KING OF THE UNPLUGGED MODERNISTS
By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 1999 Tower Pulse! Classical
By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 1999 Tower Pulse! Classical
Over the past few years, we've seen a slew of reissues that can be best termed anti-modernist. They were made during the time of mid-century high Modernism, but were moving along an entirely different path. They tended to be more humble, more personal and more handmade gestures; their creators seemed less hell-bent on making their mark on history than they were simply expressing themselves in the most direct manner possible--call them Uplugged Modernists. Composers like Jack Smith, Harry Partch, Tod Dockstadter and Moondog were more or less ignored by the culture; they didn't partake in any of the major modernist classical festivals (such as Darmstadt) and often operated with little or no outside financial support. However, their recently rediscovered recordings all share a wonderfully lo-fi quality with a bent on homemade instruments which speaks to a DIY 90s avant sensibility. What was once considered crackpot is now considered visionary.
Enter Teiji Ito and his recently unearthed King Ubu (Tzadik). Ito, who died in 1982 at the age of 47, was an reclusive member of the New York underground. He was active from the 1940s through the early 80s, operating primarily as a composer for experimental film and theater. Ito wrote for the fringe Open Eye Theater as well as the historic Living Theater (he scored their production of Brecht's In the Jungle of the Cities). Although his compositional output was prodigious, he only made one recording in his lifetime, 1962's staggeringly experimental Coach With Six Insides (recently re-released on ESP). For years, Ito was one of those legendary names you always heard about, but never were able to actually hear. But that all changed in 1997 when What Next? Recordings released a compilation of his music, Meshes, featuring Ito's 1950s soundtracks for avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, whom he later married. Then in 1998, Tzadik released King Ubu, recorded in 1961 for a theater production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi. For decades, the King Ubu tapes were sitting in a box gathering dust until they were rediscovered by accordionist Guy Kluseveck, who was serving as archivist for Ito's estate. He was so stunned by the breadth and vision of the work that he got in touch with Tzadik boss John Zorn, who heartily agreed that the public should have access to it.
King Ubu is an insane blend of wild instruments all played by Ito himself, layered on top of one another on magnetic tape. The disc defies categorization by embracing a huge range of styles; marching band music, acoustic guitar-driven blues, wobbly operetta, honking jazz, meandering plunky improv, ukulele-strummed pop songs, hammering African percussion, gentle far Eastern melodies, mock Hawaiian exotica, off-kilter microtones and lip-smacking sound poetry all make appearances here. To call the disc handmade would be an understatement--it sounds like it was recorded in the bottom of a well, slathering the whole affair in a fuzzy analog haze. With many of the cuts abruptly beginning and ending with a click of the tape recorder, King Ubu makes Sun Ra's Saturn Records output seem slick by comparison. And while Ra's sound might parallel Ito's, the latter uses many more instruments than Ra ever dreamed of. A partial list includes: electric chord organ, magnetic tape manipulation, glass bottles, metal springs, mbiras, orkon, singing, zither, xylophone, toy piano and whistling. It's rich stuff and the instruments are used so unconventionally that it's often hard to identify one from another.
Ito was a world traveler and he let these influences seep into his music. He spent a lot of time in Haiti studying Voodoo and on Indian Reservations learning about Shamanism, picking up instruments and musical techniques wherever he went. But far from being a cheap imitation of "world music," what emerges is a deeply personal vision and a purposeful eclecticism, which speaks to today's musical pluralism. It's hard to listen to Ubu and not hear shades of Carl Orff's modern-primitivist Schulwerk or John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. There's an element of playfulness in Ito's work that echoes both the high-art music of Erik Satie and the low-ball classical spoofs of Leroy Anderson. Moving forward in time, Ito shares a sensibility with the wonderful French maker of mechanical music, Pierre Bastien; John Zorn's eclectic vision also seems confirmed by Ito's across-the-board multiple use of styles. And finally, King Ubu dovetails perfectly with the recent craze for experimental and homemade instruments as best exemplified by Ellipsis Arts' wonderful collections Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones and its follow-up Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones. No matter angle you view him from, Ito was a good forty years ahead of his time. And the good news is that there are dozens of scores and hours of tape that haven't seen the light of day yet. The Teiji Ito revival has just begun.