“You are not limited to one room, there are many rooms,” wrote Angus MacLise in his poem “Smothered Under Astral Collapse.” Well, at least MacLise wished the world that way. Observing the stringent rules of both downtown beatniks and hippie mystics, he quit drumming for the Velvet Underground when the band was booked for a gig at a New Jersey high school. The requirements of the show were too extensive: They would be required to show up at a specific time and place and take money in exchange. $18.75 a piece.
He ran out of rooms on the summer solstice of 1979 while in Kathmandu, Nepal, dead of drugs and/or hypoglycemia. I bet he found peace. He was an astral kind of guy.
This was not the case with many of MacLise’s contemporaries. Take, for example, La Monte Young, a downtown composer who, in the program notes to a 1964 concert, wrote of his own work, “Melody does not exist at all unless one is forced to hear the movement from group to group of various simultaneously sounded frequencies derived from the overtone series as melodic because of previous musical conditioning. . . . It lasts forever and cannot have begun but is taken up again from time to time until it lasts forever as continuous sound in Dream Houses where many musicians and students will live and execute a musical work.”
A one-room kind of guy. Clearly.
This past year an Atlanta label, Table of the Elements, released Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume 1: Day of Niagara (1965). On it you can hear the hand drums of MacLise, the voices of Young and his companion Marian Zazeela, and the strings of Tony Conrad and John Cale—MacLise’s VU bandmate. The CD is controversial because it’s essentially a bootleg, a copy of a copy of one of the tapes from Young’s archive of Dream House recordings—tapes few are able to hear, and to which even Conrad and Cale have no access.
You see, Young claims sole authorship of all the music ever produced by the Theater of Eternal Music; Conrad and Cale say the music’s improvisatory nature and their theoretical, philosophical, and mathematical contributions merit partial composer credits. (In the spirit of the music, arguments from both sides are l-o-n-g: Among the tens of pages Young has produced to protest the release, he notes “the correct title of the work is ’25 IV 65 c. 8:15-8:45 PM NYC day of niagara’ from The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys.”)
Day of Niagara was eagerly awaited by a small cult of fans because the Theater of Eternal Music has released only a handful of records, all of which are, essentially, eternally out-of-print. For a musician with such a small audience, Young sets standards that are awfully high. For one thing, CDs, cassettes, and vinyl aren’t long enough to contain his compositions. Then there’s the issue of individuals actually playing the recordings. Will it be the right sound system? The right volume? The right people? (He recently produced a six-and-a-half-hour DVD for an installation in France and claims to be raising money for a commercial release. But if you devoted your whole hard drive, wouldn’t MP3s work?)
Unfortunately, few people care. When exposed to early minimalism, most people hate the single chords held forever—the sound of gongs, amplified strings, and buzzing, humming, yodeling, resonant voices. They leave the room. Hearing extreme minimalism is akin to the experience you might have in an anechoic chamber or in solitary confinement or under the influence of psychedelics. It is the experience of naked perception.
Most of us enjoy art that references and builds upon extant structures, using it as an escape from the vagaries of our perceptual lives. We seek in art qualities that go above and beyond the manipulation of sensation. The greatest art shares a common history and generously lends its example to history.
The 30-minute drone on Inside the Dream Syndicate, captured in the first of Young’s Dream Houses in a second-floor loft on Church Street—where he continues to perform and practice, sequestered from the public—is intense but also closed, fundamentally ungenerous. Even after a dozen listens it induces nausea before it yields something like pleasure, and then only through blindered attention and an effort that must approach the effort needed to create it. It is infinite, but finally impossible music—impossibly undocumentable and impossibly demanding. Improved fidelity or presence or presentation would not improve it. You can find wonder in this achievement, but moreover you should wonder about it.
Until recently, MacLise’s music also went largely unheard, except for the occasional bootleg prominently attributed to THE ORIGINAL DRUMMER OF THE VELVET UNDERGROUND. The fidelity on his first two nonbootleg releases—The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda and Brain Damage in Oklahoma City—is as slipshod and distant as that of the Dream Syndicate record, but for different reasons.
At a time when rock still seemed wild, MacLise was admittedly too obscure to cause many to pay attention to his work, but he was also too restless and disinterested to allow his work to be properly attended to. He was underdocumented because documentation didn’t fit his conception of art, not because he thought (as Young does) that recording technology, and in a larger sense the world, was not up to the demands of his art.
For an extremist who played so hard he never really thought about outcomes or consequences, MacLise makes remarkably agreeable music. If the minimalists were dissatisfied with Western art music, for MacLise it was rock’s possibilities that were limited. He found the savage playing of the Who’s Keith Moon too tame, and preferred hand drum improvisation to a kit. His drums and drones caterwaul into new atmospheres, but they might just remind you of an ecstatic organ excerpt, taped at the services of an obscure protestant offshoot of the Christian church.
Consisting of recordings made between 1968 and 1972, Thunderbolt Pagoda is the brighter, and better, of the two MacLise records. Its high point is the 40 minutes of “St. Marks Epiphany,” a live recording used in the underground film from which the album takes its name. MacLise’s drumming sounds like polyrhythms played by kernels in a popcorn popper. Or like rain, both rhythmic and arhythmic. It’s more hypnotic than you’d expect from an unrepentant urbanite, yet too grimy for someone with the Eastern aspirations of a simple hippie. “Heavenly Blue Pt. 4 & 5” and “Humming in the Night Skull”—drowsy excursions led by flutes and wind-chime-like bells—show off MacLise’s taste for a lighter kind of fantasy.
Although chronicling music made the same years as Thunderbolt Pagoda (with the exception of a short ’67 performance from San Francisco), the playing on Oklahoma City is not quite as proficient, and the sound seems soured. At times MacLise pushes too hard and the music degrades into teeth-grinding, speedfreak cacophony, especially on this album’s central piece, “Dreamweapon Benefit for the Oklahoma City Police Dept. Pt. 1 & Pt. 2,” recorded at a fundraiser to pay off his bail debt from an Oklahoma pot bust.
But while MacLise’s music is rife with rushed decisions, unlike in Young’s music, there are no dead ends. And the former is undertaken with limitless curiosity and a kind of reckless love of the moment. MacLise’s songs seem extrapolated from sounds heard while attuned to a world revealed only to the stoned. “Shortwave India” is that unseen ether punctuated by a busted radio; “Cembalum” is a spaghetti western featuring geisha girls; “Another Druid’s Nest” is a nasty trip; “Epiphany” is, yeah, just that. Though MacLise was more aimless than most of the minimalists, hung up as they were on treatises and theories, he was still a serious musician—but all the while his heart was laughing, laughing, laughing. He’s dead, so he has nothing to say about his legacy. But he has left a hint as to why he never got caught up in the debates and obsessions which have so mired his contemporaries: “No pallid rites here, no insipid music.” No argument.