"John's awesome...he has an absolute sincerity to learn about his existence. He's actually very influential on me."
-Jim O' Rourke, The Wire (January 1999)
Photo © Giuliana Stefani
OUTSIDERS--Massimo Ricci, DEEP LISTENINGS Issue 9 (Spring/Summer 1997)
Translation by Giuliana Stefani
"It's easy to call someone an artist in this world. It's enough to be a wierdo, a good salesman of casual music notes, a recycler of someone else's ideas, a career man suddenly bitten by the art-tarantula... there are many of these cases, you see a new one every day. In such a scene, a true artist such as John Duncan lives at certain levels, almost as an unknown to those who are used to buying records basing their decision on organized ad campaigns. Duncan is truthful because all that he does is sincerely directed at the core of the soul: he is a performer of events that are as distinctive as possible, he creates environments and installations, directs films. And he produces important music, much better and more stunning than most of the trash that the postindustrial avant-garde feeds to their public. The music greats have the highest opinion of Duncan: Jim O'Rourke has quoted some of Duncan's records among his absolute favorites. A work such as CONTACT, realized with Andrew McKenzie, is one of the most beautiful electroacoustic collages ever composed; still many do not even know of its existence. Here, then, we're talking about an artist who has really devoted his life to creativity, study and continuous evolution, both artistically and as a human being. Strangely enough, Duncan lives in Italy: he has his own reasons as he explains in the interview, but I cannot avoid thinking about the oddness of the situation; a land that, as far as evolution is concerned is for sure the least in the world, is now hosting a person whose researches have opened many roads, some of which have yet to be noticed.
This article is my personal homage to one of the musicians that I most admire, and with it I would like to stimulate curiosity in those who still do not know John.
Performance, Video e Films
"John Duncan was born in Wichita, Kansas in 1953, and studied in 1973 at California Institute of the Arts with Allan Kaprow. His first work is dated 1974 and was called SUICIDE BOOK, performance in photo-narrative form for a 35mm camera. 1976 can be remembered for SCARE, in which unaware participants are taken by surprise at night, in their own homes, and scared to death with a pistol loaded with blanks!
From 1976 to 1979, Duncan's activities are directed to performances on FM radio; the most important are NO, STATION EVENT and CLOSE RADIO, while in video John creates OUT and HUMAN CHOIR, respectively made for an art museum and an experimental television spot. In the 80's the activity increases: BLIND DATE is described as 'recording of a private session with a corpse played for an audience, and a vasectomy' at the Los Angeles Center for Birth Control (!). John plays concerts in Tokyo in 1982 and in 1984, and in the two years that followed in Japan directs THE JOHN SEE SERIES, a series of hardcore videos also written by him. In 1986 the video installation CAST is made. Another fundamental step, from 1986 to 1988, is TVC 1: by means of a portable video transmitter, Duncan creates pirate TV by using NHK-1, the signal of national Japanese television!
From 1988 to 1991 there are other concerts, the video ANTHEM and TRIGGER, and a personal retrospective at the Ars Electronica festival. 1992 can be remembered for KICK/THE IMMENSE ROOM, a mixture of performances and video screenings shown in Berlin and reproduced in Japan and Holland the following year. Moreover, in Amsterdam Duncan presents THE RUUD E. MEMORIAL CHOIR, a concert/performance for a choir of 30 voices. 1994 brings the event GATE, presented on the altar of a Berlin church. In the last 3 years, there are new video releases TVC 1 and the collection TRIGGER - BRUTAL BIRTHDAY - ANTHEM, all on AQM. And in the end: KICK, performance on a 17th Century autopsy table, performed in 1996 at the Museum of Pathological Diseases in Vienna; and PROBE the concert performed in Germany.
As can be seen, an artist who doesn't know rest...
Installations and Events
"In 1976 BUS RIDE is made, subliminal manipulation of unsuspecting passengers on a Los Angeles bus. 1978 is the year of DESERT LANDMARK, SUCCULENT MAZE, a labirinth of Joshua Trees in the Mojave desert; EVERY WOMAN, in which Duncan risks being beaten up while hitchhiking in Los Angeles dressed as a transvestite; THE SECRET FILM, where a film is privately screened to an audience of 8 anonymous individuals and then burned! FOR WOMEN ONLYis a collage of pornografic films for an all-woman audience: John is in a small room next to the hall, available afterwards to satisfy the excitement of the audience... The period 1980 - 1984 brings THE BLACK ROOM and THE DREAM ROOM, installations of sound, text and paintings, together with HAPPY HOMES (a radio broadcast) and MOVE FORWARD (event for film, sound and sensory deprivation/overload). In Tokyo, in 1985, a series of A2 size images covers the walls of public restrooms in THE TOILET EXHIBITION. A gap of 8 years to describe the last installations: STRESS CHAMBER (1993), for individual participants made in a transport container, and MAZE (1994), overnight event for 7 people (including Duncan) locked naked and completely blind [in a basement room]. STRESS CHAMBER and MAZE have been reproduced several times as of 1996.
"'My music is not made to be described', says Duncan. I've always been amazed by the particular solutions that this artist uses in each one of his records: at least 3 of them are true masterpieces in the electroacoustic field and deserve serious consideration from fans of electroacoustic music. Duncan is capable of massaging the nerves, and at the same time to shake them: it's not rare that immersion in a long series of electronic drones is abruptly interrupted by bursts of noise or even by a scream. The dynamic of his composition varies: listening through a headset is recommended if your environment is not perfectly silent, otherwise you lose the almost subliminal subtleties that often constitute the most impressive part of the compositions. So it's true: not industrial nor dark electronics, nothing of the kind. John Duncan takes the sound that he's attracted to and models it at will, making you a participant of an unrepeatable experience, sometimes very strong, sometimes unforgettable, but that never leaves you indifferent. Nevertheless, the sound of any one of his records is immediately recognizable; in this sense, a style emerges with deeper knowledge of the musician.
SHOCK TREATMENT-- Jim Haynes, The Wire (November 2001)
With the digital age firmly entrenched, shortwave radio may appear destined for obsolescence, but not for the American sonic extremist John Duncan. The globetrotting agent provocateur has lifted shortwave, and all of its transient frequencies, to a lofty position within the pantheon of his phenomenological research. As Duncan explains from his base in San Leonardo, Italy: "When I started using shortwave, I was looking for something that made sound without the immediate recognition connected with a traditional instrument - a piano, guitar, violin, etcetera - but at the same time had a complex and unpredictable range that synthesizers couldn't produce. Soon it became a lot more: the sound became erotic; a source for phantom voices; a direct source for proof of an information war - Numbers Stations - one government's broadcasts jammed by another's. Sound that changed constantly and unpredictably from cosmic events - solar interference, atmospheric disturbances, electrical storms. Aside from the human voice, it's the most beautiful sound producing instrument I've ever heard." While shortwave appears in almost all of his work, it is impossible to categorize John Duncan as a dilettante pulling elements from the ether for the purpose of thrill seeking, culture jamming, or pure noise worship. Duncan is a rare artist who is totally immersed in existential research. His lengthy career of electroacoustic intensity and confrontational performance art happenings is the result of rigorous investigations into a number of arcane, metaphysical, and at times transgressive themes. The culmination of Duncan's research has revealed "that being alive is a timeless process, that death is [only] a part of it, that my existence and everyone else's is an insignificant and at the same moment essential element in it."
Duncan's artistic career began in Los Angeles, whose social climate also spawned the 'sensationalist' art movement known as Helter Skelter, following a 1992 art show of that name at the LA County Museum of Contemporary Art. The dominant mood of the movement was of urban and contemporary abjection and dislocation, as purveyed by installation and performance artists such as Jim Shaw, Charles Ray, Mike Kelly, Raymond Pettibone, Lyn Foulkes, Paul McCarthy and Chris Burden (who had himself shot in the arm to "experience something as American as apple pie"). Duncan attended UCLA with a number of these artists [actually it was CalArts, and I met most of these artists after I'd left], and eventually contributed to the Louisiana Museum's 'Sunshine In LA' show in Amsterdam [actually 'Sunshine/Noir' in Denmark] in the late '90's.
