Vinyl Anthology: The Complete Gum Recordings from 1987-1990
trange the noise-turntablist thing didn't really happen sooner than the 80s (outside of the academic artworld). It seems so obvious. Punk teenager staring at her record player long enough has to see the elegance of the solution. Instant noise, unpredictable results, low investment, direct response to a glut of commercial recordings that don't speak to her -- making them your own. The turntable stylus becomes a mystical sort of microphone/decoder ring amplifying tactile heiroglyphics in the grooves that, if incomprehensible, are readily alterable for the greater good of sonic nihilsm and resistance. Asking for it. No technique required. Found poetry. Misuse the turntable, abuse the records. Aural dystopia at arms reach, bought for a song (to destroy a song), physically and sonically post-industrial poetic.
In contrast, it was around 1980 when Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt (in the kind of moment that comes with or is necessitated by an unhealthy surplus of maturity) attempted to codify their most successful working habits, constructing a deck of playing cards with fortune cookie commandments. Pulling cards randomly in the studio would help counteract the staid "common-sense" reactions resulting from high-pressure studio stress. They say things like:
"Bridges -build -burn"
"Humanize something free of error"
"Emphasize the flaws"
"Work at a different speed"
"Repetition is a form of change"
"Honour thy error as a hidden intention"
"The card", said Eno, "is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear".
In his liner notes to the collected Gum recordings Jim Haynes romantically describes the young Philip Samartzis' (one half of the shortlived post-industrial duo known as Gum) 'eureka-in-the-bathtub' moment as an Eno-inspired Eno-esque encounter with a badly warped copy of Here Come The Warm Jets. The neat irony. And so the story goes that as Samartzis attempted to play his damaged record and the mottled opening bars of "On Some Farway Beach" gave way to the mangled infinite loop resulting from the stylus' entrapment in a locked groove pattern in the vinyl, Samartzis heard his calling to create music of damaged vinyl, textural abrasion, emphasizing repetetition and the distance between surface noise and drowned signals. Emphasize the flaws. ^&*(^(!*%@&*^!%@
But if the "Oblique Strategies" were a working technique ultimately concerned with unlocking the artists' itentions, let us in good faith acknowledge an important disconnect here: Gum were a couple of bored, curious Australian teenage Throbbing Gristle fans in (Andrew Cutris and Philip Samartzis) perhaps more initially concerned with the punx-as-fuck act of 'playing' destroyed vinyl then the resulting kunstwerk or the processes of artistic invention. Which is not to say they weren't bright, weren't on to something, didn't have some inkling of the rich, sexy semiotic intrigue of the thing. But Gum were (and Eno was not so much) anarchic composers of blemish. With Gum the error in the transmission was treated as no "hidden intention". Rather Gum's music plays out as a resistance to, if not disavowal of, the composer's will, the scraps and leavings of authorial intentions vandalized. Vandal art may well be beautiful, but that's not all there is to it is there? Gum plundered and derailed the original intentions of others to satisfy their need for mayhem. Emphasize the flaws? Gum created a music predicated on randomness and error, free of syntax and ego, and therein the idea of 'error' loses all semantic relevance. Murdered records bring noise without facility, without the trappings of rockstar posture (and all that "music" stuff).
Gum's music consisted entirely of locked grooves, vinyl surface noise derived from the duo's destruction of thrift store acquisitions. You could say that Gum were early "turntablists" before there was a scene or a school for such a thing, before the instrumentalists' concern for technique spoiled it, before the community of practice turned it into "an artform". They presaged serious turntablists and noisicians like Philip Jeck, Otomo Yoshihde, Martin Tretault, Merzbow, Janek Schaefer. At their best, Gum rendered absolute minimal abstractions into foreground role, musically, playing off the residual, vestigial remains of sounds that threaten contextualization but routinely fail to deliver. Exquisite sound poems like "Smooth Torture in Exile" hold all of the manufactured memory that old vinyl carries, mangled just enough so the sounds don't divulge their sources and muddy the waters with 'reference'. The sounds come to represent only themselves and, as this collection demonstrates, these stand up to time. The results of decomposition, trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.
With the Gum releases largely out of print, "Vinyl Anthology" collects most of the recorded output, rarities and several live performances on a two-disc set that is as important to the history of plunderphonia and turntablism as it is an exhausting and frustrating listen. The ten cuts on Disc One comprise the “Vinyl” LP and include two outtakes and a 20-minute 1987 live performance. Disc Two includes several pieces done for compilations originally pressed by RRRecords, Korm Plastics, and some never having seen the lights of day (including a complete dismantling of TV Eye, their failed submission for a Stooges tribute record that sounds like a prototype for Wolf Eyes' Dread). Also included are the recordings of Gum’s second album, “20 Years in Blue Movies and Yet to Fake an Orgasm”. Some of it is of only passing interest, boring and montonous in hindsight. But if occasionally marred by tiresome stretches of incidental moodiness ("Melted Limp Fallout"), the best moments outrun the arch-conceptualism of similar practictioners like Christian Marclay with an exhuberant recklessness and an inability to strike a detached posture -- a saving grace. In contrast to respected art-world turntablists like Marclay (working at the same time as Gum) or Schaefer, whose works exist primarily in phenomenological explorations of process and medium, most of the tracks on the Gum set are unfocused, messy, exhiliratingly amateur, rippling with enthusiastic damage, frenzied and visceral manipulations of sound that are occasionally allowed to be fragile and lithe, even pretty (for a moment). There is no unified theory, a lot of missteps. There is also no shortage of gold. As with the cassette tape-based recordings of Aki Onda, the strongest pieces (like "Okefenokee", "Banning", and "Smooth Torture in Exile") make poetic and musical the residue of the medium itself in addition to the underlying recordings (which in the case of Gum are almost always obscured beyond recognition).
Gum were at their least interesting when attempting to be clever or blatantly conceptual. The few willfully transgressive pieces with a 'point' (god save us from music with punchlines), like 1-800-GUM (a phone sex recording served on a severed bed of Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" soundtrack) or bits of the "Live at Hard Times" track (beginning by pitting the BeeGees' "Staying Alive" against shards of locked groove noise) that take easy targets, slings simpleminded arrows, generally age less well than those pieces unmarred by the missteps of young artists concerned more with heavy-handed 'saying' than listening.
Still, if some of the titles, samples and sonic colors (e.g. "Outfits for Agony") betray a misanthropic, uncritical youthful fascination with darkness and violence (of the horror movie cliche vareity) the bravery and meticulousness of much of this material suggest that the punk experiment went slightly awry: if the seeds of Gum germinated in a fascination with destructive action, these 'authors of error' were clearly not content with the mere process and fell in love with the sounds themselves. By the second record it is clear that they had lost themselves in curisosity, in sculpture, in honoring and ornamenting their dis-constructions as legitimate standalone work.
Curtis is now a photographer. Samartzis records stoic, immersive musique concrete-inspired records on Staalplat, Dorobo and his own Microphonics label, and is also a lecturer at RMIT university. If Samartzis' current work is solid and defensible, smarter, leaner, I can't shake the feeling that his juvenilia is simply more inspired (even when it was bad). This collection is an essential document of abstract turntablism and noise for that small community who feel such things to be essential. At high volumes it will also piss off your parents more effectively than the last nordic black metal record you just bought. I promise.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-03-10