Graded on a Curve: Five from Superior Viaduct’s Sub-label États-Unis

The mission statement is short and sweet: Superior Viaduct’s sub-label États-Unis focuses on “unconventional sounds from truly unique artists.” Their initial batch of releases fits the description perfectly, offering the compilation Highlights of Vortex, Eight Electronic Pieces by Tod Dockstader, “ ” by Die Tödliche Doris, Bikini Tennis Shoes by Le Forte Four, and In Performance by Joe Jones, all on clear vinyl in editions of 500. In tough consumer news, the online bundle is sold out, as is “ ” at Superior Viaduct’s website. Advice? Snatch up the remaining four without delay, scour retail bins for stray copies of the Die Tödliche Doris, hope for a second edition, and keep eyes peeled for further developments.

In taking a cross-generational and stylistically varied approach to the unusual, États-Unis has set itself up for the long haul. Spanning from the end of the ’50s to the early ’80s, the label’s first five selections resist chronological matrix ordering; instead, after investigating the bohemian and DIY impulses of the mid-20th century, they undertake a big jump forward into the post-punk fringe. Then, a smaller move backward into prescient California-based strangeness and a culminating entry establishing circular thematic unity. Taken in the order of their spine numbering, it’s an enlightening ride.

Highlights of Vortex is a 1959 LP documenting the Vortex Experiments, an audio-visual experience organized by sound artist and performer Henry Jacobs and experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, with the aim of stimulating the senses to the maximum degree. It played from ’57-’60, initially at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium and later at the SF Museum of Art; this album includes selections by David Talcott, Gordon Longfellow, William Loughborough, and Jacobs himself.

Henry Jacobs deftly straddled all sorts of artistic worlds, befriending and collaborating with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ken Nordine, Alan Watts, Lenny Bruce, and numerous writers, some of them fitting the Beat description. The opening track from The Wide Weird World of Shorty Petterstein, a ’58 album for World Pacific where Jacobs mingles satire and the surreal through the guise of the title character, can be found on Rhino’s ’02 CD The Best of the Beat Generation; his output has been reissued by Locust Music and Important, the latter featuring a DVD of his ’70s television work.

The Vortex Experiments are arguably Jacobs’ biggest achievement. Not only did it play for three years, but a version was also presented at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels; additionally, the great film editor and sound designer Walter Murch considers the exhibition to be the origin of Surround Sound. Furthermore, through the input of Jordan Belson, the Vortex Experiments were a significant event in the history of experimental, non-narrative film.

Naturally, Highlights of Vortex diminishes the visual component in the scenario, but Belson can still be felt hovering around the album’s edges; the artist’s work was an absolute knockout as part of the Center for Visual Music’s 2005 exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum (a program attended by this writer), and the event immortalized by this LP played a major role in his maturity as a filmmaker. The accompaniment to his images may not be mind-blowing today, but that’s mainly because the often abstract and occasionally psychedelic results have proven so influential.

It contrasts interestingly with Tod Dockstader’s 1961 effort. Although both albums were issued by the Folkways label, Eight Electronic Pieces first emerged as a self-released item, the byproduct of late-nights at the recording studio where Dockstader worked. Lacking ties to academia or record company expectations might seem like sweet freedom, but he was unable to sustain a career without institutional support and access to equipment (he did return to activity later).

This debut and his subsequent mid-’60s stuff for Owl did secure Dockstader lasting u-ground interest. Counting Edgar Varèse, Pierre Schaefer, and John Cage as influences, Eight Electronic Pieces engages with the musique concrète method of prerecorded sounds while avoiding results that had become somewhat standard by the dawn of the ’60s.

The opening bloops do underline the record’s age a bit, but matters become far less dated as the pieces unwind, loaded with unexpected twists, razor-sharp edges, and ambiance that’s remarkably contemporary at times. As abstract as Highlights of Vortex but sharpened by singularity of vision, Eight Electronic Pieces is engaging in a way that many early electronic albums are not, while remaining distinctive in its lasting impact. It’s an essential item.

Like musique concrète and tape music in general, punk has sometimes been denigrated as a passing phase on the way to greener stylistic pastures, with far more value attached to post-punk’s various schemes. Sometimes these preferences celebrate refinement toward the marketplace, and when doing so almost always ignore the genre’s outer reaches.

But it’s post-punk’s unruliness that’s best stood the test of time. Contemporaries of Einstürzende Neubauten and Malaria, the German unit Die Tödliche Doris belonged to the musically uncompromising wing of the Neue Deutsche Welle, specifically a subset known as Geniale Dilletanten, or “ingenious dilettantes.” The group’s debut long-player “ ” came out in 1982 on ZickZack, and this first-time vinyl reissue is loaded with yelling, battering, scraping, squawking, and the sweet stench of postmodern philosophy.

Leaders Wolfgang Müller and Nikolaus Utermöhlen made no attempt to disguise the intellectual nature of the proceedings, though it’s marinated in the sort of black turtleneck and unfiltered cigarette radicalism that’s all but disappeared from the world stage. More’s the pity. Produced by Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld, “ ” is tangibly Germanic, but that trait frequently just comes down to the sound of the language. Swap out English and “Über-Mutti” becomes a raw slice of no wave.

Ignoring the post-punk fringes means overlooking the DIY impulse, but as Eight Electronic Pieces makes clear, the necessity to Do It Yourself isn’t a punk phenomenon. Le Forte Four’s Bikini Tennis Shoes arrives right at the dawn of the era, 1975 in fact. But forget punk; this record, created by Chip Chapman and Rick Potts and originally issued in an edition of 200 copies, was the first release from the now legendary troupe of fringe-dwellers the Los Angeles Free Music Society.

Reminiscent of The Residents but striking out into unique territory, the LAFMS gradually amassed enough art-fucked disruptiveness to fill the ten CDs box set The Lowest Form of Music. These 32 tracks (digitally rendered as 26) comprise most of that collection’s second disc, and it’s an often-striking slab of clatter, honk, jump-cuts, band practice arguing, tape manipulation, duets with prerecorded sources, humorous undercurrents, and a general spirit analogous with the term “anti-music.” Bikini Tennis Shoes resists attributes that encourage frequent play, and remains a fascinating ride for exactly that reason.

If Le Forte Four undermines standard notions of musical pleasure, Joe Jones’ 1977 LP In Performance deflates emphasis on the living breathing musician, achieving this through stringed instruments played by a self-designed system made up of rubber bands, balls, and tin foil. Jones’ compositions are decidedly abstract, dominated by hovering rumble accented by chimes and bell-like tones, yet they are clearly the byproduct of systematic diligence.

An early member of the Fluxus movement and a student of composers John Cage and Earle Brown, Jones is plainly part of the mid-20th century avant-garde tradition as he sounds like hardly anybody else. Interestingly, his focus on the composer harkens back to Classical music of earlier eras as the LP fruitfully connects with Highlights of Vortex. One can easily imagine In Performance’s long pieces soundtracking a film by Jordan Belson.

Most of this initial run is gone, but don’t get bummed out, as the circumstance is ultimately encouraging. The demand for these five records should inspire the uncovering of additional unconventional delights; based on États-Unis’ choices here, it’s going to be a fun ride.

V/A, Highlights of Vortex

Tod Dockstader, Eight Electronic Pieces

Die Tödliche Doris, “ ”

Le Forte Four, Bikini Tennis Shoes

Joe Jones, In Performance

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