Professor David Grubbs Draws on his Past in a Poetic Tribute to the Fading Recording Studio

April 14, 2020

Grubbs discusses and performs his genre-bending book, The Voice in the Headphones, and reflects on how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted his art and his teaching.

Professor David Grubbs and the cover of his new book, The Voice in the Headphones.
Professor David Grubbs and the cover of his new book, The Voice in the Headphones.

April is poetry month, so The Graduate Center asked Professor David Grubbs (GC/Brooklyn College; Music/Performance and Interactive Media Arts) to talk about his latest work, a book-length poem called The Voice in the Headphones. (Scroll down to see a video of him reading excerpt from the book.) He also spoke about his experiences as a professor, musician, and writer in light of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The Graduate Center: What is The Voice in the Headphones about? 

GrubbsThe Voice in the Headphones describes a single, epic day in the recording studio in which an unnamed musician struggles to complete a film soundtrack. At certain points the film that he is scoring moves to the fore and begins to dominate the narrative. I have been making records in studios since I was a teen in the 1980s, and I’ve always been fascinated with the culture of the recording studio — not only the fact of it being a space in which one can focus on music and recording to the exclusion of anything else, but also the language and lore of the studio, its visual culture, its architecture, and its economics, particularly at a moment where digital recording technology has contributed to the shuttering of many of the studios where I’ve spent so much time, and that are still so vivid to me.

GC: How would you categorize The Voice in the Headphones? Poem, story, fiction, nonfiction? Why, as a musician, did you pick this genre for this work rather than a song, music video, or performance? 

Grubbs: I understand it as an experiment in music writing in the form of a long poem. It shares a similar form with my previous book, Now that the audience is assembled, which describes in comparable detail an all-night fictional concert of improvised music. Even though I studied poetry in graduate school, I didn’t write poetry until Now that the audience is assembled because I’d been writing song lyrics since I was in high school. With songwriting, I’d found a form and a means of delivery and even an audience for impulses that otherwise would have resulted in my writing poetry. But with Now that the audience is assembled, I wanted to write something of an altogether different scale — it’s a 120-page poem — and I had a desire to figure out how best to make this sort of writing that’s not altogether different from my song lyrics work on the page.     

GC: How does writing mesh with your musical life and pursuits?

Grubbs: Writing is a big part of what I do. I write music, but I’ve also always written about music — from being a fanzine writer as a teenager (why do I keep referencing my teenage years? Probably because I experience a real continuity in what I’ve done over the last several decades) to, for a number of years, contributing music criticism for the Munich newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung, to writing essays and books about music. My Ph.D. is in English, but at The Graduate Center and Brooklyn College I primarily teach courses related to music and sound, and one of the things that I hope that I’m able to do as a teacher is to help students — whether they’re focused on music, art, performance, literature, and so on — really develop as writers.    

GC: Let's talk about the COVID-19 crisis. There's a notion floating around that artists might somehow be more productive because there are fewer distractions now that we’re all stuck inside. Thoughts?

Grubbs: I’d say as a resident of New York City four weeks into the COVID-19 crisis that it’s not my experience that there are fewer distractions. Some obligations have been put on hold, to be certain — there’s a good bit of administrative work that suddenly feels decidedly back-burner — but there are all kinds of other issues that have moved to the fore. I’m trying to stick to as regular and productive of a routine as I can — I’ll admit to being the sort of person who is comforted by routine — but I also know that I’m moving at slog tempo while I try to process all of the stress and anxiety that I and everyone around me seem to be feeling.

GC: What are the challenges for you as a professor and for your graduate students in light of COVID-19? 

Grubbs: I’m currently teaching three graduate seminars, all of which are meeting online via Zoom, and all three have gone much more smoothly and meaningfully than I would have imagined. The Performance and Interactive Media Arts (PIMA) M.F.A. students I’m teaching at Brooklyn College have the toughest situation of any of the three classes in that they are supposed to be completing M.F.A. thesis projects that take the form of collaborative live performances incorporating technology. Yes, they’re creative, adaptable, born problem-solvers, but for them in particular I’m sorry that at the present they’re not able to realize their projects in the form that they’ve envisioned over the last year. In general, students seem very positive about continuing with online meetings; I’ve had many more visitors to virtual office hours than regular office hours, and two of the three seminars requested that we continue meeting through spring break, which is exactly what we’re doing.  

GC: A lot of online music events seem to be taking place since the stay-at-home policy started — Facebook Live or Zoom concerts and singalongs, Zoom karaoke, and video collaborations of singers in different places, singing the same song. What’s happening?

Grubbs: I know what you mean about the explosion of online music projects. I’ve had two public events this week — one a concert in the Quarantine Concerts where I played solo in my living room for 30 minutes, and one a book launch via Greenlight Bookstore with a reading, a discussion with Josiah McElheny, and a short musical performance.  People are hungry for live events — and not just archival material suddenly made available online — although I have to say that I prefer an event where I can have a conversation rather than just broadcasting a solo performance. I do think that when this is over that people will have become more accustomed to seeing live performance online, but that in terms of musical performance, what does need to happen is an improvement in technology so that people can more easily and more satisfactorily play together at a distance in real time. 

GC: Finally, in honor of poetry month, do you have any poetry recommendations for our readers? 

Grubbs: I'm happy to recommend Walt Whitman's brief “A Clear Midnight,” with its evocation of a consciousness “away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done.”