Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) has long been one of my favorite artists. His cartoonish figures, often etched in thick paint and as if drawn by a child, with a child’s exaggeration of identifying anatomical features, have an archetypal immediacy, yet also betray sophistication in their uniform covering of the entire canvas. (Yikes! Now I see why art critics write the way they do.) As examples of two of his characteristic styles, for those who may be unfamiliar with him, I link you to Bustle 1 from the Cleveland Museum, and Gare Montparnesse Portes des Lilas from the Tehran Museum, no less (scroll down to #57).
In 1973 (the year Vietnam ended, Nixon resigned, I entered college, and all things still seemed possible, I remember it well), the Turkish electronic composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (interesting character, whatever happened to him?) released, on his small Finnadar label, a record of musique concrete pieces that Dubuffet had made. Dubuffet had gone into a room with an early Grundig tape recorder and a passel of noisemakers, and, with a friend, proceeded to improvise. “In my music,” the liner notes quoted Dubuffet,
I wanted to place myself in the position of a man of fifty thousand years ago, a man who ignores everything about western music and invents a music for himself without any reference, without any discipline, without anything that would prevent him to express himself freely and for his own good pleasure. This is what I wanted to do in my painting too, only with this difference that painting, I know it – western painting of the last few centuries, I know it perfectly well – and I want to deliberately forget all about it…. But I do not know music, and this gave me a certain advantage in my musical experiences….
Putting aside a certain philosophical sleight-of-hand – How would a man of 50,000 years ago ignore western music, since it wasn’t there to ignore? How could anyone, let alone a primitive man, invent a music without any reference? How would a prehistoric man have arrived at the idea of music as organized sound, divorced from meaning or ritual? – Dubuffet’s concrete pieces live up to his description beautifully. They are noisy, pure, crazy, exuberant, yet also focused and inventive. Dubuffet creates an impression of frenetically playful improvisation, yet each piece has a strong concept, and even a form. As with his paintings, background and foreground seem reversed, the shape of each piece etched into a thick layer of scruffy noises.
In the liner notes, Mimaroglu noted that the eight pieces on his record were selected from 20 that were issued on six limited-edition LPs; he added that 11 other pieces were released on four more LPs in 1960-61 (he didn’t note what year the first set appeared). So the record contains eight wonderful, amazing, totally original pieces out of an alleged 31 – where are the other 23? Does anyone still own those recordings? Can they be released?
In the process of transferring the old Finnadar disc to CD, I got curious once again and searched the internet. There, on the fantastic site for all kinds of crazy new music, Ubuweb, I found 9 of the tapes, including three I already had and six new ones. Ubuweb is a huge, wonderful site with hours and hours of concrete poetry, tape pieces, Fluxus documents, and other oddities of the mid- to late 20th century (including, for instance, Robert Ashley’s Wolfman and David Behrman’s Wave Train). I should check Ubuweb more often for the obscure underground gems that I need to play for students, or that I’ve always wanted to hear; somehow I forget it’s there. But on their Dubuffet page I found six of the 23 pieces I’ve been waiting to hear for 30 years. Several of them are as exciting as the ones Mimaroglu had chosen, especially Coq a l’oiel, a frantically rippling piano piece that sounds like late Nancarrow; and Longue Peine, which uses two bassoons and a cello as cowlike drones beneath its continuum of scratching noises. There’s also a strange 24-minute piece Le Fleur de Barbe with Dubuffet (or his friend) singing in French over various noises, sounding a little like a drunken revel. At their best, these pieces are just as free, spontaneous, and amazing as Mimaroglu thought they were 30 years ago, with a rough, earthy energy that matches his paintings, and yet a sense of focus that sets them apart from all other musique concrete. I’m thrilled to now have 14 of Dubuffet’s tapes out of the 31.
Anyone know the status of the remaining 17?