(The following review appeared in issue #7 of Swingset Magazine)
Painting, sculpture, hell even being in a regular rock band wasn’t enough for Walter De Maria. After moving to New York in 1960, hobnobbin’ and theorizin’ and fluxus-izin’ with crazyman composer La Monte Young, playing drums for a stint in The Velvet Underground, and establishing himself as one of the prominent sculptors in the emerging “minimalist” scene, De Maria looked for – and found – the ever-larger gesture. In search of an art that was more than just “art,” De Maria in 1968 filled the Galerie Heiner Friedrich in Munich with dirt, kicking off the whole earthworks movement. That same year, he recorded “Ocean Music,” which along with “Cricket Music” (from 1964) is available for the first time on Drums and Nature. “Ocean Music,” recorded with the help of rediscovered minimalist badass Tony Conrad, is a meditative piece beginning with – you guessed it – the sound of waves crashing along some shore somewhere. Some heavy solo tribal drumming eventually mixes in, then subsumes the ocean sound, and what we’ve got is something akin to New Age if New Age wasn’t fucking lame. That is, a perfect representation of the “natural,” but with an acknowledgement of the “human” (incidentally, La Monte Young also recorded a vocal piece with the ocean off Long Island as his backin’ band around the same time for Columbia, but it has yet to see the light of day). “Cricket Music” is less meditative, but no less amazing (and no less truth-in-advertising, title-wise). Listening to these compositionally simple, yet striking pieces, it’s too bad that De Maria hasn’t seemed to have done much since, musically. (Incidentally, if you ever get the chance, you should visit De Maria’s triptych of earthworks masterpieces: Lightning Field in New Mexico, the Earth Room in New York, and the Broken Kilometer, also in New York.)
Watersports are a Brooklyn-based duo who, on first take, don’t seem to have much in common with De Maria: what they do is on a much smaller scale. We live in a world overrun with the detritus of consumer culture, and Watersports recognize this through using petrochemically-produced consumer goods masquerading as “natural” devices. Yes, they make music with (among other more conventional instruments) those cheesy plastic waterfall meditation device thingies. In a sense, making music like this is a sort of ironic post-De Maria move (hence my connection): forget hauling your ass out to the ocean or a waterfall or a river or the woods on the chance you’ll hear some birds, bring (an artificial) nature to your cramped urban apartment! Anyway it’s a lot cheaper, and even cleaner, than filling it with three feet of topsoil. It may be that, in 2005, the closest we can get to nature is to just make our own hybridized, bastardized pockets of it. And while we’re doing that, why not make art from it?
Watersports take this sort of self-invented consumer-culture environmental art to new highs with their III CDR and their second self-titled cassette on their White Tapes label. And it doesn’t stop with the music: to listen to the damn cassette you gotta destroy a part of the red-stickered tape packaging. The CDR doesn’t require such confrontational tactics, but what you get is an extremely quiet, yet tactile (and hella short) meditative modern music, akin at its finest moments to a quieter, spiritually low-key but ultimately De Maria-esque “nature” jam. For those determined to spoil their progeny’s college fund-via-eBay (fuck the future, anyway), the music hidden inside the cassette might be worth disappointing a child. It would be hard to describe any of Watersports’ stuff as confrontational, seeing as their “aggressive New Age” m.o. would probably confuse the hell outta most ADHD-addled Lightning Bolt fans or somesuch, but the cassette is so quiet (even more so than III) that on the first track I had to check whether that was really the ice cream man outside the window or some bleed-through from Watersports’ Kingsland Avenue jamspace environs. A second piece ends the side with more identifiable drums and (perhaps) guitar, thumping a tribalistic jam reminiscent of Amon Duul being played by a housewife on a transistor radio as she daydreams idly while Montel’s on. When “getting back to nature” for most Americans means a fucking humpback whale tape in the car on the way to work, I can’t think of anything more perfect.