Of all the mercurial legends of the NYC sub-underground of the early 1960s, Angus MacLise has long been one of the most tantalizing. Some of this has to do with the work he left behind after his death on June 21, 1979 (a day named “Spirit Woman” in MacLise's Universal Solar Calendar) – even though very little of this art, writing and music had actually been seen or heard by more than a few people until quite recently. Some of his rep was based on the crowd he was known to have been associated with – writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists and freaks of all stripes – but the Lower East Side scene of that era teems with people as well-connected as MacLise, a few of whom became well-known (Harry Smith, Ed Sanders, etc.) while others did not (Erwan Szabo, anyone?). One thing that made MacLise such a curious figure was that he appears to have come close to actual fame (which translates as “money”) only to turn his back on it for aesthetic reasons, even though there are many reports of near-constant scrounging for drug money.
"In the early '70s, Angus had left over 50 reels of tapes with photographer/light-artist, Don Snyder. In 1981, filmmaker Sheldon Rochlin made safety transfers of these artifacts, but nobody really knew about it until Gerard made his fortunate discovery. "
To the best of my knowledge, MacLise had a single musical recording released during his lifetime. This was one side of the flexi disc included with issue 9 of Aspen (the “magazine in a box,” although this 1971 issue, edited by Angus and his wife, Hetty, comes in a folder), featuring a live recording by Joyous Lake, a free-form ensemble that existed in NYC from 1967-1970. But as the years have passed, various musical and spoken recordings turned up. Tony Conrad seems to have had a stash. And Gerard Malanga – the brilliant poet, photographer and archivist – uncovered a mother lode while at work assembling a real MacLise collection. In the early '70s, Angus had left over 50 reels of tapes with photographer/light-artist, Don Snyder. In 1981, filmmaker Sheldon Rochlin made safety transfers of these artifacts, but nobody really knew about it until Gerard made his fortunate discovery. A few bootleg bits preceded this event – tracks dating from MacLise's work as the original drummer in the Velvet Underground, segments of performance with La Monte Young's Theatre Of Eternal Music, a Fierce Records 7” of “Trance,” a cassette of the soundtrack to Ron Rice's Chumlum, and so on. But there was never much real context for these sounds until actual labels started putting out the material.
One of the most interesting sets of these was Sub Rosa's The Cloud Doctrine 2CD set (now out of print), from which the material on this LP is drawn. The original version, compiled by Malanga, Conrad and Guy-Marc Hinant (of Sub Rosa) is a miscellany. It includes a bunch of readings, music for films, live performances in various configurations and is an interesting – if somewhat scattershot – attempt at a holistic overview of MacLise's ouevre. It is almost certain, however, that the inclusion of poetry threw a certain number of listeners off their stride. Angus' musical legend rests largely upon the extended improvs he created using acoustic drones, hand drums, chanting and various weird blaps. While The Cloud Doctrine showcased some of that stuff, several dullards I spoke to at the time of its release found the experience far too variegated to comprehend. Perhaps sensing this, Sub Rosa has dedicated this LP to a very specific slice of the MacLise pie.
"As with the recent series of Dreamweapon LPs that Boo-Hooray did, it feels as though MacLise's music is best appreciated when cut from small branches of what must have been a singularly weird and large tree."
In the meantime, there have been several other LPs released from a suitcase full of tapes and printed material that was discovered to have been left with Young for safekeeping. You can check out the list of those recordings (both released and still unreleased) online as part of Yale University's Beinecke collection. It's a pretty interesting pile of shit. But there's something nice and compact about this album. I have not heard the vinyl yet, I must admit, so I'm not exactly sure how well they squeeze the near 28 minutes of “Electronic Mix for Expanded Cinema” onto a single album side. But the piece, created for a festival at the Filmmakers Cinematheque, is a howling buzz of short-attention-span racket and rachet, a bit reminiscent of Robert Ashley's contemporary work. The three “Tunnel Music” pieces are solo electronics sound-slabs created to be played in concord with light projections by Don Snyder. These are crackly, noisy, and based on repeating motifs that primarily employ electronics, but also seem to include live percussion. The three “Trance” pieces were recorded as a trio, along with John Cale and Tony Conrad. Featuring keyboards, drums, violins and cimbolin (MacLise's main tunable percussion axe), these are quite noisy and cool, with tempos that feel governed more by machines than humans. Hard to know exactly how much of the speed comes from just turning some knobs, but they're all great.
The whole album is actually very boss. As with the recent series of Dreamweapon LPs that Boo-Hooray did, it feels as though MacLise's music is best appreciated when cut from small branches of what must have been a singularly weird and large tree.