. On one of the album’s best cuts, the singer proudly declares: “I… I… I am… I am… I am not Artist! I am not Artist! I am not, no no no no no no!” The song, “I Am Not Artist,” briefly summed up the collective’s radical anti-art position. Refusing to play by established rules, it’s no wonder that Meate’s recordings have been lost until now.
Solo 78/79 is actually much better than a Smegma record. It boils their eccentricity down to nine tightly composed selections that, like James Tenney, revel in the world of popular music and concrete sounds. The first track starts off conventionally enough with a bluesy guitar melody: this could be any garage rock single from the past fifty years. With subtle invention, however, Meate multiplies the riff into a polyphonic series of loops that weave around each other before degenerating into a mess of detuned strings. Track two retains the atonal strumming and matches it with deep, gurgling bass sounds, dialed telephones, and maddeningly repetitive vocal samples. “M-m-m-makin’ a lot of noise,” one can discern in the mix. But most of Meate’s pieces are shockingly subdued, placing themselves as far as possible from the white noise freakouts one would associate with the artists Smegma is normally classified with. The third track is a quiet exploration into the world of the standup bass and the varying cadences it produces when strummed or bowed. I don’t know what Meate’s sources are, but it builds with the same dynamics as any coherent jazz solo.
There’s a lot to be said in favor of restraint. Unlike the hyperactive, cluttered, sample-crazy experiments of Otomo Yoshihide, the tracks on Solo 78/79 opt for a more minimal approach, allowing its motifs to gradually emerge and evolve, fading away and returning almost unnoticed. On track five, the composer lets sustained organ tones fill up the space at their leisure, only accompanied by the squeaky sounds of what could be anything from a door hinge to wet feet on tiled floor. The transitions can be so smooth that you sometimes forget this is tape music at all; they often develop like real songs, with hooks and refrains. We’re only alerted again to the presence of electronic trickery when we hear a voice begin to fracture, echo and repeat, transformed into a stream of stuttering phonemes on track six, which playfully equates magazine adverts and political rhetoric with the meaningless babble emerging from Meate’s tape deck.
The music comes out of a fertile avant-garde tradition where to sample isn’t an act of creative laziness – it fundamentally changes the material one is quoting. There is, however, another reason for the experimental community’s continued interest in rock and roll: mass culture often serves as this kind of smokescreen for the hidden desires, passions, and perversions of an era. In the same way, sample-based music like Meate’s strips popular music of its content to reveal the more basic elements of texture and rhythm at their heart. Call me crazy, but I think Meate is paying direct homage to Tenney on track nine, which replicates “Collage #1” with an initial wave of screeches and groans that soon reveal their origin in hit radio. A short vocal clip is repeated obsessively, sped up, slowed down, and eventually lost again amidst a soup of shifting electronics. As Joan LaBarbara once said, voice is the original instrument. It emerged as the scream and so it is destined to return from whence it came.
Ju Suk Reet Meate - Untitled 9.mp3 (236 kbps, 9.8 mb)
[Album removed at request of De Stijl Records.]
James Tenney - Collage #1 (Blue Suede).mp3 (160 kbps, 4 mb)
James Tenney - Selected Works, 1961-1969 (Artifact, 1992)