An improvised music performance is a celebration of the contingent. It is a unique and telling way of being in a particular environment with all that that means in terms of the accidental qualities that come together to make it what it is, at this given moment: its physical makeup; the possibilities it offers and hindrances it threatens; the stimulation or indifference it inspires in us; and above all the presence of others within it. David Grubbs’ new book, the long poem “Now that the audience is assembled,” is an imaginative way of showing what it is like to confront these accidental facts and somehow make them into a work.
Now that the audience is assembled tells the story of a particular performance of experimental music. The musician, who plays an invented instrument she first must put together, is to work from a verbal score that begins “Compose a gesture that can be repeated.” While the music isn’t entirely improvised it virtually is so; there is a composer here, but one whose presence and role is, as Grubbs describes it in the poem’s Afterword, “vestigial.” Grubbs seems not primarily concerned about such theoretical matters as the relationship between composition and improvisation in largely indeterminate scores, or the relative contributions of composer and performer. He seems instead more interested in describing a performance from the inside—as something that a given person experiences in a concrete way. In fact the music itself plays a relatively minor role in the poem’s narrative; what comes to the forefront are the inner and outer experiences of performance and the way that they interpenetrate each other in the sensibilities of the people involved. Grubbs’ narrative voice moves between first- and third-person perspectives, but even when he writes from an external point of view, he shows what it’s like to be in the midst of the cluster of events and factors that, taken together, are the full experience of performing an improvised set: the set up and preparation of instruments and space; the ebb and flow of audience attentiveness; the interactions of the musician, the composer, an assistant, and the audience members who themselves temporarily become performers; and most engagingly, the musician’s emotional responses to the situation around her and the drift of her thoughts as the evening progresses.
Grubbs presents all this with a narrative immediacy that itself seems to coexist with the moment it describes. In truth, though, the book was carefully crafted over a long period of time—it’s a multi-year reflection on the kind of experience that takes place in real time and that can’t be gone back over and edited in the interest of finding the most felicitous way of meeting a momentary demand. Fortunately, Grubbs worked under no such time-bound constraints, and the result is a work that combines the directness of an actual improvisation with the well-chosen language afforded by after-the-fact reflection.