25 October 2021 Read

Them’s the (emergency) brakes - David Grubbs

I sense that in the future it’s going to be difficult to explain to others the suddenness of shifts in daily life that began in March 2020. And not only to account for it to those who may have been too young, or might not yet have been born, but also that it will be increasingly difficult even for people who lived through it to remember the startling application of various emergency brakes, and the resulting changes in daily experience. 

As someone for whom the experience of music is fundamental—playing it, living in a city whose appeal is in part predicated on access to live performance, spending a chunk of every day listening to recordings—the shutdown of live music and the transformations (there’s an excessively, unnecessarily neutral word for you) of sociality around music were jarring.  I shouldn’t have expected otherwise, but still I was pleasantly amazed by the suddenness with which people involved in music adapted their efforts to disseminate work produced under abruptly changed conditions.  To give an example, on March 20, 2020—that’s crazy-fast—Jon Abbey posted the first dispatch of AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine, an online “festival” of recordings he organized with Vanessa Rossetto and Matthew Revert, most of them free downloads but often accompanied with links for listeners able and willing to contribute funds to the participating artists or organizations of the artists’ choosing.  Six months later the festival concluded after a genuinely astonishing 240 pieces adding up to more than 80 hours of music.  The word “lifeline” seems awfully dramatic, but from the perspective of this listener it does get at the experience of these pieces being shared on nearly a daily basis.

Cafe OTO’s Takuroku label launched in May 2020, drawing upon a pool of artists that had some overlap with AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine (among the double-dippers: claire rousay, Derek Baron, Catherine Lamb, Taku Unami, Seymour Wright, myself), but quickly establishing its own parameters.  One saw works by widely recognized figures (Maggie Nicols, Frederic Rzewski, Otomo Yoshihide, Eiko Ishibashi, Richard Youngs, Keiji Haino, Josephine Foster), important OTO regulars (Ashley Paul, David Toop, Ute Kanngiesser, Christabel Riley, Dominic Lash, Steve Noble, Paul Abbott), and a spate of folks whose work I was just beginning to discover and for which I was eager to hear more (Rosso Polare, Aisha Orazbayeva, Zach Rowden, Marja Ahti and Judith Hamann, Naima Karlsson).  I was delighted to encounter a number of text-based pieces that operate outside the economy even of most experimental music: Caroline Bergvall, Jean-Luc Gionnet (his nearly four-hour Totality), and Nour Mobarak. From where I stood (or sat, day after manifestly similar day), I understood the model of Takuroku as an outlet for artists making work during lockdown, one with a swift turnaround time—particularly as wait times at pressing plants became longer and longer—and a sense of shared purpose and community, however distant. (A unique aspect of this period: often feeling more in touch with friends scattered across the globe than people within walking distance whom I was accustomed to seeing as a matter of course, or by chance.) 

I also understood Takuroku as a means of supporting the then-shuttered Cafe OTO, and quickly signed up for a digital membership.  I’d be curious to have an in-depth conversation with those involved in the label about the decision to keep Takuroku off of streaming services (with the exception of shorter segments from releases appearing on OTO’s SoundCloud page) and especially the increasingly ubiquitous Bandcamp.  My gut feeling was that if this rare decoupling steered people toward OTO—by which I also mean cafeoto.co.uk—so much the better.  I’d be hard pressed to identify other labels—especially digital labels—that followed this model, but Takuroku had its own distinctive mission, one intertwined with the survival of OTO.       

The pandemic generally but also Takuroku and AMPLIFY 2020: quarantine specifically helped to reconfigure my listening habits.  I wasn’t previously much of a headphone listener, not at home anyway, but when home is a small apartment occupied by two adults working remotely full-time and one teenager attending high school remotely, headphones became essential.  The positive side of this trade-off was that I found myself listening more intently—no more throwing something on the stereo only to have it become background sound.  The other, and more crucial, aspect of these series that altered my listening practices had to do with the sheer volume of these releases, and the enormous amount of time that they represent.  In Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey is quoted as saying “If you could only play a recordonce, imagine the intensity you’d have to bring into the listening.”  With the tremendous number of digital releases to appear in the last 18 months, I’ve listened to a large percentage of them only once, but often with a greater focus—knowing that time is limited, and periodically sensing that music produced in the pandemic or retrieved from musicians’ archives is effectively unlimited—thus bringing recorded music into greater alignment with the once-and-it’s-gone experience of music in a live setting.  

These are some of the experiences that for me seem especially characteristic of the stretch of time that began in March 2020.  On the wrapping up of this excellent project that has been Takuroku, I’m full of gratitude to those whose ingenuity and effort brought about such unexpected rewards.