His first significant works came after his studies under Allan Kaprow, the father of the happening, at the California Institute of the Arts in the early '70's. Although Duncan began his tenure as a painter interested in the psychological implications of colour theory, his discovery of the Vienna Aktionismus group of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler led him to produce events that directly challenged the audience. 1976's SCARE is one of Duncan's more infamous and criminal performances, in which he knocked on the doors of his unsuspecting participants and, when they answered, fired a gun filled with blanks at their heads and fled. HAPPY HOMES (documented on the CREED EP) was a radio event from 1980 in which Duncan called up a talk radio psychologist to discuss the emotional numbness he developed after witnessing several incidents of child abuse while driving the city bus in Los Angeles. Today he somewhat disingenuously qualifies this work as "gestures to give experiences to others that happened to me, that were useful to understand a situation and my 'position' in it, and that the recipients very probably hadn't already had".
During the 1980's, Duncan travelled to Japan, where he focused his questions within the realm of pornography, which he found to show the most hidden aspects of the culture. His first experiments (film works such as BRUTAL BIRTHDAY, TRIGGER and THE IMMENSE ROOM) collaged together segments of various appropriated 8mm movies into subverted narratives, in a similar manner to American underground film maker Bruce Conner. Soon afterwards, a genuine erotic video producer offered Duncan a chance to script and direct his own commercial series. Of course, Duncan also scored these films with a complete disregard for porn's penchant for whimsical slap basslines and cheap, silken disco grooves. THE JOHN SEE SERIES are an eerie collection of shortwave Morse Code, ritualistic percussion and ecstatic moans, which he multitracked and treated to form a topographic, sexualised drone.
While Duncan was in Japan, conquering the language barrier proved to be an enormous task. Although he learned enough Japanese to get around, he relied heavily on interpreting non-verbal cues for communication. In a 1989 interview with Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler Trio, he discussed the challenges of imposing an American cultural perspective on his Japanese audiences' responses. He confessed, "In this kind of isolation, it became clear that I was seeing what I wanted to see, that I was doing exactly the same thing the people I was calling weak were doing, refusing new information by judging it from irrelevant past experiences." Duncan has chosen to accept the difficulties of constantly attacking and probing his own existence and those around him to unleash new ideas. Throughout the past decade, he has often sought out those artists considered to be difficult to collaborate with in order to challenge his own aesthetic and conceptual proclivities. McKenzie, Zbigniew Karkowski [who disagrees with this assessment] and Bernhard Günter are just a few of the strong-willed individuals who have worked extensively with him.
Duncan portrays his work as a catalyst, inciting a transmission of energy through which he seeks to compel the audience to actively participate in the process of investigation and self-discovery. On TAP INTERNAL - released last year on Touch - Duncan utilises primary scientific methods in his investigations of sonic properties: breaking down a substance to reveal its structure, to analyse the character of its elements and to get the essence of its meaning. He smashes VLF crackle, modulated shortwave bursts of noise and tectonic rumblings with a metaphorical hammer (literally, a computer), in order to unleash the white hot/black hole intensity of a technology as it interferes with the body's electromagnetic frequency. His own description of the recording does not do much to demystify the results: according to him, it is "about turning the computer on itself as a transformative instrument, for itself and for the listener".
PALACE of MIND - also completed last year and released on his own imprint, Allquestions - is a collaborative effort between Duncan and Italian mathematician Giuliana Stefani. In this work, he returns to the architectural metaphors which he previously explored on 1996's extrordinary CD THE CRACKLING, in which he and collaborator Max Springer documented the supercharged aural properties found within and around SLAC. Stanford University's titanic linear particle accelerator, SLAC is one of several such plants around the world used in quantum physics research. PALACE of MIND follows a labyrinthine architectural schematic which parallels not only the minute circuitry of the computer but also the rhizomatic synaptic connections of the brain. With the movement from an irritable data-stream purity to the gossamer haze of shortwave distortion to gaping drones of treated vocal vibrato, Duncan and Stefani have set a trajectory deep into the heart of their sonic architecture. Just as Barry Adamson's imaginary soundtracks imply the existence not only of a psychological drama fraught with tension, but also of film noir's existential morality, PALACE of MIND's architecture expands beyond the metaphors of a structural blueprint, exploring the psychoacoustic properties of a complex series of fictional spaces. Each room is saturated with an anxiousness for what may be on the other side of the door. The resolution of this anxiety does not find Duncan firing a gun at your head, but an interlocking network of chambers that resonate and breathe with a luminous, profound beauty. Dare it be said that John Duncan has created something holy?
For Duncan, science alone does not possess the ability to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but neither does any other belief system. "If you prepare yourself to ask any questions without a system to fit them into, or with a willingness to forego such a system when it stops you, whatever answers you receive will be much easier to use and build on," he insists. "A key element is the difference between knowledge and truth. Knowledge is a network of interpretations, opinions and decisions, passed on from one to another to another. Truth is something you become aware of through your own experiences, by living them, examining and questioning them. A belief system can easily become a substitute for this, or an excuse to deny the existence of some experiences you may have that the system fails to explain." In other words, when science cracks the brain to try and mimic its calculating abilities and intuitive reasoning, it may encounter some kind of 'soul', and have no way of dealing with something outside of the realm of scientific rationality.
John Duncan's research has never been nor is ever likely to remain static. He and Spanish minimalist Francisco López have recently completed a double CD NAV (released on .absolute./Allquestions, which the two of them have been working on for two years.
Furthermore, in December 2000 Duncan and Swedish artists CM von Hausswolff collaborated on a series of performances in Germany, using a live radar system as a major component for their sound design - the results have surfaced on a limited edition 7" on the Die Stadt label.
More intriguingly, Duncan has recently begun a new set of investigations which attempt to solve a psychoacoustic riddle he encountered while travelling in Egypt. "I got the chance to go inside the Cheops Pyramid," he reveals. "Something was happening in the main chamber... difficult to describe: something that seemed to be an entirely acoustic phenomenon, but that left whoever stayed inside for more than a few minutes with a kind of internal energy that was visible in the person's face and actions. Very strange, and very different from the other Pyramids. By chance someone went in with me, a middle-aged woman I'd not met before, who seemed as though she might not be able to make the climb to the chamber. She came out in awe, weeping with joy from the experience. Apparently Napoleon spent an entire night alone there - which, if it is true, inspires pity. I've just started looking into research that others have done into what this phenomenon is."
EXOTIC AUDIO RESEARCH-- Rob Young, The Wire (March 1997)
"[The] latest release with the avant garde musician and agent provocateur John Duncan is a collaboration [with Bernhard Günter] called HOME: UNSPEAKABLE, based on a text by Samuel Beckett. Together with sound designer and performance artist Max Springer, Duncan was also responsible for an extraordinary aural document of an immense particle physics experiment currently being undertaken in California. The CD, called THE CRACKLING, appeared last year on Günter's trente oiseaux label. It was composed from digitally edited and treated segments of recordings made by Duncan on location at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) in California, which is a straight line of prefabricated steel structures more than three kilometres long, terminating in a cylindrical, solid steel collision chamber 20 metres thick. Electrons are driven up the tunnel by microwave drivers spaced at ten metre intervals, achieving velocities just below the speed of light before colliding with other particles at a temperature of three billion degrees Kelvin. The chamber, according to Duncan, is colossal, 'easily large enough to house several 747s, one on top of the other'.
