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New York Blues: John Gavanti, No Wave, and the Limits of Collaboration

The collaboratively produced 1980 no wave opera John Gavanti is loosely based on Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni, itself a telling of the Don Juan legend that was adapted by the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The two works are quite different. Whereas Mozart’s original is magisterial, punctuated by moments of comedy and the macabre, the modern update is cacophonous and irreverent. Although there are occasional, glib references to the source material, the newer work is constructed around a dense mix of allusions to conflicting genres, from aria and impressionism to samba and rock and roll. The final product would prompt Lester Bangs, the famously irreverent music writer and self-declared champion of “horrible noise”, to admit: “I have never been able to listen all the way through.”[1]

This article uses John Gavanti as a case study for thinking about issues in musical collaboration and modernism. I argue that the creators use collaborative techniques, including group composition and free improvisation, to pose critical questions about the nature of music as a social and historical activity. Rather than regarding collaboration as a wellspring of ideas or a meeting of the minds, no wave artists treat collaboration as a problem. No wavers push collaboration toward failure, revealing the limits of collaboration as a musical process—and more generally, the limits of group consensus in art. In this sense, I argue that John Gavanti points to conflicts inherent in the aesthetic itself.[2]

No Wave and Collaboration

John Gavanti was primarily created by members of the pioneering New York no wave groups Mars and DNA, including Mark Cunningham, Sumner Crane, China Burg, Ikue Mori, and Arto Lindsay. The project came out of a six-month period of experimentation, as ensemble members taught themselves to play new instruments including trumpet, cornet, bass clarinet, tuba, bassoon, and oboe. The accompaniment was quickly assembled and freely improvised around general musical themes, a learning approach as well as rehearsal format—and eventually, recording technique. At the heart of the work is a libretto transporting the iconic Don from Spain to New York’s St. Marks Place, introducing a series of bizarre events and a dense array of allusions to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, free jazz, children’s records, the blues of Bukka White, and writings of Raymond Roussel and Comte de Lautréamont.[3]

Something of a singularity, John Gavanti is remembered today as the only “official no wave opera” (Moore, Coley, and Lunch, No Wave, 106). Still, it is representative of a genre that was fragmentary and heretical by disposition. No wave was a label foisted on an insular subculture of musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers located in downtown New York during the late 1970s. Almost an anti-genre, the name itself was a flippant allusion to both la nouvelle vague of French cinema and new wave, the euphemism for punk that followed the popularization of artists such as Blondie and The Police at the end of the seventies. The music stripped away the standard conventions of artistic style, prompting New York Times critic John Rockwell to quip that no wave acts resort “to such minimalism that to some it might seem there’s nothing there at all.”[4]

In many ways, social aspects of the genre parallel Rockwell’s aesthetic appraisal. By the time of John Gavanti’s 1980 release, interpersonal arguments, disputes, and literal fights signaled to some commentators that the scene was already in the process of collapse. As the historian Clinton Heylin observes, “if many of the pre-no wave New York bands had been short-lived by chance, it seemed that the no wavers were determined to build in their own obsolescence.”[5] Many artists made this desire for obsolescence explicit, denying that they ever formed a coherent project in the first place. James Chance, a saxophonist and leader of The Contortions, put the sentiment aptly. When asked about his relationship to members of the supposed “SoHo-wing” of no wave (many of whom came to their musical careers with art school training), Chance spat, “Art? I hate Art. It makes me sick. My whole idea is anti-Art. And as for Soho, it should be blown off the fucking map, along with all its artsy assholes”.[6]

As an example of artistic collaboration, John Gavanti makes for a fascinating case study. An anti-opera made in a genreless genre by collaborators who denied that their work possessed a collaborative character, the opera problematizes group artistic production. John Gavanti effectively poses a question in musical form: can there ever truly be collaboration in art?

This question might seem bizarre. In some senses, no wave was obviously collaborative. Despite the cynical rhetoric of musicians such as Chance, it could be argued that the genre was saturated with collaboration. Many no wavers participated in multiple bands or joined together for one-off projects like John Gavanti. The very term no wave entered the music lexicon because of the Brian Eno-produced compilation, No New York (1978), an album that gathered up a number of acts associated with the scene and formalized the idea that they formed a coherent artistic project. No wave cinema—a parallel phenomenon in film during this era, with stylistic similarities as well as direct personal connections to the musical genre—is also a case in point.[7] Directors such as Beth and Scott B, Vivienne Dick, and Amos Poe regularly cast musicians including Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus, Pat Place and Adele Bertei of the Contortions, and Debbie Harry of Blondie in their films.

