3-LP box set with DVD mounted on front box cover
DVD duration: 20 minutes
Limited-edition release in 500 copies by Vinyl On Demand

The growing interest in John Duncan’s work as a composer, performer and conceptual artist shows that even normal folk, if subjected to the right suggestions and stimuli, are able to recognize real talent, independently from their religious, sociopolitical and personal convictions. Duncan, for many years only championed by discerning fellow artists and independent-minded writers, has by now reached an iconic status which time will only help to enhance, as the man from Wichita remains a cutting-edge explorer who always manages to stick a salt finger in the wounds of truth. First Recordings 1978-1985 is a gorgeous 3-LP box set, a spartan black-and-grey artifact containing music originally released on low-budget and even lower-circulation cassettes and vinyls. It’s a fascinating view of several back-pages in Duncan’s book, which will bring back memories of youth for those who have been following him since the early days, when Viennese Aktionism and noise-boosted sonic terrorism were major elements in his work. Yet the most striking track on offer is “NO”, a Reichian (Wilhelm, not Steve) performance based on therapeutic anti-aggression hyperventilation exercises that took place in Los Angeles’ KPFK station’s open stage studio in 1978. Duncan’s breathing starts normally, then becomes more and more violent until his gasps morph into desperate cries for help, as if he were being subjected to torture; snippets of pre-recorded sentences complement the whole. It’s an intensely disturbing, distressing piece. The rest is equally compelling: “DARK MARKET BROADCAST” is based on masses of shortwaves and unrecognizable utterances, transmitted by Duncan via pirate FM radio in 1985 when he lived in Tokyo, while “STATION EVENT” is a recording of Tom Recchion and Michael LeDonne-Bhennet improvising live on KPFK on percussion and woodwinds while Duncan handles listeners’ phone calls, putting their comments and rants on the air. The set also contains a DVD with two early videos, whose content could be stomach-churning for many; let’s just say that you should keep the thing away from curious kids, if you have any.
— Massimo Ricci, Paris Transatlantic

I have to admit that the concept of this box set had me very excited. There are several horribly rare early cassettes by John Duncan that I have been wanting to hear for decades. Sadly this set doesn’t include a lot of those things. One side of “No” is here, which is exciting to hear finally (coincidentally that piece has just been published online at part of the Close Radio archives). But there is no sign of “Two Solos” or the unreleased soundtracks for “Hurts So Good” and “Uberfall”, nor the early unreleased C.V Massage recordings. With that in mind I was disappointed that the first disc of this box is taken up by “Dark Market Broadcast”, a later cassette which has already been reissued on CD by Staalplaat some years ago. And the second disc is taken up by BDR Ensemble’s “Station Event”, which is one of the few early cassettes that I do own, and which was also reissued in the artist edition of the “Lowest Form of Music” CD box set. But it is hard to begrudge that, as this wonderful recording still remains little heard until this box. The big draw for me was side 5 with “No” and “Probe”, two tracks which I had never heard before. Side 6 meanwhile is one of side of the “Gain” cassette released by AQM in Japan, a scarce cassette, but also one I have and much easier to track down than the other above mentioned early tapes. The bonus DVD includes less than 30 minutes of material with “Prayer” and “Phantom”, both sold on videos by RRRecords in the States back in the 1980’s, and unfortunately has no sign of the early tapes “Right”, “Free”, “Out” or “Human Choir”, let alone the films “Hurts So Good” or “Move Forward”. So some of my disappointment comes trying to actually track down a lot of Duncan’s early material over the decades. It wasn’t the box I had in mind, especially as the last LP is more bits and pieces than reissuing complete releases.
That said, I have made my peace with the set as being a good collection of music. “Dark Market Broadcast” certainly is a good slice of the sound that most people with associate with John Duncan – a mixture of beautiful shortwave noises and voices which Duncan seems to have a magic touch for. I have spent time exploring the other bands of the radio outside AM and FM and never found such wonderful sounds, and find that Duncan seems to be better at utilizing them than most out there. With him there are waves of undulating static noise ranging from harsh to subtle as well as distinctly pulsing sound. Recorded in 1985 this first LP actually represents the latter end of the chronological spectrum represented in this set.