"Duncan has a long history of esoteric and transgressive research in the name of art and enquiry: his STRESS CHAMBER installation has parallels with the earlier Ultra 3 performance, while some of his legendary performances almost verge on the criminal (he once invited an audience of women to assault him sexually, having first shown them an hour's worth of hardcore pornography [FOR WOMEN ONLY]). THE CRACKLING, an astonishing record by any standards, is not only an aural record of the most gargantuan experimental apparatus in the history of physics, but also -- deep breath -- an inquiry into the nature of humanity's view of its place in the cosmos in the light of the new discoveries about the behaviour of particles.
"Prior arrangement with the authorities allowed Duncan unprecedented access to the SLAC site. 'The recordings were made in a few hours,' he recalls, 'with particular attention to the microphone placements and movements: put into the tubes of the 120 Hz electron drivers along the tunnel, moved slowly along a section of the tunnel, put into a liquid nitrogen exhaust vent, placed in the center of the collision chamber hall, at various points of the cryogenic system and around the collision chamber itself.'
"Duncan's sleevenotes portray the site as a necropolis: 'The place is full of contradictions: structures built to dwarf and outlast their creators, designed to generate subatomic events that take place in a time scale that is experientially impossible to imagine, using forces and processes that are hostile or lethal to human life, yet are entirely human-created. A 'city of the dead' that seems to have an existence of its own with or without its operators. '
"Seen in this light, Duncan compels a reading of this enormous crucible as an atomic-age cathedral: a monumental and ingenious piece of architecture dedicated to exploring the origins and driving forces of the universe. 'Yes,' he concurs, 'by now it's pretty well established that science is the accepted frame for explaining the findings, and in that sense it's "trusted" as a religion is "trusted". It's also clear, to many scientists among others, that there is infinite knowledge that the discipline of science can't even begin to explain. The SLAC and CERN [a Swiss ring-accelerator] facilities, for all their efforts at precision, are just two of any number of examples that show just how clumsy scientific research can be. Putting faith in science -- or in anything else -- to provide all answers to all questions is a howling, tragic mistake. I'm interested in the entire process.'"
-- Roy C. Usury, Wow & Flutter, 1997
Amsterdam's noise/art terrorist talks shop
John Duncan will kill you.
John Duncan is a master of minimal soundscapes and harshly intriguing collages of noise. He's been creating sound and art projects for nearly twenty years now (since he was 15, he says), and he's worked with everyone from Chris Keefe [? Not to my knowledge. -- JD] to Elliott Sharp. Some of his projects are painfully beautiful in their simplicity while others border on the absurd in their extremism. They often suggest that, if he thought there was something to be learned from it, he wouldn't have a problem taking your life.
His performance events have included such things as disguising his identity and firing guns point blank at friends (with blanks, of course) to examine their reactions (SCARE), and being molested by multiple women [false -- JD] after exposing them to pornographic films (FOR WOMEN ONLY).
"I was trying to find out more about myself," says Duncan casually. "SCARE was done in LA, in response to being attacked on the street. In the span of a split-second, wanted to give opposite senses of total helpless 'cold' fear and reckless 'hot' anger to unsuspecting recipients, people who I knew would be able to appreciate it as a learning experience. FOR WOMEN ONLY was an attempt to reverse an accepted situation; to arouse an audience of women with erotic images normally targeted for men, and then to give that audience a male (myself) to use in private to vent their arousal."
Duncan and his friend and frequent collaborator Max Springer recently released a new CD (available from Soleilmoon Recordings in the U.S.) called THE CRACKLING. THE CRACKLING was recorded at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (see below) where they bash atoms together at fractions of the speed of light. One can imagine which category of sound this recording falls under...
Max Springer had the following to say about his work with Duncan: "In the membrane separating the sundry and more interesting studies is a great, red lodge. I met John Duncan in a cheap cafe there, or maybe... it was the Melkweg. I was a little upset with how gallery/museum shows of my paintings and sculpture were static. I was sniffing out something that had oscillation. I wanted to have intercourse with another artist that understood painting and sound. Pseudo-friends introduced me to Mr. Duncan... who immediately asked me to go out and physically challenge his audience that night. John's performance was dark. Some young dudes were pounding industrial waste under strobe in black, John shot fog from a fog gun at the audience, and around eight of us pushed and concentrated the audience, to peak claustrophobia and anxiety, to help expand the awareness of the emotions. I liked him. I was delighted to find out he'd worked with McKenzie (of The Hafler Trio), whose recording work always fascinated me. My college studies were devoted to Electronic Music and Music Concréte, so my interest in the challenges of John's work has gone on a while. I'd been using computers for my own work for years, so I got John to look at programming as a natural way to build on his existing, rather severe musical ethics. He has shown me the meaning of the colors of his sounds, which we've now been composing together into various audio and multimedia projects. John's added a lot to my love of tone poetry. When we work together... it feels like sharing the flying of a plane. The sound room is a small cockpit, noisy as hell, the computers glare until your eyes burn, you forget to eat. You know the direction of travel, but the ground isn't familiar. It's like you know you're on course in your hidden places and you can't stop. Our next CD, CHANGE, is now underway and again the hum has started... please stay tuned...
Other upcoming projects include an installation called ICONS, which Duncan describes, "an installation with macro-photos of the vaginas of six women printed 12 ft. high and drawings of these images made in my blood." And as for sound projects, he and Bernhard Günter (Trente Oiseaux label head) just released Home: Unspeakable on Trente Oiseaux (TOC 964), which Charles Powne at Soleilmoon describes as, "either the most brilliant conceptual work ever created, or else it's just 'unlistenable.'"
"Giuliana Stefani and I just recorded CHARGE FIELD to be put out on Touch/Ash, a remix of the Disinformation CD they released last year," explains Duncan. "Max, Benzene and I are working on CHANGE, going further into a track I recorded in August '96 for the 'Mind of a Missile' project on Heel Stone." If this schedule of events and projects sounds a little cumbersome, it's normal for Duncan. He's always busy pushing some limit to it's breaking point, learning what he can from it, then passing the knowledge on to others through one medium or another.
-- Marcelo Aguirre e/i Issue 7 (spring/summer 2006)
Ghost Patterns Arising
The search for unutterable, revelatory experience has played a conspicuous, obsessive role throughout John Duncan's irretrievable body of work. His experimental sound compositions since the late 70s, persistently evolving out of assemblages focused on a multitude of sound sources, have been occupying the hot waters of difficult, attentive listening. Ranging from his enduring exertion on shortwave, radio static or data files, to particle accelerators, seismic and barometric data, or the unusual properties of solo and massed voice, Duncan's music has established a signature style in its striving towards clarity via elemental means.
Continually reinforced with a sensuous touch, his disorientating audio work alienates listeners psychologically, locking them into high pitched, metallic assault, as well as subtly stirring their awareness with low frequency tides. The borders of pain and pleasure conforming a single entity: as in Kantian philosophy, a transcendental end. "I'm interested in finding out what it is to be alive. And to look into that, go wherever that sort of self-research goes" he affirmed on a talk back in November 2001 in Berlin. Like in some aspects of Australian artist Alan Lamb's decaying telegraph line music, or Spanish absolute field recordist Francisco López's work, Duncan approaches natural phenomena scientifically rather than as musical ingredient, looking for cause and effect, surveying the sound as physical material for a sculpture. This traces to conceptual art's prevailing ideas over product.
