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The Quietus' Top Ten Greatest Works of Auto-Destructive Music
Robert Barry , March 6th, 2015 11:59

Robert Barry follows on from yesterday's Quietus Essay on the chaotic and noisy history of auto-destructive music with ten of the best examples inc. The Durruti Column, Jimi Hendrix, Nam June Paik and Whitney Houston

Read Robert Barry's essay on Auto-Destruct music here

Philip Corner's Piano Activities at Wiesbaden Fluxus Festival, 1962

Philip Corner's score for 'Piano Activities' said nothing about destruction. It was a careful exploration of the different sounds that could be eked out of a baby grand through gently rubbing, tapping, and scraping at the instrument's many resonant surfaces. But Corner did not attend the Fluxus Festival at Wiesbaden in 1962. In his absence, the performers – George Maciunas, Wolf Vostell, Emmett Williams, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, and Benjamin Patterson – whipped out their tools and started chopping. It was "a very practical composition" Maciunas would later claim. The piano had only cost a fiver and they "had to have it all cut up to throw it away, otherwise we would have had to pay movers."

Jerry Lee Lewis sets his Piano Aflame, 1958

In this clip from the (1989) film Great Balls Of Fire we see what has become the established mythology around Jerry Lee Lewis's attack of pianistic pyromania: insulted at having to play support act to Chuck Berry, the Louisiana-born ivory tinkler determines to upstage the gentleman from Missouri. Whether the story is entirely true or not is a matter for some debate – even Lewis himself will deny it in some interviews then confirm its veracity in others. Speaking to GQ's Chris Heath, former Jerry Lee bass player, J.W. Brown insisted, "He ain't never set no piano on fire. He tore a lot of them up." Lewis himself was unmoved: "Yeah, that happened. Coke bottle, gasoline in it."

Nam June Paik's One For Violin, 1962

Inspired by a lecture by the American composer at Darmstadt in 1958, Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage was a lengthy solo performance involving model trains, music boxes, pianos, and no small amount of mayhem. In the last act, the piano got tipped over and Paik hacked at the legs a little. Noticing that it was this final violent flourish that got all the press attention, the Korean artist followed up with One For Violin, first performed by Paik himself in Düsseldorf in the summer of 1962.

Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967

Almost a decade after Jerry Lee Lewis's supposed set-to with Chuck Berry, an almost exact repetition occurred at the Monterey Pop Festival. An argument broke out backstage over who was to follow whom was finally resolved by John Philips from the Mamas and the Papas tossing a coin. In this case, it wasn't just egotism – in fact, neither The Who nor the Jimi Hendrix Experience wanted to go on last because both intended to end the set by smashing their instruments and didn't want to be the second act to do so. Having lost the toss, Hendrix decided to up the ante by dousing his Stratocaster in petrol and setting aflame, still plugged in. "H bombs were going off, guided missiles were flying," Mike Bloomfield would recall, "I can't tell you the sounds he was getting out of his instrument."

The Yardbirds in Blow-Up, 1966

Michaelangelo Antonioni had seen Pete Townshend's guitar smashing act and wanted Jeff Beck to do the same for the film Blow-Up. Beck was not at all keen. It ended up as one of the most memorable scenes in the film, with David Hemmings's swinging London fashion photographer, Thomas, running off with a fragment of Beck's axe only to toss it away as a piece of junk when it is no longer being clamoured for by a bevy of screaming young ladies. Antonioni was cocking a snoop at rock's teen cargo cult but today Townshend's smashed up Gibson SGs sell at auction for eight grand or more, while Jimi Hendrix burnt out husk from Monterey went for $380,000.

Milan Knizak, Broken Music composition, 1979

"In 1963–64 I started playing records either at slow speed or at high speed and, in so doing changing the quality of the music, creating my own other music," the Czech artist stated. "In 1965 I began destroying records: scratching them, puncturing them, breaking them. Playing them – which ruined the needles and sometimes the whole record player – created a whole new type of music, one that was surprising, jarring, aggressive and funny. Songs could last for just a brief moment or, if the needle got stuck in a deep scratch, practically forever, the same passage playing over and over. … I started gluing records together, painting them, burning them, cutting and pasting parts of different records together and so on, in order to achieve the greatest variety of sounds. … Since music created from playing destroyed records cannot be written down in notes or in other language (or only with great difficulty), the records themselves can also be considered as the notation."

Durutti Column, The Return Of The Durutti Column, 1980

In 1959, the French Situationist leader Guy Debord had published his Mémoires (a collaboration with Asger Jorn) in a sandpaper dustjacket so that it would destroy any books placed near it. Twenty-one years later, Factory Records boss Tony Wilson elected to clothe The Return Of The Durutti Column in the same way. Regular Factory sleeve designer Peter Saville was unimpressed, "To me, it looked like a DIY thing that was, really, the antithesis of what I was trying to do. It looked a bit homemade." But by the time Saville complained Wilson had already bought the sandpaper. So that was that.

Christian Marclay, Record Without A Cover, 1985

"People who care about records are always giving me a hard time," Christian Marclay said to The Guardian's Rob Young, back in 2005. In 1985, his nakedly shelved Record Without A Cover came with a stern warning: "Do not store in a protective package". The accumulated dust and scratches would record the age and deterioration of the art object into audible signals, making each spin a unique performance. "Record Without A Cover was about allowing the medium to come through," Marclay said, "making a record that was not a document of a performance but a record that could change with time, and would be different from one copy to the next."

Disc, 'Call It In The Air', 1997

Glitch supergroup Disc featured Kid606, Lesser plus Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt from Matmos. According to Caleb Kelly's (2009) book Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction, Disc represented "the 'gonzo' end of digital audio, taking CD destruction to a new level." Oval had coloured in borrowed CDs with washable felt tips. Yasanao Tone had carefully applied strips of sellotape to his 'wounded CDs'. By the time Disc came along, towards the end of the 90s, the CD was already close to valueless – and they treated them accordingly, attacking the discs, live on stage, with needles, gum, and razor blades. "I liked how free-jazzy the rhythms were," Lesser would recall.

Whitney Houston, Live, 2010

Whitney Houston's last tour before her tragic and untimely death in 2012 was met with decidedly mixed reviews from critics and fans alike. Watching the extant footage now on YouTube it's hard not to feel a certain weird presentiment. By this time her arteries were already furred with plaque, her vocal cords a minefield of nodules. But there remains something uniquely affecting about Whitney's voice. Since the early days, Houston's untutored technique was already causing damage. In retrospect, her entire career can be viewed as one of the most emotionally forceful works of auto-destructive music ever made; a tragic – yet strangely beautiful – accident in slow motion, played out over a quarter of a century.