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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Robert Ashley - 'Automatic Writing' (Lovely Music)

I went on holiday in 2001 to Scotland, and visited a friend there. Among other conversational items, he mentioned that he had just purchased a secondhand LP of Automatic Writing but he wasn't "into" it and was going to sell it. Neither my traveling companion nor myself had ever heard it, so he put it on the turntable and we opened some beers. After ten minutes or so my traveling companion and I both expressed our amazement at what we were hearing and we both offered to buy the unwanted record from my friend. When faced with our enthusiasm, said friend re-evaluated his feelings and refused to sell it to us. So I went back to America emptyhanded, though as soon as I could get my ass to Twisted Village (or maybe it was Other Music in NYC?) I bought the CD reissue, which tacked on bonus tracks 'Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon' (1968) and 'She Was a Visitor' (1967). Some years later I found the LP for cheap but I never unloaded this CD, which means it's going to get reviewed immediately after this on Dislocated Underbite et al. But that's okay - I don't mind listening to this twice in a row, because there's something really amazing about this recording that still affects me as much as it did eight years previously. The CD liner notes, by Ashley, explain his mild form of Tourette's syndrome and his interest in involuntary speech, though he admits that attempting to do performances with involuntary speech results in 'fake' involuntary speech, since it's a performance after all, etc. you know. Anyway, he spent five years "composing" this, which consists of voice by himself and Mimi Johnson, Ashley's voice being electronically manipulated mumbling and gurgling and Johnson's being whispered French text. On that surface you have a brilliant, surreal low-listening mindfuck that wins points in sound poetry circles as well as the avant-text circuit; but what really blows my mind about this record is the "music" in the background. For at least part of the record, a distant booming rhythm loop is present, but it's recorded in a way that makes it sound exactly like your next-door neighbor is listening to some shitty groove/dance record. Now read those italicised words again and let them sink in. And if you haven't heard Automatic Writing you're no doubt asking yourself "So?" Which goes to illustrate how futile it is to convey the sound experience through language. Because this distant rhythm is what moves this music into the arena of something special and indescribable - I cannot explain just how good it is, or why, or what the big deal is. Certainly the whole package with the mumbling and the weird electronics ticks all the boxes of conceptual art, surrealism, outsider art, and electronic fuckery that is interesting. But there's also something extremely anti-musical about it, and maybe this rhythm is what makes me feel this way (because it's music being used to oppose music, or something). And another thing is that I think this succeeds enormously as the conceptual/brainy/avant-garde theatre piece it was composed as, but it also succeeds without all of that attached to it - as a pure piece of sound to lose oneself in and draw inspiration from. Now I should probably save my raving for the LP version and focus on these bonus tracks, but the truth is, they've never done much for me. In fact, nothing of Ashley's apart from this and In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women (which slays!) has ever interested me. The benefit of having this on CD is that you don't have to flip the record, this making it the perfect record to fall asleep to and inspire your own involuntary speech - except you have to program your CD player not to play tracks 2 or 3 which is a bit of a drag. I've listened to this many times, usually at low volume so the French whispering is just static, but now I've noticed it seems to keep repeating 'Qu'est-ce c'est tu caché?' or something like that, which even my high school French can tell is 'What have you hidden?' (or something like that). And maybe that's just made this even better.

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