William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin - William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin [Cold Spring - 2021]
It’s likely that you’ve heard of William S. Burroughs, who has long held an esteemed position in industrial and electronic subcultures, and here some of his recordings are collected alongside those of his less famous collaborator Brion Gysin. Whilst a less feted name, Gysin was equally innovative, ‘inventing’ the cut-up technique (or perhaps rather concreting its now accepted form) and co-inventing the Dreamachine, and truth be told, on this album it’s the Gysin pieces that shine for me. To be fair, this is largely due to Gysin’s recordings being more sound orientated, whilst the Burroughs material is straight recitation of written works.
I say ‘straight’ but of course Burroughs has that beautiful, instantly recognisable voice, that monotone, ritualistic spoken chant, a slow hypnotic drawl. The vinyl album - there is no digital version of this release - opens with ‘The Beginning is also the End (excerpt)’ by Burroughs, a short piece recorded c.1963; it’s Burroughs how I always imagine him, playing with language and repetition, intoning the words like an obscure curse. The next recording, ‘Reading at the Centre Hotel, Liverpool,’ is over 40 minutes long, and takes up the rest of the first side and the beginning of the second. This long recital, delivered on the 5th of October, 1982, sees Burroughs presenting a long monologue with excerpts from his novels The Place of Dead Roads and Nova Express; it’s the centrepiece of the release, but I suspect that you’ll have to be a hardcore Burroughs fan to get much from it. The narratives are wandering - and of course collaged - and testing, the Burroughs that I’ve read has been ‘difficult’ but here you have to listen at his speaking pace. Admittedly, only having the audio, we miss out on the performance elements of the reading and Burroughs’ undoubted charisma, and indeed the recital is punctured with laughter from the audience. The recording does bring out the humour in Burroughs work, and certainly the author seems to be enjoying acting out the parts of various characters. The last piece, ‘Invisible Art (three versions),’ is a college of three versions of ‘Invisible Art,’ recorded in March 1970. The short text is first read out unaccompanied, then in a multi-tracked version, and finally read out over the submerged sounds of rhythmic drumming.
Brian Gysin’s material is much more engaging, though still hardboiled. The first piece, ‘Cut-Ups Self-Explained,’ is just that: a recording (dated c.1960-1962) of Gysin discussing cut-up techniques and methodologies, with the memorable line that ‘writing is fifty years behind painting.’ The piece is a tribute to poetry, writing, and language, themes echoed in ‘I Am this Painter Brion Gysin,’ a similarly dated, energetic poem with Gysin audibly writing throughout the piece. The next set of pieces (also dated c.1960-1962) begin with ‘Pistol Poem,’ which juxtaposes Gysin reciting numbers with the sounds of pistol shots, actually evoking the sounds of a primitive drum machine. These rhythmic pistol shots are mixed around the remaining poems, which all present methodical permutations of their titles: ‘I've Come To Free The Words,’ ‘No Poets Don't Own Words,’ ‘Calling All Reactive Agents,’ ‘Junk Is No Good Baby,’ and ‘Kick That Habit Man.’ Since all five present the same idea, there’s little to choose between them, but ‘Calling All…’ is enlivened by the addition of multi-speed layers of the material. This studio experimentation is continued in ‘I Am That I Am’ (1962), which deploys tape echoes, sometimes sped-up, to produce trails from the words - it’s the most effective piece on the release for me, where the poetry finally transcends the confines of language. ’Silky supple mirrors to be folded…’ is the final track from Gysin here, a short 1970 reading that appears to share the same rhythmic drumming backing as Burroughs’ third version of ‘Invisible Art.’
These are historically important recordings certainly, but perhaps best heard by those already acquainted with the work of Burroughs and Gysin - if not hardcore fans. (As an aside, the entire album is actually a straight re-issue of a 2012 British Library release, though as this isn’t flagged up anywhere you would be forgiven for thinking these are previously unreleased recordings…) The tracks are overwhelmingly literary, by which I mean that the sonic, sound-poetry aspects of each author aren’t fully explored here - for those interested, a compilation like Break Through In Grey Room on Sub Rosa is more comprehensive - so most of the album is reasonably straight recitation or poetry, and your interest may hinge on the words rather than the sounds.Martin P