John Duncan
FIRST RECORDINGS 1978-1985
Vinyl On Demand (3LP + DVD)

JOHN DUNCAN – WORKS 1975-2005
Errant Bodies/Ground Fault (Book + CD)

The growing interest in John Duncan’s work as a composer, performer and conceptual artist shows that even normal folk, if subjected to the right suggestions and stimuli, are able to recognize real talent, independently from their religious, sociopolitical and personal convictions. Duncan, for many years only championed by discerning fellow artists and independent-minded writers, has by now reached an iconic status which time will only help to enhance, as the man from Wichita remains a cutting-edge explorer who always manages to stick a salt finger in the wounds of truth. First Recordings 1978-1985 is a gorgeous 3-LP box set, a spartan black-and-grey artifact containing music originally released on low-budget and even lower-circulation cassettes and vinyls. It’s a fascinating view of several back-pages in Duncan’s book, which will bring back memories of youth for those who have been following him since the early days, when Viennese Aktionism and noise-boosted sonic terrorism were major elements in his work. Yet the most striking track on offer is “No”, a Reichian (Wilhelm, not Steve) performance based on therapeutic anti-aggression hyperventilation exercises that took place in Los Angeles’ KPFK station’s open stage studio in 1978. Duncan’s breathing starts normally, then becomes more and more violent until his gasps morph into desperate cries for help, as if he were being subjected to torture; snippets of pre-recorded sentences complement the whole. It’s an intensely disturbing, distressing piece. The rest is equally compelling: “Dark Market Broadcast” is based on masses of shortwaves and unrecognizable utterances, transmitted by Duncan via pirate FM radio in 1985 when he lived in Tokyo, while “Station Event” is a recording of Tom Recchion and Michael LeDonne-Bhennet improvising live on KPFK on percussion and woodwinds while Duncan handles listeners’ phone calls, putting their comments and rants on the air. The set also contains a DVD with two early videos, whose content could be stomach-churning for many; let’s just say that you should keep the thing away from curious kids, if you have any.

The Errant Bodies book is a handy document of the many facets of John Duncan’s art. Like the box set, it’s pretty serious-looking – all black and white – with a lot of photos, graphics, drawings and explanations/instructions for most of the events that Duncan has devised, including the infamous “Blind Date”, which for many years sentenced him to exclusion from the Los Angeles avant-garde scene and ruined his private life (read – or surf the Internet – if you don’t know what we’re talking about). The book also features eight different essays about Duncan. Aside from one or two misfires, these provide useful and incisive analyses of his work in relation to its cultural and social context (Giuliana Stefani’s account of “Blind Date” is just perfect). The accompanying CD contains five compositions dating from 1980 to 2003, which is a good refresher course even for dedicated Duncan-followers: rediscovering the shortwaves and field recordings of Crucible (Die Stadt) is nice enough, but listening after many years to 1984’s fabulous Riot (AQM) made me realize that many of today’s noise gods – from Merzbow to Marhaug to Wiese – owe Duncan a bottle of wine or three.

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