Musicians not only performed together, they worked together to build an infrastructure that would sustain dynamic, interactive artistic processes. No wave was advanced with the support of industry personas like Eno, as well as sympathetic critics including Lester Bangs, John Rockwell, and Roy Trakin. The historian Bernard Gendron notes that no wave musicians even developed “alternative spaces” like the Kitchen, the Franklin Furnace and the Artist Space—venues unlike standard commercial concert and theatre institutions oriented toward more lucrative forms of cultural production.[8] Similarly, there were a number of scene-oriented labels such as Lust/Unlust, ZE Records, and Hyrax (the last of which was formed solely for the purpose of releasing John Gavanti); these organizations supported experiments that would never have been acknowledged by bigger, mainstream-oriented labels such as Sire and Arista—who took an interest in New York’s underground music only to the extent they saw crossover marketability under the aegis of “new wave.”

In the end, no wave artists developed not just a series of collaborations, but an entire social collective oriented toward collaboration and group creativity.

Collaboration and Conflict

If no wave was clearly a collaborative social milieu, the music is more of a sonic question mark. Some critics have discerned an anti-social character within no wave, hinting that this music should do anything but bring people together.[9]

This aspect of no wave is quite audible. Many no wave recordings fall somewhere in the sprawling chasm between highly conceptualized artworks and hastily produced musical disasters. At either pole, the sound is quite abrasive—typically the result of poor play and sloppy production. No wave songs embody Chance’s scorched earth iconoclasm, disregarding many conventional categories of musical description or combining seemingly unrelated genres. What to make of a post-tonal rendition of Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock,” a faux-jazz group called the Lounge Lizards, or an opera that appears to be goofing off at the expense of one of opera’s most iconic (anti)heroes?

John Gavanti reflects a unique approach to collaboration, perhaps one that was more extreme, even destructive by comparison to standard approaches to collaboration. In their Introduction to a previous collection on collaboration, Claire Battershill and Alexandra Peat stress the complexities of joint artistic production. As the authors argue, creative ventures can lead to exciting new ideas, but also conflict. The effect of hard-fought group activity

may be layers of ideas and more value, but it may also be more tension or difficulty. Collaboration, while often viewed in idealistic ways, is, in practice, almost always messy, unequal and conflictual. It often aspires to, yet can almost never achieve, equality; it strives for unity but is defined by difference. (Battershill and Peat, “Introduction,” 5)

Battershill and Peat suggest that collaboration gets difficult. When push comes to shove, the ostensibly singular goal of the group may yield novel experiments as well as fault lines. Artists disagree, argue; even when they get along, the final result is seldom a perfect synthesis of each individual subjectivity.

In many cases, collaborators try to overcome these tensions. Egos are managed as best as they can be, with the hope that all involved will be reasonably satisfied with the process. No wave artists, however, leaned into the problem. They embraced conflict. By doing so, they implied, conflict is more than a function of personality or the narcissism of small differences: strife dwells at the heart of collaboration.

No wavers were often personally disagreeable, prompting the period critic Roy Trakin to nickname the scene an “Avant Kindergarten.”[10] Uniquely, John Gavanti introduced this disagreeable character as a component of composition. This project went beyond the attitude and amateurism that was standard in some corners of the New York experimental music world. Here, imperfections result from collaboration. Performers imposed constraints on the process; they learned to play instruments on the fly and struggled to reconstruct familiar styles from memory. Here, ineptitude and improvisation testify to the imperfect nucleus within group musical activity.

In a deeper sense, then, group composition and free improvisation became a medium for posing critical questions. At its best, collaboration located the lingering traces of shared meanings and forms, the intersubjective, noncommunicative aspects of music-making. At its worst, collaboration failed, both to bring the musicians together and to demonstrate the spontaneous character of musical community. Collaboration served in both cases as a vehicle for exploring the problematic character of modern art. In this sense, the process of creation demonstrated the dissensus inherent in the aesthetic. John Gavanti fails as the musicians fail—to recreate the supposedly inherent norms of musical life.