"I was interested in the relationship between color and emotional responses that color encourages and pulls out of us. I compose while trying to make things that would sort of manipulate me emotionally in the way that color manipulates your emotions visually" Duncan says. "I was looking for a way to do that with the frequencies of audio", he enthuses when inquired on his transition from abstract expressionist-like painting in the 70s to a large body of work that embraces many disciplines, from an area where hidden physics melt, and leading to installation, net-art, video and psychically intense actions that meld with controversial, disconcerting consequences. He studied with influential performance artist and painter Allan Kaprow, who later participated on his and Paul Mc Carthy's 1977 Close Radio program on KPFK in Los Angeles, a document of which, Courtesy, resurfaced in 2000 on limited edition transparent orange vinyl on the Fluxus-specialized imprint Slowscan. Duncan notes, "Kaprow encouraged me to keep making art, and unlike so many other instructors there did not try to convince me that he was a great artist. That alone gave a useful lesson into how to tell the difference between a master and a poseur. He encouraged me to go into the CalArts library and check out Avalanche magazine (which contained photos of early performance work, minimal sculpture, and conceptual art), look up the work of the Viennese Actionists. He suggested listening to records by Mauricio Kagel, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros, among others. He got me searching again, gave me suggestions on where to look". Former Vienna actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler's idiosyncratic mutilation acts; Yvonne Rainer's open dance, and Chris Burden and Barbara Smith's provocative, galvanizing American body and performance art were all substantive in the realization of Duncan's early creations.
Around that time, Duncan sought to catalyze a distinctive form of music with incandescent fervor amid the Los Angeles Free Music Society, in the units C.V. Massage and The Doo-Dooettes, pre-dating the liberating sonic attitude on the DIY/noise network of the 80s. The gnostic free-fall of performances like Blind Date or Maze, and his involvement with post-industrial sound for a while - collaborating with COUM / Throbbing Gristle's Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni-Tutti in Kokka and with The Hafler Trio's A. McKenzie in Contact -, faced a detour. "I tried to make things that were aggressive or abrasive, jarring really, in a sense hard to listen to in order to attack the listener with sound. After a while, the need has to be satisfied. If you keep doing this same music, the same gestures, over and over again, the benefit that you are giving the audience becomes diluted; people learn to expect that. And if you need to continue doing these kinds of things, there is something missing, something you as a creator are missing. Maybe music isn't the way to find it".
This early sense of urgency emerged critically intact from its experiential momentum, with no signs of mellowing out. When Duncan moved to Japan in the mid-80s, shortwave radio became an intense noisemaker, and as such a rich, ideal source for unpredictable sound gathering. Harmonic hum and static hissing moving into one another as interstellar dust, augured in, via long listening sessions, a certain illusion, one which at the time was not to be obtained from conventional instruments, even FM synthesizers, which for Duncan seemed limiting and immediately recognizable. "I was looking for something that didn't have that, and that I didn't had to practice in order to play. Thanks to the cold war which was going on at the time, it was a sort of free-for-all when one side would transmit a signal and the other side would try to block it and somewhere in between you would get this sort of mixed buzz; you could hear the transmission, you could hear the block, and these crossed over and under each other. At times there was just this really sensual drone, and elsewhere you could hear voices that would sing like ghosts".
Fortuitous broadcast sessions taped onto each other through a four-channel cassette recorder configured a complex flow, until Duncan discovered that computer editing would sophisticate the proceedings. On The Crackling (1996,Trente Oiseaux) with visual artist and computer expert Max Springer, a whole new spectrum of possibilities emerged. Duncan's recorded output bespeaks true audio research in pursue of its own singular path, herein abandoning all musical expectations of any "traditional" significance, functioning as a sensory deprivation artifact.
Even though the denomination of a genre such as sound art and its appropriate form of documentation overwhelms, Duncan makes an attempt at redefining it on The Keening Towers (Allquestions), which as an installation consisted of elevating a continually evolving composition over two 24- meter steel towers as a permanent installation in front of the Gotheborg city art museum's façade in Sweden, providing visitors of the C.M. von Hausswolff-curated Biennial in 2003 another galvanizing twist. No bright tone here, but instead there was a rusty turbine roar, a fundamentally perilous tone. Voices of children whisper secret codes, chewed dead air, while a soloist is framed, screaming to chilling effect. "Stun Shelter" (Nicola Fornello Gallery) joins Duncan and von Hausswolff together. Video screening of adult movies Duncan did in Japan during the eighties as part of his "John See" series interact in the same space with the voluptuous presence of "The Thinner Bar and Glue Lounge" by von Hausswolff. An erotic nightmare with high pitched, drilling humming that seems tuned from tinnitus overtones, gets paired with undulating frequencies, invaded by female moans, stereo-panned feedback and rumblings.
Infrasound-Tidal (Allquestions) buries the noise in scientific sound information provided by Australian resonating sound artist Densil Cabrera. The liner notes indicate that "very low frequency acoustic or vibrational data is converted to audible sound", including sounds derived from tidal, seismic and barometric sources. The tidal part undulates in a compelling cloud of drones that might raise smiles on the countenances of Éliane Radigue or Folke Rabe; while the seismic part is closer to the behavior of an ocean, so related to nature's sustained pitches it acts as poetry: what plate tectonics should mean to mortals. With Elliott Sharp, Duncan released Tongue (Allquestions), the most intrinsic, intimate qualities of their voices are subjected to myriad processing, mounted on Duncan's trademark shortwave murmurings. Quietly, constantly infiltrated by way of rainbow multiphonics splayed in an khöömeior khoomii Tuvan throat-singing idiom, coupled with diminutive gargling, swishing winds, informed by a spiritual, animistic sensitivity.
On Da sich die Machtgier… (Die Stadt), Asmus Tietchens was reluctant to accept credit for the recordings used despite Duncan's insistence, though what yielded was a profound framework knit around E.M. Cioran's excerpts (read in German by Tietchens) from 'Learning from the Tyrants' and 'On a Winded Civilization', the obscurantism on them deprived of their organic significance. Further, on Duncan's collaboration with Wire's Edvard Graham Lewis, Presence (Allquestions), heaven's immensity seems to fit in one mouth (Lewis'); the date remains wordless, vaporous, splashed with tiny Morse code secrecy and windy throat-blows, while distant flights obstruct the forceful pace of displaced clouds. In crafting such a profound statement, the duo involves the captured ambiances of locations such as a mausoleum in Oslo and a bathtub at a Holiday Inn in Chicago- the duo's voices dissolve at album's end, in whispers seemingly coated in concrete.
The most recent Duncan project, 9 Suggestions (Allquestions) unites him with Finland's Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen (both on oscillators and processing) of Pan Sonic fame, obliquely rivaling The Hafler Trio's recent pairings with Autechre. File exchanges display massive musical resources; the nine tracks are as diverse as utterly focused, constructed and sequenced. Ranging from cascading feedback ("Volume", "Scratch Ring") or more introspective frequency combinations in perpetual motion ("The Deepening", "The Bristling Haze"), Duncan's cohorts appear to mimic their collaborator's fancies perfectly, no doubt the master's skills as a sound artisan continue to evolve over time, either in tandem with like-minded others or simply as a lone (re)arranger of the mixing desk.
Corpsefucker Makes Good:
-- Doug Harvey, LA Weekly, 25 July 2007
Up the hill backwards with John Duncan and Paul McCarthy
Back in the early '80s, my dad returned from a trip to L.A. with a few artifacts he thought might interest me. His batting average in this regard was never great, but this time he had scored several strange cultural magazines, including a couple of recent issues of something called Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Later I learned that this was the brainchild of the idiosyncratic architectural scholar (and co-founder of the early-'70s Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad trompe l'oeil muralist collective) Leonard Koren, but at the time, its peculiar mixture of chatty avant-garde cultural reportage alongside deadpan examinations of bathhouses, waterbeds and seltzer water (all wrapped in an impressive and influential post-punk graphic design) was pretty baffling.
