Sonic Sabotage: The Noisy History Of Auto-Destructive Music

Sub Pop recently issued a deluxe version of Father John Misty's album featuring a "bulging thickness" in the packaging that warped the vinyl beyond repair. But, says Robert Barry, this is just the latest in a rich history of self-destroying art

This message will self-destruct in five seconds. The tape sparks and fizzles in the deck. A puff of smoke rises. We all remember the scene. There can be few moments of experimental phonography more well-known, more fondly remembered. Still remarkably few of today’s artists choose to exploit the idea. When popping down to Our Price for the latest Deacon Blue cassingle, we do not expect it to spontaneously combust in our boombox. Until, that is, the arrival of the latest press release from Sub Pop Records.

Ingeniously, Sub Pop have packaged the latest album by Father John Misty in what they describe as "an elaborate record-destroying device". Apparently, alas, the groove-busting warp afflicting the vinyl was not a deliberate conceptual prank, but merely a consequence of the "bulging thickness" of Misty’s packaging. Sub Pop are "very sorry", they say. "We promise to be less ambitious in the future." But should they be? By crafting a product that actively demolishes itself, the label are contributing to a venerable tradition of auto-destructive artworks.

Certainly, there is a long – if not always exactly proud – lineage to the destruction of artworks. From the Byzantine to the French Revolution, such outbreaks of iconoclasm inevitably raised the question of art’s limits, of what is and is not deserving of the status of art object (and therefore worthy of preservation). In this sense, no matter how ancient, these acts of artistic vandalism already dabble in concerns at the very heart of the modernist project. But to get to work that actively chooses to destroy itself in the very making we need to get a little closer to our own time.

The romantic virtuoso Franz Liszt is said to have left his pianos in a crumpled mess of spruce and ivory. Other pianists might have broken strings; Liszt broke the whole damn frame. Later, the Sincerist composer (and brother to Giorgio De Chirico), Alberto Savinio was also famous for the violence of his performances. Splinters would come flying off the keyboard as he bashed the piano with his fists and wooden boards. "Within two years he will have broken all the pianos existing in Paris," wrote Apollinaire in a concert review, "after which he might leave to traverse the world and break all the pianos existing in the universe. This will perhaps be a good riddance."

Jerry Lee Lewis, likewise, was known to end a performance by dousing his keys in petrol and setting them on fire while he, with burning fingers, played on. The "kids" according to Nick Tosches’s biography of the singer, "went utterly, magically berserk with the frenzy of it all."

It may be objected that for Liszt, Savinio, and Lewis alike, the destruction of the instrument was merely epiphenomenal. After all, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is still ‘Great Balls of Fire’ even without any actual, literal flames. But the "frenzy of it all" that such exhibitions induced in their audiences was evidently soon too much to be contained. By the 1950s, Piano Smashing Contests had become ‘a thing’ throughout England. These old uprights, which once had taken pride of place in the family parlour, were rendered superfluous to requirements by the arrival of records, radio, and TV. So village fêtes the length of the land saw teams of burly men laying siege with sledgehammers, hacksaws, and crowbars.

Bill Drummond recalls seeing such an event on TV as a child: "It not only looked fantastic," he recalls in his book The 17, "it also sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. What I wanted to do was get a sledgehammer and smash up our piano just to hear those sounds at close quarters myself." Before too long, Britain simply ran out of surplus pianos to smash and the destructive frenzy died down. Drummond, however, "kept dreaming of smashing our piano." He wasn’t alone.

The score for Philip Corner’s piece ‘Piano Activities’ consists of a set of written instructions directed towards expanding the possibilities of drawing sound from a piano: scratching at the strings, rubbing, and tapping at various parts of the frame, and so on. But during the most famous performance of the piece, much of this prudence was thrown to the wind. Corner himself did not attend the Wiesbaden Fluxus Festival in 1962. In his absence, ‘Piano Activities’ soon descended into a carnivalesque scene of men in suits wielding tools. The solicitude of Corner’s score was transformed into hammers striking keyboards and hacksaws taking legs off. Upon hearing what had happened, the composer was in two minds: initially dismissive of such "destructive play", upon hearing the recording he agreed it did sound "very good".