This side of collaboration also brings to mind the strands of modernism oriented toward dissensus, doubt and negation. J. M. Bernstein’s 2006 book Against Voluptuous Bodies highlights these dynamics within modernism. Bernstein writes that artistic exploration results from the broader social context of modern life, “art’s expulsion and exclusion from everyday life and the (rationalized and reified) normative ideals, moral and cognitive, governing it. Once expelled and aware of that expulsion, art then is forced to interrogate what is left to it.”[11] Bernstein is arguing here that, as the modernist artist sets about the exploration of the artistic past, the result can be a dual sense of the impossibility and necessity of history. This account thus foregrounds the fraught relationship of individuals to artistic norms: art as a process of sifting through the past and wondering if it might be too late for art (Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies, 2­–10).

By comparison to many modernists, no wave musicians took the sensibilities of negation to an extreme degree. Even so, they perform similar acts of identification and disavowal, critically evaluating the structuring role of collaborative activity through their process. Demonstrating the problematic nature of the aesthetic through music and musical production, no wavers explored the possibility it was too late for art.

John Gavanti and Collaboration

Set against this backdrop, it is worth examining the historical traces that do appear within no wave. Despite placing a symbolic NO! front and center, artists in the scene frequently deploy borrowed material. This fact is true at the literal level of content, as in Amos Poe’s 1976 film Unmade Beds, which shifts filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s black-and-white neo-noir style from ‘60s Paris to 70s New York.

No wave citations are quite broad. Even disco—a glitzy, commercially successful genre sometimes seen as at odds with punk’s gritty, downtown aesthetic—appears on James Chance’s Off White (1979) and Lydia Lunch’s Queen of Siam (1980). As the philosopher-musicologist Robin James notes, Chance’s Off White deploys typical no wave effects of contortion, disorientation and destabilization in order to critically engage with the racial thematics that structure core tensions between popular music genres such rock and disco.[12] In this sense, no wave artists used sound as a medium for social critique, in spite of a perspective held by some critics—and occasionally propagated by artists themselves—that the genre was rooted in absolute negativity.

The particulars of such engagements did, however, separate no wave artists from many other genres. No wavers treated inherited convention as a problem, as if it were too late for them. Their engagements with rock and roll, for example, present a different perspective from a common attitude of the era. In the 1970s, many artists—including some in the New York punk scene—looked back on the previous two decades as a kind of golden age of music and culture; most representative is George Lucas’s 1973 film American Graffiti, which presents a highly idealizing view of that era as one of naivete and innocence.[13]

Songs from the no wave orbit often take a playful or even snide approach to that same repertoire. Historical memory approaches a form of contempt. This context is the transparent sonic backdrop of James Chance’s version of Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”, from a live 1978 performance at famed rock club CBGB. There, the Contortions sloppily reconstruct one of most iconic songs by the King of Rock (who had just passed away the year prior, no less). Their rendition haphazardly approximates the iconic riff that ungirds the original; as if to make their irreverence crystal clear, Chance dedicates the performance of the song to the “99% idiots” who are stuck “living in the past.”[14]

Through such gestures, no wave rendered modernist pathos as kitsch. Citing John Gavanti as a key example, the period critic Robert Palmer noted that no wave exemplified a new “esthetic of the fake,” the attitude of a generation that was too young to take for granted rock’s “carefully orchestrated set pieces that give the illusion of spontaneity.”[15] A decade after the golden age of rock and roll, no wave artists could only cast an insincere eye back toward that supposed classical age.

Even as no wave artists positioned themselves in relation to rock, they also deployed elements from the art world. Here too, a critical relationship vis-à-vis art was manifest not just in Chance’s dismissal of Soho artists, but also in the general rejection of technical precision and scholarship that many participants saw as a negative function of pristine academic pedigrees and careers in the commercial art market. (It is for this reason that many commentators liken no wave to Dada and other modernist anti-movements.)[16]

The novelty of John Gavanti is found in the way the opera treats these gestures as public rather than personal in origin. More than a product of individuals wrestling heroically with artistic norms—or the sneering Chance spitting on Elvis’s legacy—Gavanti relies on collaborative practices to present a question about art as a form of social experience.