Most unnerving was an account in the March-April 1981 issue, describing a performance-art piece by one John Duncan, who had bribed a Tijuana mortician to let him have sex with a female corpse, recording the act on audiotape. Afterward, he had gotten a vasectomy "so that the last potent seed I had," he recounted, "was spent in a cadaver." Blind Date immediately became a personal touchstone in sorting out what was possible in the name of Art.
Ten years later, when I wound up at UCLA grad school, I asked around about Duncan and his work and was shocked at the mostly blank stares with occasional frosty silences that constituted the response. Blind Date had proved to be one of the most violently polarizing works in L.A. art history, eventually sending Duncan into a self-imposed exile to Japan, Amsterdam and, finally, Italy, where he resides to this day. His critics had seemingly succeeded in erasing him from the equation, while elevating Chris Burden's also-difficult oeuvre to canonical status.
Professor Paul McCarthy knew Duncan well, and he told me about Close Radio — his and Duncan's collaboration curating a series of experimental artists' radio programs on KPFK in the '70s, the master tapes of which he had miraculously saved from bulk erasure and was then having laboriously transferred to DAT tape, while simultaneously trying to find them an institutional home. In the meantime, Duncan had developed a reputation in noise-music circles for his high-volume sonic baths of shortwave radio static, with which he occasionally returned to L.A.
Such was the case on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, when Duncan's chakra-rattling frequencies activated a darkened, sweltering warehouse space in what remains of downtown's Skid Row. Produced by Jail Gallery and experimental musician Leticia Castaneda, Duncan's performance was old-school room clearing, leaving only a few die-hards like Mike Kelley, whose succinct "Fuckin A!" rose above the scattered but enthusiastic applause. Kelley had played keyboards and percussion in the opening act, Extended Organ — a sort of L.A. audio-art supergroup featuring L.A. Free Music Society alums Tom Recchion, Joe Potts, and Fredrik Nilsen (channeled in this case by Joseph Hammer) — who created a bed of sound for Paul McCarthy's vocalizations, hollered into some large cardboard tubing that McCarthy would also intermittently assault with a circular saw.
Compelling as it was, the performance night was actually just a collateral benefit to the main reason for Duncan's visit: the long-delayed public unveiling of the Close Radio archive, as a last-minute addition to the Getty Research Institute's "Evidence of Movement." A concise survey of the variety of means by which performance artists have documented their work, "Evidence" includes such landmark artifacts as the fake newspaper Dimanche in which Yves Klein first unveiled his signature Leap Into the Void; instructions and scores for performances by Carolee Schneemann, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer; artist's books by John Baldessari and Alison Knowles; and bloodstained gauze from Hermann Nitsch's gory Dionysian O.M. Theater (I had the pleasure of explaining that one to a Midwestern family — "I think I'll stick to my Michelangelos," said the nice lady); plus an assortment of videos, films, photographs, sculptural editions, catalogs, magazines, etc.
"Evidence" is a good little show — a précis of the underlying dilemma of more blockbustery performance exhibits like MOCA's "Out of Actions" or Ralph Rugoff's "Scene of the Crime" — but its modest didactic charms are completely overwhelmed by the staggering wealth of material in the Close archive. The gallery installation includes the layout of an unpublished Close Radio book, and copies of the couple of cassettes they issued, but the real treasure is floating in the ether: 111 sound recordings, accessible by telephone, cell phone or streaming audio online (a good portion of the files are also available for free immediate download, and 17 are being syndicated as podcasts over the course of the show).
These range from five minutes of Italian text artist Maurizio Nannucci reading names of colors to 74 minutes of hypnotic accordion-drone improv by Pauline Oliveros, with most clocking in at just under 15 minutes — the length of a typical Close Radio broadcast. In fact, the length is about all that you can describe as "typical" about a Close Radio broadcast, as the curators pretty much allowed their guests a free range of sonic possibilities, even occasionally surrendering control entirely with phone-in segments from the public (or a gaggle of hustlers at a pay phone outside the Gold Cup).
There's a live in-studio performance by the beloved L.A. post-punk band Monitor (as yet unissued on CD), Suzanne Lacy reading police-blotter reports of recent sexual assaults on women in L.A., near-psychotic verbal riffing by Jim "Hippies Are Living Proof That a Nigger'll Fuck a Dog" Roche, a prescient hourlong lecture by media-democracy visionary Gene Youngblood, an "opera" for car horns and windshield wipers performed by Ant Farm in the Sydney Opera House parking lot, an artist posing as a veterinarian and dispensing spurious advice, and eight minutes of "dead air" (silence — the greatest sin in conventional broadcast wisdom) by Barton Patrick Bolin. There's exquisite new music from Jim Fox and the Improvisers Orchestra, Musica Veneris Nocturna, and Bruce Fier, as well as more-difficult listening from the LAFMS, Hermann Nitsch, and Duncan, who performs a Reichian breathing exercise live on air naked!
The survival of the master tapes was a small miracle — during a panel discussion at the Getty featuring Duncan, McCarthy, sometime collaborator Nancy Buchanan and curator Glenn Phillips, Otis poetry guru and late-'70s KPFK cultural-affairs director Paul Vangelisti recounted the ongoing internecine struggles at the countercultural broadcast stronghold.
"There was a group at the radio station — myself among them — that believed that what was progressive artistically was progressive politically. The other group, which was a different kind of group on the left, didn't necessarily believe that, and that was the basis of constant bickering, and a few times I had to say, 'If they go, I go.' "
The final straw was Chris Burden's second, hourlong performance, Send Me Your Money, during which he relentlessly repeated a request for the public to "imagine that I asked everyone listening to send me money — to send it directly to me. It would be such a small sacrifice for all of you, and it could really do something for me, if you could just send it directly to me, Chris Burden, 823 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, California 90291." A blatant violation of then-current FCC regulations for nonprofit media, it gave the anti-Close faction the excuse they needed.
"When we were kicked off the station that day," recalled McCarthy, "we were going out the door and I said, 'Well, what about the tapes?' and the person who was the head of KPFK said, 'Take 'em — we don't want 'em!' and I kind of shuffled these cardboard boxes to my studio. I offered them to MOCA, MOMA, Long Beach Museum, and no one wanted these tapes. And it went that way for 25 years."
But, hey, all's well that ends well, right? While John Duncan's 2001 tussle with the Swedes over a revoked residency (again provoked by Blind Date!) shifted some art-world sympathies in his favor, what could be a more public retraction of his pariah status than being feted at the Getty? And the GRI — which also ended up with the Long Beach Museum's legendary neglected video archive — is probably the best home for this material. After the Internet. After actual publicly broadcast radio waves.
EVIDENCE OF MOVEMENT | Getty Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles | Through October 7
CLOSE RADIO | http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/evidence_movement/close_radio.html
-- Meredith Snyder, Vagabondish 4 March, 2008
John Duncan's THE GAUNTLET at Färgfabriken
"Only when standing in a pitch-dark room do you realize that you actually start to see. Even in the perfect darkness, there is always some kind of light." -- Daniel Daboczy
Darkness -- true darkness -- isn't something I expect to see as a city traveler, in gothic cathedrals built to lift worshipers' eyes to the heavens, or along club-lined streets at night, where cafés and dance halls glow beneath their neon marquees, and music pulses a bright night into morning. In a world obsessed with light, capturing the dance of sunlight on water in the smears of impressionist paintings, lighting glass buildings so they glow like lamps, or offering candles as tributes to its deities, we tend to forget what darkness is.
We were in Stockholm on a whim; a long weekend and a game of airfare roulette with Germanwings had taken us from Berlin's grey to Sweden's shivering damp. At the last minute, our plans were vague. We had sketched ideas from a Lonely Planet guide to Europe and a few quick internet searches. It was a whirlwind tour, a city-break; it wouldn't be a deep visit.
