David Grubbs – The Voice in the Headphones

The voice in the headphones says, “you’re rolling” . . .

The Voice in the Headphones is an experiment in music writing in the form of a long poem centered on the culture of the recording studio. It describes in intricate, prismatic detail one marathon day in a recording studio during which an unnamed musician struggles to complete a film soundtrack. The book extends the form of Grubbs's previous volume Now that the audience is assembled, sharing its goal of musicalizing the language of writing about music. Mulling the insight that “studio is the absence of pushback”—now that no audience is assembled—The Voice in the Headphones details one musician's strategies for applying the requisite pressure to the proceedings, for making it count. The Voice in the Headphones is both a literary work and a meditation on sound recording, delivered at a moment in which the commercial recording studio shades into oblivion. It draws upon Grubbs's own history of several decades as a recording artist, and its location could be described as every studio in which he has set foot.

“David Grubbs's books are at once bravado poetic performances and incisive works of performance theory. He combines a deep knowing with a willingness to smash everything. I will follow him into any medium.” — Ben Lerner

“It's decades now that David Grubbs has kept my head spinning with ideas about the creation, performance, and understanding of music. To hear or read his work is to be invited into collaboration. We are all audience, all of the time, and every creator worth her salt knows this. Grubbs turns this tenet into poetry.” — Will Oldham, music maker

"Grubbs uses the set-up to extrapolate many philosophical questions surrounding the materiality of technology, the motivations of the performer, the collapsing of distinctions between different media and musing on the economics of entertainment – all within the crucible of the noble ruin of the recording studio, once the promised land for an aspiring musician and now an expensive obsolescence. . . . A kind of torrent of ideas and anxieties in the form of a visual score pouring forth from his three decades of recording in grungy studios and gilded arts academies all over the world." — Alex Neilson, Record Collector

"At times, Grubbs goes into incredible detail: the buttons an engineer presses, the way a space looks, the feelings that arise from playing an instrument. However.just when it becomes almost tedious, such detail proves to be the book's greatest charm. As it progresses, one more fully appreciates how these descriptions illuminate the mindfulness that music-making can beget." — Joshua Minsoo Kim, The Wire

"[The Voice in the Headphones] is an experience encapsulated in the space-time of the recording process of isolation booths, mixing boards, the room that not only floats acoustically but also is free from the flow of real time in the outside world. . . . This is an insider’s inside book about an inside experience, but Grubbs’ warmth will appeal to anyone who’s wondered just what goes on in those sequestered rooms." — George Grella, New York City Jazz Record

Published: Duke University Press
Pages: 160

Published: March 2020

David Grubbs

David Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. At Brooklyn College he also teaches in the MFA programs in Performance and Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) and Creative Writing. He is the author of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press), which appears in French, Italian, and Japanese translations.

Grubbs has released thirteen solo albums and appeared on more than 150 commercially- released recordings, the most recent of which is Prismrose (Blue Chopsticks, 2016). In 2000, his The Spectrum Between (Drag City) was named “Album of the Year” in the London Sunday Times. He is known for his cross-disciplinary collaborations with writers Susan Howe and Rick Moody, visual artists Anthony McCall, Angela Bulloch, and Stephen Prina, and choreographer Jonah Bokaer, and his work has been presented at, among other venues, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA, the Tate Modern, and the Centre Pompidou. Grubbs was a member of the groups Gastr del Sol, Bastro, and Squirrel Bait, and has performed with the Red Krayola, Will Oldham, Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, and Loren Connors, and many others. He is a grant recipient from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a contributing editor in music for BOMB Magazine, a member of the Blank Forms board of directors, and director of the Blue Chopsticks record label.