One of the participants in the Piano Activities at Wiesbaden was the thirty year-old Korean artist Nam June Paik. Some years earlier, Paik had performed his Hommage à John Cage at a gallery in Düsseldorf. A complex work involving music boxes, metronomes, screaming virgins, and plastic model trains; the piece concluded with the artist himself sawing at the sides of the piano with a kitchen knife and pushing the instrument over onto its side. It was a small part of the overall thing but Paik noticed that it was invariably the one element that subsequent press reports focused on, "because newspaper writers," he reasoned, "mostly write about the spectacular."

Acting on this revelation, he composed his One For Violin. First performed, again, in Düsseldorf, just a few months before the Wiesbaden festival, the piece saw Paik himself ever-so-slowly raising a violin above his head before bringing it crashing down upon a wooden table at which point all the lights go out. By all accounts the experience was enormously dramatic, the coiled spring-like tension palpable. In later years, Paik would have the cellist Charlotte Moorman replace her bow with a saw and slice through her strings. But by that time, scenes of aesthetic carnage had developed into a strange new kind of art movement.

In 1959, a German immigrant and anti-nuclear campaigner named Gustav Metzger launched what he called The Manifesto of Auto-Destructive Art. For Metzger Auto-Destructive Art was a new form of "public art for industrial societies". He would spray nylon canvases with hydrochloric acid on London’s South Bank or erect a domino rally of huge panes of glass then set them crashing to the ground. From this very first manifesto, he was clear that the "amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception." For some of his followers it became the principal element.

In the early 60s, Metzger started getting invitations to speak at various art schools around the UK. His first lecture was at Ealing College in 1962 and it was called ‘Auto-Destructive Art, Auto-Creative Art: The Struggle for the Machine Arts of the Future’. He showed the students a series of slides: Yoko Ono destroying canvases, Saburo Murakami of the Japanese Group Gutai leaping through sheets of paper with his arm outstretched, art students smashing up a piano in the streets. For one member of the audience in the lecture theatre that day the experience would be life-changing. Murakami’s clenched-fist pose would become a regular part of his performance repertoire. The implacable wrecking of musical instruments would be his trademark. His name was Pete Townshend.

"I really believed it was my responsibility," Townshend would later recall, "to start … an auto-destructive group." Townshend would pulverise his guitar on stage with The Who. Drummer Keith Moon would follow suit and tear apart his drum kit. Metzger apparently came to a few shows and, in Townshend’s words, "got really into it." Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni loved it so much that he insisted a very reluctant Jeff Beck had to destroy his guitar in the film Blow-Up. But in the on-stage instrument violence stakes, Townshend would be triumphantly one-upped by Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival when the latter, following The Who on the main stage, ended by setting his axe aflame, still plugged in. Mike Bloomfield, guitarist with the Electric Flag, compared the sound to "H-bombs going off."

The previous year Metzger had sought to gather all the world’s auto-iconoclasts together in London for a Destruction In Art Symposium. The summer of 1966 saw the British capital thronged with artists intent on violence. John Latham burnt a tower of books, Yoko Ono invited the audience to cut at her clothes with scissors, AMM’s Keith Rowe attacked his tabletop guitar with drill bits and bent screws, and Robin Page dug a hole in the basement of Better Books. Yet another piano was smashed, this time by the Brooklyn-born Ralph Ortiz.

Ortiz declared the performance a "symbolic sacrifice". Swinging his axe upon the keyboard in the North London apartment of the publisher Jay Landesmann, Ortiz declaimed, "Each axe swing unmakes this made thing called a piano. Each destruction unmakes my made relationship to it. It is no longer for playing; it is no longer beautifully designed or ugly…" A curator from the Tate insisted they had "never seen anyone become so involved in their art." The Guardian was less impressed, dismissing the action as "perverse, ugly, and anti-social."