Like many other no wave works, John Gavanti is fragmentary and uneven, at times straying in the direction of the nonsensical. Even so, musical references abound, from the cinematic bordello groove of “Gavanti Samba” to the rock and roll shuffle of “On Ancient Oceans” and the Nick Drake-esque folk strumming that undergirds “On Board Ship.” A representative example is the song “Africa,” an operatic vocalization that appropriates the glassy surface of French musical impressionism. Far from offering a window into the depths, the sentiment appears here hollow and cold.

The belated character of John Gavanti is even more apparent on “New York Blues,” an odd aria of sorts sung by the titular figure. Both in name and form, the song gestures at one the characteristic traditions of popular music in the United States—often idolized (and fetishized) by the groups who pioneered rock and roll.[17] (For example, the Yardbirds, one of the British Invasion groups, had recorded a “New York City Blues” in the mid-sixties, doing their best rendition of the style popularized by US artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.)

As might be expected, “New York Blues” opens with a classic boogie-woogie groove, of the sort that undergirds much of blues-based rock music. Here, the phrase is irregular, and it is buried in a sea of instruments whose players seem to be choosing their (often out-of-tune) pitches at random. Though the part initiates the song, it provides little by way of feeling or vitality, let alone structure. A second guitar part approximates the manner of lead guitar playing that would be appropriate for the style, but the singer and other instrumental parts largely seem to ignore the riff.

As the aria unfolds, the song continues to meander about, punctuated at times by singing but always locked into the basic riff, which repeats dully, ad nauseam. Never does the song arrive at the energetics of the Yardbirds or Muddy Waters—each of whom used the template of the blues to build to vibrant, even erotic peaks of musical excitement. In place of an ending, the recording features an abrupt, hasty fadeout—as if it is impossible to even conclude based on what has come before.

Musically, the overall effect suggests the group cannot find a way to synchronize, to inject life into the aria, any more than they can come together to resuscitate rock and roll. Evoking a tradition saturated with groove and vitality, the players wander about, away from each other and away from their roots. Failing to produce something together, they simply give up. The effect almost hints that the last thing we can take for granted is the group, the collaboration—or a world where mythical dons link the past to present.

 

Notes

[1] Lester Bangs, “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise,” in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ed. Greil Marcus (New York: Anchor Books, 1987), 301–304, 304.

[2] My conception of failure is different from standard discussions of difficult or failed collaborations; for example, see Claire Battershill and Alexandra Peat, “Introduction: Modernism and Collaboration,” Literature & History 28, no. 1 (2019): 3–9, and Brian Norman, “Failed Collaboration: Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, and the Possibilities of Co-Creation”; on failure as a concept in aesthetic and critical theory, see Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

[3] See Marc Masters and Weasel Walter, No Wave (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007), 64–67; Thurston Moore, Byron Coley, and Lydia Lunch, No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976–1980. (New York: Abrams Image, 2008), 106.

[4] John Rockwell, “Rock: Two of the No-Wave,” New York Times, June 28, 1979, C17.

[5] Clinton Heylin, From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk Rock (Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2005), 319.

[6] Alan Platt, “No Chance,” SoHo Weekly News, January 4, 1979, 26.

[7] For period sources on No Wave cinema, see Jim Hoberman, “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” Village Voice, May 1979 and Amy Taubin, “The Other Cinema,” SoHo Weekly News, June 7, 1979; the most comprehensive recent source on the subject is the documentary by Celine Danhier, Blank City (Lorber Films, 2012).

[8] Bernard Gendron, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 278–79.

[9] See, for example, Masters and Walter, No Wave.

[10] Roy Trakin, “Avant Kindergarten (Sturm Und Drone),” SoHo Weekly News, January 26, 1978.

[11] J. M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 3.

[12] Robin James, “Contort Yourself: Music, Whiteness, and the Politics of Disorientation,” in White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem?, ed. George Yancy (New York: Lexington Books, 2014), 211–28, 212.

[13] Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Is Rock Dead? (New York: Routledge, 2005), 91.

[14] James Chance and the Contortions, “Jailhouse Rock,” recorded 1978, track 12 on Buy, 1994, Infinite Zero, compact disc.

[15] Robert Palmer, “Esthetic of the Fake Stirs Rock World,” New York Times, February 13, 1981, C1.

[16] The most extensive account of punk and Dada is Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).

[17] See Jack Hamilton, Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).