The one must-see stop on our list, the Färgfabriken, an avant-garde contemporary art gallery, was outside of the tourist centre of Stockholm, in an industrial area. To reach it, we trudged through the snow and ankle-deep puddles of slush, past chain-link fences and seeping brick walls, along a narrow, icy, and at that time of day, poorly lit alleyway. It seemed remote, tucked away in an alcove of industry, a paint factory built in 1889, lacking the ostentatious signs that lead to more mainstream museums, like a secret that everyone knows.
The building intrigued us as much as whatever it might be exhibiting. The Färgfabriken is a space David Byrne once turned into a musical instrument, inviting visitors to 'play the building', using the acoustics of the space to create music. The installation which opened when we were in the city was another musical experiment, but one of a different sort. John Duncan, a controversial American artist whose works skirt the boundaries of human fear, was exhibiting 'The Gauntlet,' a piece which rather than creating harmonies from the sounds of the building, interacts with the visitors' own reactions to the sound of seven-motion triggered burglar alarms, blending in a pitch dark space.
A bar table outside the door to Duncan's exhibit offered a table of flashlights, to navigate the space within. We tried one after another, never eliciting more than a flicker of light which faded as quickly as it appeared. Finally, we ducked through the curtain, armed with the plastic flashlights to defend ourselves against whatever we might find inside, rather than to light the way.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and even then, the supporting poles were more obscure than shadows on shadows, invisible until I was upon them. Along the walls, I could feel the cold roughness of the brick, but I couldn't see it. My friends called to one another, to me, looking for one another in the dark, but other than that, the only sound was cloth brushing against brick, bodies bumping into hard surfaces, fingers feeling the way. Where the darkness was deepest, I could see nothing at all, and rather than straining to catch a tiny point of light, closed my eyes.
Then the alarms began, startling, loud, then louder and louder as more were triggered. If you stopped moving, the alarms would stop, but people moved toward the exit, where the darkness wasn't so full, to get away from the noise, making it louder with each miss-step. It was terrifying, in the darkness, to be assaulted by sound. Rather than running, I paused to think about sound, and as it washed over me, a sense of exhilaration mingled with my fear.
The experience was inward, as much a display of reactions and feelings -- mine, and those of the others wading through the darkness -- as much as the sensory experience of the installation. I lay down on my back on the floor, and as the sound rolled over me, my grasping sense of fear drifted away. The cold of a floor, the roar of sirens, a shade of black I'd never seen; in Stockholm in February, in a 100-year-old factory, I learned darkness.
A Fantastic World Superimposed on Reality:
-- Dave Mandl, THE WIRE February 2010
John Duncan's THE GRATEFUL at Performa
... Alison Knowles's and John Duncan's performances also stood out: in the former's "Nivea Cream Piece", three actors slathered the eponymous lotion on their hands (and each others') for about five minutes, an intimate act made more so by the vaguely erotic sounds generated by the cream. More unambiguously sexual was Duncan's "The Grateful", one of the surprise hits of the show, which involved several naked confederates running among the shocked, but cheering, audience at a given signal from Duncan.
The Seed at Zero-- Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes May 2011
Italo-American Pasut is a choreographer and dancer who transcends strict definitions. In her bodily actions, she seems to have absorbed numberless influences and experiments, many of which touch on intimate issues of being. Through an unrepressed physicality – enhanced by a pronounced, if sinewy musculature – and a gamut of expressions that make the most of a constant alteration of the tension/release ratio, this woman denies the existence of corporeal limits while retaining a unique grace. This set – recorded at Bologna's Spazio Sì in 2010 and coming on a modest DVD-R – consists of two separate creations, both deserving of wider attention and a richer production.
"Transfiguration Of A Shattered Mass" finds Pasut accompanied by Aleksander Gabrys on double bass and Andrew L. Hooker on electronics. We're willing to believe that everybody improvises here, yet there are definitely pre-conceived designs in the terpsichorean performance, which is impressive. A bionic spider hybridized with an over-evolved athlete, the protagonist succeeds in depicting the passage of an entity from a shapeless state to a meaningful definition. In the semi-obscurity of a Spartan stage, oblique lights exalt her contours, giving life to a mesmerizing presence/absence seesaw. The music is, for the large part, uncompromisingly dissonant; the combination between Pasut's intensity and certain piercing timbres is quite inspiring.
"An Open Area Inside The Mountain" is a moving duet by Pasut and husband John Duncan, dealing with reciprocal discovery, acceptance, physical and spiritual union and the way in which, sometimes, playing together and fighting are so very close. Duncan inserts elements of yoga and theatrical figurations in an act that also comprises dual interaction on instruments built by himself: a resonating long string and a wheel activating clattering sticks. I'm not an expert in the history of dance and theatre, but what's sure is that an expression used by Keith and Julie Tippett – "couple in spirit" – is exactly what transpires from this striking moment of human art. That which, devoid of flash and self-aggrandizement, provides the sort of emotion which truly conscious men and women urgently seek throughout their lives.
JOHN DUNCAN: From noise, installations, shortwave radio, field recordings,
-- Daniela Cascella, Blow Up November 2000
one of the masters of experimentation of the last 20 years
In 1980 John Duncan records his operation on a radio program in which a psychologist gives direct advice to listeners who call in: his story starts with two episodes of violence to children and the indifference of the public administration, to which he gave assistance as a bus driver in South Central Los Angeles. "The first time", he says, "two people got on the bus and seemed to be dragging a sack of dirty laundry that they put under the seat. After awhile I saw there was a six-month-old baby inside it, with its eyes bruised shut. I stopped the bus and called the police. When they arrived on the scene they told me they couldn't do anything because they hadn't seen a crime committed. Another time, a woman got on with a nine year old girl who had open sores covering her arms and legs, the woman sitting next to the girl telling her, 'You're evil!'. I just drove, I didn't do anything. Later on I called the psychologist to say how much it bothered me that I couldn't react anymore." The recording of the program was published the same year with the title HAPPY HOMES on the e.p. CREED.
"I wanted to make a kind of music that wasn't obvious... I wanted to get to the limits of what you expect to hear in a record". Already here you start to see the Duncan of the work to come: determined to go to the core of every experience, attracted in an unstoppable way to extreme sounds and the fabric of the human psyche; a master in the art of juxtaposing and organizing sound, cruel in the sense Artaud gives to that adjective, e.g. always capable of absolute gestures that carry within themselves "all the inevitability of life and the mysterious accidents of dreams", manifesting "an appetite for life, cosmic rigor, implacable need"; artist, then, because of his ability to push himself to the limits of a single discipline and to draw from his own true intuitions, weaknesses, passions.
At the core of his projects Duncan offers infinite points of view and variations without ever allowing others, and above all himself, to dwell too long on one sound or state of being, continuously surprising expectations and always leaving a suspicion that something is about to change, that some equilibrium is about to be broken: a way to affirm the complexity of existence, to underline that it's never possible to hide behind an illusory shelter or annihilate oneself within a certainty, a way to search for limits to extract an élan, a nuance, a wound. For example the album SEEK, released in 1997 for the 'Mort aux Vaches' series. In the second track an obsessive metallic percussion receives storms of shortwave, in a strong contrast of volume and rhythm. The clashing pace, held in the background with tight percussion, creates an effect of dazed bewilderment. Following this are suffocating pulses at the lowest threshold of hearing, from which emerge an insistent hiss, intertwined with jerks from a beat that dies. And again metallic shrieks in the distance, rustling, ceaseless breathing.
The audio sources Duncan prefers are shortwave, which he started using at the end of the seventies: "Shortwave was something absolutely new [to me], they seemed like the kind of sound you hear in dreams. I started to make pieces on two channel open-reel tape where I read texts of dreams mixed with shortwave recordings. For one of these, I read the text backwards and then inverted the tape, to get a surreal effect from the voice. These were very simple experiments, with voice on one channel and shortwave on the other." Shortwave has the value of outside interference, which sheds light on psychological and audio patterns that are otherwise concealed.