But two people in the audience who certainly were impressed were Pete Townshend and the composer Annea Lockwood. Two years later Lockwood would compose her ‘Piano Burning’ which asked of the performer, "Spill a little lighter fluid on a twist of paper and place inside [the piano], near the pedals. Light it. … Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can." Jerry Lee Lewis, as we have seen, had already gone there. But Lockwood’s intentions were miles away from the show-stopping antics of the ‘High School Confidential’ singer. She had initially just wanted to capture some sounds for a work of musique concrète to be used in a dance piece by Richard Alston. Such was the fever for creative carnage at the time that whenever she set out to record the sound, a small crowd would gather to watch and coo over the purple-tinged flames of burning varnish.

One invitee to the Destruction In Art Symposium who didn’t make it was the Czech sculptor and performance artist Milan Knížák. Since 1965, Knížák had been creating what he called ‘Destroyed Music’. He would take old records and burn them, paint over them, chop them up and glue different sections back together in different combinations. These joins would cause the needle to jump erratically over the surface during playback sending a jarring series of pops and cracks through the speakers. His techniques anticipated the later use of CDs by glitch artists like Yasunao Tone, Oval, and especially Disc.

A sort of IDM supergroup consisting of Kid606, Lesser, and Matmos, Disc took random free CDs from radio station promo bins and savaged them, live onstage, with needles, razor blades, sticky tape, and chewing gum. Lesser, in particular, would note how fond he was of the "free-jazzy" rhythms that would spew from these CDs when they encountered the laser scanning mechanism of a home stereo.

In between the variously doctored discs of Knížák and Lesser, numerous means had been explored for turning recorded media against themselves. Inspired by the Situationists, Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, in 1980, had insisted on packaging Vini Reilly’s album The Return Of The Durutti Column in a sandpaper sleeve so it would ruin any records that came near it (Guy Debord had similarly given one of his books a sandpaper dust jacket with the same intent). The abrasive material was glued on by members of Joy Division for £15 each and it had a tendency to fall off at the earliest opportunity.

Six years later, Christian Marclay would issue his Record Without A Cover. Without so much as a paper sleeve to shield it from the elements ("Do not store in a protective package," the spiral writing on the actual disc warns), the album soon acquired myriad scuffs and scratches. Each time you played it the record would sound different, making the history of its gradual degradation into its subject and sound source.

The unique timbral qualities of a decaying sound format are at the very forefront of a 2004 piece by Cory Arcangel. ‘666’ sees the New York media artist pass Iron Maiden’s classic ‘The Number of the Beast’ through the MP3 compression codec six hundred and sixty-six times, resulting in an artefact-heavy ghost of its former self, with a sound like something the liquid metal T1000 from Terminator 2 would make if forced into a recording studio mid-transformation. "If you like this project," Arcangel notes on his webpage about ‘666’, "don’t forget to study up on your old school and check out Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’.

In 1969, Lucier had recorded himself speaking a simple text (beginning, "I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now…"). He then played the recording back in the same room and recorded that, repeating the process over and over again until the sound of the resonant frequencies in the room had taken over, leaving scarcely any semblance of the composer’s own speech patterns. Lucier had a fairly pronounced speech impediment and he noted that the purpose of his piece was "not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have."

Perhaps few instruments are so fragile as the human voice. In a fascinating article for the New Statesman, Alexandra Coghlan suggests that what makes Whitney Houston’s voice so uniquely compelling is the self-destructive element subtly detectable in its timbre. "Trained on the job, learning her craft from listening to her gospel-singer mother and singing in church, Houston picked up bad vocal habits," Coghlan explains. "These early on became nodules on her vocal chords, putting a strain on the voice that meant every note she sang damaged it just a little bit more. So, when we listen to Houston’s records, even those from her peak, we are hearing a voice destroying itself."

As a musician myself, I have instinctively tended to recoil at the sight of instruments being broken, but there’s something I find fascinating about the foregoing tales of sonic sabotage. Whether exacted for the sake of pure spectacle or part of a careful search for new sounds, auto-destructive music takes performance to new heights of acoustic and emotional intensity. So perhaps Sub Pop should be celebrated rather than mocked for their latest packaging innovation, worthy to sit beside those of Christian Marclay and the Durutti Column. Still no-one has released a tape that explodes after a single play, Mission Impossible-style. But after the Wu-Tang Clan’s recent one-copy album caper, it must surely be the next logical step.

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