Quite a contrast is the second disc with the 1978 recording of BDR Ensemble on Close Radio. Here the music is by Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion on woodwinds and percussion respectively and reflects the sound of the Los Angeles Free Music Society which Recchion was a very active member of at the that time. Through Duncan’s career there has been a strong presence of the ‘event’ which the music is often a part. “Dark Market Broadcast” was in addition to be a piece of music specifically composed for airing on pirate radio. “Station Event” reaches back earlier into John’s involvement with radio when he was a regular host of KPFK’s Close Radio with Paul McCarthy. With Close Radio, John was often a conduit for presenting other’s work, but on this night became more directly involved. “Station Event” was an exploration of both separation and connection. The three performers were separated from each other in separate studios, the two musicians not even being able to hear each other. Despite this, LeDonne-Bhennet and Recchion create startlingly beautiful, haunting, quiet sounds which flow beautifully. In the control room John Duncan took calls on the air which range from mundane comments to poetry, dream recollection, and impressions on the music and the thoughts it inspired as well as spontaneous sounds. Surprisingly the only disapproving call coming in disparaged the Ensemble as commie homos, but one wonders whether the caller was even serious in that. Most of the callers were anonymous, though some were obviously from friends such as Juan (probably Gomez) and Pat who asks John to convey a message to Michael. One of the very nice moments in this is a dream recalled by a woman who sounds a little like Amy DeWolfe a.k.a. Amazon Bambi (though I wonder if she hadn’t already moved to Portland with Smegma by this time), which John responds to by describing one of his own dreams. The calls and music play off each wonderfully, which is impressive for an unedited spontaneous performance. This LP does only contain about half of the original performance as included on the original cassette release, but is probably the best section.

“No” is from the same year [however I have seen it referred to earlier as having been done in 1977] and also recorded on Close Radio with the assistance of Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion. However, instead of playing music, this time Mike and Tom were blocking the entrance to the performance area while Duncan performed solo. The central sound here is heavy breathing – a Reichian Event as John calls it. Wilhelm Reich was a pioneer of psychology who dealt with the depths of sexual energy in such books as “The Function of the Orgasm” (1942). Here John reaches deeply into this tradition while interjecting short prerecorded sentences. Again this is an event that connects with the performance aspect not heard on Duncan’s recent recordings and is more directly confrontational in its subject matter as it cannot easily be dismissed as simply sound. Following “No” on this side with the later shortwave solo “Probe” makes the latter seem less intense, though no less an enjoyable piece. “Probe” was originally released on the cassette compilation “Assemblée Générale No.5” by Ptôse Production in a unique package which emulated a shrinkwrapped cut of meat as one might find in a supermarket. A further extended exploration of the shortwave musical aesthetic can be found on the final side which is taken up by “Gain”, recorded in collaboration with Australian Paul Hurst, a member of Produktion. Both contribute shortwave recordings supplemented by Paul Hurst’s field recordings of prostitutes.

All is all, this is a great set of music and does present a wealth of otherwise difficult to obtain sounds. There still remains a good deal of John Duncan’s early material which can be reissued. To fully cover the years 1978-1984 could probably fill a ten LP box, and Vinyl on Demand has just provided the second five LP box documenting this period of his work. Amazingly that still leaves some gaps but does include a lot of very rare material which might well be better than those things which remain uncollected. But I am still left wondering about “Two Solos”, the second side of the “No” cassette, “Actual Echo, Natural Echo”, and a handful of never released recordings mentioned in the booklet with “Pleasure-Escape”.
— Eric Lanzilotta, bixobal

More reviews