"Later I saw I was being influenced emotionally by the sound of shortwave. This took me back to the painting studies I'd done, especially my interest in the relations between psychology and color. I was really interested in the study of light and color in terms of frequency, especially the relationship between a frequency and psychological responses to it. The use of shortwave brought me back to play with this relationship using audio frequencies instead. I decided to use myself as a guinea pig to test reactions to these frequencies, listening for a long time and trying to realize what kinds of reactions they were causing in me. Shortwave became an ideal instrument, that you didn't have to practice in order to play and that had a much more complex sound than a synthesizer, which a lot of people were using at that time. It's always different, impossible to predict. The more I listened, the more I got involved from their juxtapositions, the stratification of signals and groups of frequencies. I started studying ways that these sounds could be made to oppose or compliment each other, to see what they would do to me psychologically."
From the beginning, then, Duncan decided to use himself as raw material for his work, a choice that is born from the need of continuous self-verification, and a refusal to accept the mechanisms of self denial provoked in episodes such as the one described in HAPPY HOMES .
The limit is reached with BLIND DATE (1980): after having a sexual rapport with a cadaver in Tijuana, Mexico, Duncan underwent a vasectomy and then publicly reported the event in Los Angeles, broadcast live over national radio. Here the will to render nude his true intentions emerges, "to show what can happen to one who is trained to ignore their emotions". The use of one's own body as an arena for confrontation of forces, with precedents found in the art of Viennese Aktionismus, was taken to extremes by other California artists at that time (Paul McCarthy, to name one, performer of unsettling imagination, with whom Duncan produced CLOSE RADIO, a live radio program hosting musicians and artists of the caliber of Pauline Oliveros and Chris Burden, from 1976 to 1979). In the case of BLIND DATE the body becomes a place of cold contact between Eros and Thanatos; here Duncan declares his unease, reaching the limits to put his own basic beliefs into question.
The recording of the radio broadcast of BLIND DATE was published in 1984 on side A of the cassette PLEASURE-ESCAPE, accompanied by a booklet with interviews, writings and images. Side B presented the soundtrack to MOVE FORWARD , one of the first films made by Duncan in Japan, where he moved following various pressures and problems connected with BLIND DATE. On the back cover of PLEASURE-ESCAPE Duncan writes, 'I'm obsessed with sex in order to escape from myself, addicted to it to avoid confronting what I know I am'. The confrontation with sex is another aspect of Duncan's will to bring to light what is usually concealed. In this sense, several of his works can be compared with work by Cosey Fanni Tutti in the mid seventies, posing for a series of porn magazines: "Cosey's work with collage, where she put herself in front of the camera to use her own image as raw material, directly inspired me to use sex as an instrument for consciousness" (with Chris and Cosey, Duncan produced an e.p. titled KOKKA in 1983). In Japan Duncan realized a series of five porn films, THE JOHN SEE SERIES (1986-87), whose soundtracks were later published under the title THE JOHN SEE SOUNDTRACKS (1994). "... I was making Super-8 films using recorded images from Japanese television. At a certain point, I felt too dependent on images produced by others. It seemed too easy to take shots from TV news, films and documentaries and find a way to subvert them - if I could use my own commercial images and subvert them..." "I really got into these films, wrote the scripts, the storyboards, acted in minor roles, directed, composed the soundtracks..."
"In Japan I decided to try to make a kind of music that was impossible to listen to, pure noise, that had a structure but seemed to be entirely without one: this is how RIOT was realized, before the Japanese noise scene developed. Several Japanese musicians later told me that RIOT was an important inspiration for noise, which I was glad to hear because part of what I want my work to do is encourage other people." RIOT is in effect a real voyage to the borderline of hearing. HUNGRY-LAST WORDS-YOIKA, starts off with an incessant rhythm that repeats for 14 minutes, ruthlessly at first then more and more captivating, that leads finally to the heart of the record: here pain gradually turns to pleasure through repetition of the audio elements. Then percussion and shortwave intertwine in an organic way, insinuating themselves into the brain, with which Duncan takes his time to slowly anesthetize the ear, then immediately afterward hurl it into a different soundscape; the rhythm finally slows and weaves itself into a subdued recitation. RIOT, on the other hand, is a noise triumph, a saturation of sense of hearing that unfolds through ceaseless razor-sharp cuts of shortwave, percussion, distorted guitar.
Were you aware of what other Japanese musicians were doing at that time? Did you know Masami Akita/Merzbow?
At that time Masami Akita wasn't making noise per se, but a type of cut-up that was similar, if tighter, than what Etant Données were doing. Hijo Kaidan were doing great shows, presenting themselves onstage like a true rock band with everything that this implied. In one of their performances I like best the singer, wearing a wedding dress, pulled it up at one point and started pissing onstage. The other members were running back and forth and started slipping in it, including Mikawa Toshiji in his banker's business suit. For me this is a photograph of Japanese society at that time...
Japanese noise is a product of a society that is an unceasing bombardment of advertising, neon light and chaos. That's why when noise is heard in Europe or the United States the listeners think of something else at first, that the musicians' energy is incredible, amazing, but after hearing one CD after another they start to think the music all sounds the same and they can't listen to it anymore. Noise is directly connected to contemporary Japanese culture, with what it means to deal with it day after day. To live in this bombardment is something that you can understand only if you're there in it, and the noise aesthetic as well as the aesthetic of RIOT comes from this: total assault, total overload. I wanted to make a music overload.
The Japanese have a different way of perceiving the individual, the body, the borders between themselves and others...
In Japan there's no privacy. The rooms are tiny; the spaces where everyone lives are all small. People don't show their emotions by touching, everyone maintains a distance because there's no real physical distance, there's no place where you can be alone, there's always someone around. Privacy comes by thinking of yourself in an introverted way; what you wear and show to others is not part of what you really are or feel. In Europe and the US people show themselves by how they dress, how they carry themselves, what they do. In Japan it's not like this. No matter what the fashion, what the person really feels is never demonstrated in public and this I like very much, I learned a lot from this behavior. In fact when I first arrived in Europe from Japan it was difficult to get used to hugging and kissing people in greeting... It seemed like something false, that didn't come from a genuine desire to touch the person in front of you, but from a convention, an empty ritual.
To call Duncan's work extreme means that the extreme is often reached as much in bold colors as in their shades, often in the emotional assault of a sonic impact, often in the light touch or more subtle tonal compositions. It's thanks to the dynamic equilibrium between these diverse components that the resulting combination is always dense and never quite the same: to listen to a Duncan CD is like repeating a timeless formula in which each sound happens every time, as if it were the first time, always gaining new meaning. DARK MARKET BROADCAST (1985) is a scratch drawn from a sort of storm dance that proceeds through buzzing voices, choruses and shortwave, inserts of spoken word, convulsing industrial rhythms, unexpected suspension of rhythms, all to conclude in feminine groans with electrostatic discharges. SEND (1994) is a compact album that unwinds between melodic hints and rolling waves, between submerged voices (SLEEPERS) and rhythmic killer (SHATTER, track realized with Zbigniew Karkowski), until the echoes of subdued, faint sounds, the obsessive bass and the opening of the two final tracks, CRUCIBLE and TRESPASS. The title track of INCOMING (1995) testifies to Duncan's first experiments, with the elaboration of computer sounds (thanks to the help of Max Springer) and a prelude to the one to follow, THE CRACKLING. It's all elevation, and then a sudden final fall. In FLARE the voice is imprisoned by sonic shocks, VOICE FIELD is a wave on a background of percussion and distant screeching, CEREMONY a devastation that seems to evoke distant rituals. CRUCIBLE (1998) was realized on the occasion of the Topolò festival, at the border between Slovenia and the Friulian region of Italy, where Duncan moved in the mid nineties. A work with particularly delicate tones, it's an embroidery of crystalline field-recordings around the theme of water, resulting efficiently in a composition lasting about 20 minutes.
"Every work has its own life. When it works, it seems to have a presence all its own and I don't know how certain elements have become part of the sound. It doesn't happen because I've forgotten the techniques I used; it's like hearing something different for the first time without knowing where it came from, without knowing it was there before. This is very important, to recognize if an event, an album, a performance, or an installation really works. This is also part of the connection between the music and the rest of the things I do... I'm part of the process because I put it in action, but when it works I'm only a part... It's as if something gets extracted from me that tells me the next move to make. At a certain point the work itself dictates 'this is what's needed'... My control becomes much less defined and at times superfluous. It's as if there were a dialogue between the work and me: sometimes it decides... I'm always ready to take control but also ready to let that go when it's necessary. It's useful to know when to respond. This quality is what I search for in all my work, to respond and to encourage others to do the same."
To draw from inside yourself in order to later allow something to happen that cannot be controlled: words that seem to recall the encounter between external causality and internal purpose described by André Breton in the book 'L'amour fou' - and it is an amour fou, an insane love, that ties Duncan to all the aspects of existence, a thirst to always discover something new. Often he puts an obstacle in front of himself, to overcome it himself and encouraging whoever's listening to do the same. At times the obstacle may be enclosed in a sonic modulation or in a particular mental condition particularly appropriate to face oneself: on many occasions Duncan chooses structures and predetermined behaviors such as science, religion, sex, or at a level even broader culture, interpersonal relationships, visual and auditory perception.
Have you ever dealt with religious ideas?
I grew up in Kansas, in a very Calvinist environment that repressed sex... my parents never gave me any education in that sense... I learned I had to look elsewhere to find information and that it was important to be able to ask questions openly about anything: if you repress something, it always becomes heavier and in the end it controls you. The more you ask questions, the freer you are. So in my eyes religion became a source of hypocrisy that repressed impulses, something to avoid. Now I think there must be a way to explain experiences that can't be interpreted in terms of objects, of career or material instincts, a way to render every further questioning useless.
I know you're a fan of Pasolini, can you tell me how you relate that to your work? The film "The Passion According to Matthew" presents a particular idea of religion, a way to encourage consciousness and challenge oneself...
In that film Jesus is a very magnetic character, a strong figure who opposes structured religion, who continuously encourages the asking of questions and criticizes anyone who doesn't question themselves... A very dynamic figure, hard to get next to, who doesn't accept compromises and demands extreme actions... What he asks is to obtain as much as possible from oneself.
At the opposite end there's the film, "Salò"...
...which is my favorite of his work. I don't know if I can explain it... there's something in that film that not only accepts every human activity that involves the celebration of all aspects of the body, but throws all this in your face. People in the film eat excrement and fruit with razorblades inside, a series of tortures are acted out, the women sing and caress the torturers like children. For me, "Salò" is a reflection on the emptiness of material life: the film is shot in a villa, a perfect symbol of prosperity. The place is used to commit every form of degradation on those children, to annihilate everything they have, to destroy their self-awareness and sense of dignity... It's a mirror of the hierarchy of society, where the more you seek power, the more you decompose and cause suffering in people unconnected to your own desires or suffering, who become victims... In this way they're encouraged to seek revenge, entering in their turn into the process, causing harm to someone else, perpetuating the chain of suffering. That's how I see "Salò" and I like it for the fact that it puts this in your face, scene after scene.
Religion, sex, power relations: systems that Duncan explores to subvert and to become aware, moving in the interstices of the systems themselves. When he decided to visit the Stanford linear accelerator to sample its interior sounds and use them in a later CD, THE CRACKLING (1996), reflection on the idea of science was inevitable. Science in this case is seen as a form of religion, since it has something to do with processes incommensurable with respect to human experience and yet (dis)integrating parts of it. THE CRACKLING testifies to Duncan's attraction to a mechanism that puts at stake trust, a sense of the overwhelming, doubt. The linear accelerator, built for research of subatomic particles through the splitting of electrons, is an immense edifice: a longitudinal body of more than 3 kilometers that resolves in a cylindrical collision chamber with walls 20 meters thick. Here the electron is obliged to follow a course that according to Duncan reflects that of life: "isolated, constricted in a system that uses its own energy to force it along a path that draws it with ever increasing speed to certain destruction - to a point of change, a complete turning point and the start of a new process". The entire CD is a challenge to human measure, a pursuit to the threshold of perception. The sounds, never so thin in other works, design subtle architectures via equilibrations and modulations that re-echo the contrasts of the space where they were taken: at stretches the micropulsations invite you to lose yourself in the details of the infinitely small, at others a drone emerges in the foreground to measure an immense space and become meditation, infinite waiting. Insistent throbs are sustained for a long time, almost as if there were a desire to transcend the ability to resist sound - in some passages they seem to give voice to emptiness. Duncan writes in the liner notes, 'You exist in an arena of gravity and sound. You are like light, like a sea of air. You are history, and make all of history something else'. The awareness of being part of a process over which you have no control does not involve annihilation but the need to assert oneself, to absorb every experience, to instill breath in every sound. The immense space of the accelerator, projected on the interior of the human psyche, opens a space at the same time vast and rich in questions.
To the exploration of such space, Duncan went through a series of installations and events in the course of the nineties, beginning with his arrival in Amsterdam in 1988. "Amsterdam couldn't have been more different from Tokyo. Tokyo was like a pressure cooker, the stress was everywhere and inescapable. Amsterdam was the absence of stress... It encouraged a kind of introspective calm." The transformation from stress to introspection, the opening of an interior space through displacement of normal exterior coordinates is witnessed by the STRESS CHAMBER installation, first realized in Amsterdam in 1993. The participant is locked nude and blind inside a shipping container, which has three motors on three sides. Once activated, the mechanism starts vibrations designed to make the container resonate and that the participant perceives as a tangible object that moves around and through his or her body. The double CD RIVER IN FLAMES - KLAAR, released the following year, overwhelming with its turbine of wild blips, ricocheting rhythms, telephone signals, sounds that cut the air, tolling bells, shortwave, confused voices, screams, shots. RIVER IN FLAMES - KLAAR, according to Duncan, is "a seduction. An intentional flattery". One of the tracks on RIVER IN FLAMES - KLAAR, titled THE IMMENSE ROOM, through which suspended sounds, particularly open and vaporous, seem to turn a concentrated, limited interior space into something vast. The will is to look inside oneself to the limits in order to reach untouched borders (by the way, remember Duncan's passion for Carlo Gesualdo, the madrigal composer at the end of the 16th C., who required the performers of his works to sing their parts in the dark...). In the MAZE installation (1995) the participants were locked naked in a dark, empty room without knowing when the door would be opened again. Duncan, who was also locked in the room, wanting to see "what happens when one's left alone with the mind, with no outside distractions and without knowing when it would end", to reach the border that shakes the constructions on which our ideas are based. In the wake of MAZE comes VOICE CONTACT (1998-99). "In VOICE CONTACT each participant enters a completely dark room with an audio environment that takes you to the center and makes it difficult to move around, because it removes the acoustic reference points. You're transported by the sound until you're no longer sure where you are. I'm also in the room, reacting to each person according to what I can feel from them without being able to see them."
Duncan's most recent CD, TAP INTERNAL, follows the lines of the investigation of space, moving between extremely low frequencies which in two sublime moments interact with highs to create a sonic effect that seems to radiate from behind the listener's shoulders. The new installation THE FLOCKING consists of an almost entirely dark room, where a children's choir is heard coming up through the floor.
Translation by John Duncan and Giuliana Stefani.