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A Conversation with John Duncan_Part Two

This interview is the Second Part of a two part post that reviews the work of John Duncan                    Part One: A Conversation with John Duncan: Prologue –

Aram Yardumian: You have several times said you were primarily interested in finding ways to tap into the ‘inner self’ and to ‘wake up’. What is the ‘inner self’? Or rather, in what terms do you come to this concept? And what is it to ‘wake up’—do you mean this physiologically, mentally, metaphorically?

John Duncan: Interesting question. What is the ‘inner self’? There is a moment in out-of-body experiences when you are aware of the physical body, the ‘self’ that perceives it from a certain distance – and another ‘self’ that perceives both from another distance. That sometimes manifests itself as a ‘voice’, to reassure us or encourage us to stop when self-destructive behavior is threatening our lives. What is that, where does it come from? What is it to become that, or a part of it? Perhaps this is what it means to be truly awake.

AY: Is there a world beyond our bodies which we are typically unable to access due to the limitations of our senses? If so, what do you think that world is like?

JD: I like to imagine it as a form of all-encompassing, endless formless light, an inexhaustible energy. Assuming there is one, of course…

AY: You have also intimated that your work has always been about overcoming fears of new ways of thinking and feeling, fears of the unexpected, fears of change—waking up from these things. (Do I have this correct? Yes, thanks) Do you believe a healthy individual is one who is fearless and uninhibited? If so, is a healthy society one which is full of such individuals?

I like to imagine a healthy society as one where individuals are truly understood and accepted as they are, limitations included, rather than perceived and treated as a threat. I also like to believe that such a society is possible, though extremely remote that anyone now living will see it occur.

AY: How do works like The Crackling and The Nazca Transmissions—which to me seem more exploratory than insploratory—function to realize something about your inner self?

JD: The Crackling, at least for me, is about the cycle of existence of a single electron: formation, movement, propelled and accelerated by an external force, freed of it, caught and propelled by another to sudden annihilating decomposition giving immediate rise to another, changed formation. A spiraling process that continues, open-ended. A metaphor for the life process in general, at whatever scale: subatomic, cosmic, everything in between.

The Nazca Transmissions is all about mystery and letting go of it. Where do the sources come from? What are they, exactly? The person who provided them, going by the name Anton Düder, suddenly went silent and vanished. Did he really exist, or was this a hoax. Listening to the tracks, none of these details matter – the music either speaks to you or it doesn’t. Significance and order are imposed on it by each listener.

AY: I’ve been listening a great deal to your earliest cassette and LP releases and am impressed by how – I think you’ll understand me – how listenable they are. Riot, for example, far from being unlistenable, as you intended, is very rich and easy to lose myself in. Maybe even beautiful. I might say the same for Dark Market Broadcast. Do you think these works have become more understandable somehow as time has passed – a patina effect?

JD: Absolutely. In those terms Riot is a complete failure and I’m delighted about that.

AY: Why did you use the pseudonym CV Massage at certain times? What does it mean?

JD: CV is a medical acronym for cardiovascular. At the time I had in mind the homosexual myth that a hand could be pushed far enough up through the rectum to massage the heart.

AY: AQM released several mysterious cassettes during your years in Japan. Who are Hisako Horikawa, O’Nancy in French, and Toshiji Mikawa? Will these Radio Code recordings ever be available again in some form?

JD: I hope so. Hisako Horikawa is a Butoh dancer; we last met when she performed with guitarist Derek Bailey. O’Nancy in French was a duo of Yasunori Taniguchi and Katsu Mizumachi, who created delicate, controlled feedback with steel barrels. Toshiji Mikawa is a member of the noise duo Incapacitants.

AY: Your esteemed high school art teacher, Betty Dickerson, also taught David Salle and Tom Otterness. Did the three of you in fact know each other in school?

JD: Yes, we all studied together. They were both a year ahead of me. A couple of times we spoke or spent time together, especially after they both came back to Wichita on short visits. David suggested attending CalArts. Tom was very quiet and shy.

AY: How did you get involved with LAFMS and what are some of your memories of its affiliates, like Joe Potts, Rick Potts, Chip Chapman, Tom Recchion, the Doo-Dooettes, etc.?

JD: Harold Schroeder and I were driving school buses. He introduced me to Tom Recchion, who introduced me to everyone else.

The one thing that each of the members of LAFMS has in common is unusually high intelligence. Chip Chapman got a summer job of keeping the CalTech computer lab open. While sitting there, he decided to see what would happen if he connected all of the Apple tabletop computers together. This parallel-processing experiment turned out to be faster than CalTech’s prized Cray supercomputer and landed Chip in the director’s chair until he retired. Tom got a part-time job doing illustrations and layout for a gay magazine, which he evolved into becoming head of the art departments of Warner Brothers Records and later EMI, where he is today. Fredrik Nilsen was a nurse working in the local hospital with a dream of becoming a professional photographer. For decades now he has had his own studio with regular assistants, stellar clients and almost more work than he can handle. Joe Potts went to Japan and showed his autopsy-photo collages in a Tokyo art gallery years before anyone else even considered making the trip. He sent a copy of my first LP Organic to Takuya Sakaguchi, who responded to it with a long letter in English that he had clearly struggled to write and opened a very close friendship that still continues as strongly as ever. Such stories can be told for every member of LAFMS.

Doug Henry is a largely unsung participant, with steady support of LAFMS for decades, including a documentary film he’s working on where he gives extensive interviews of just about everyone involved. Doug is a good artist himself — my favorite work of his is a heavy framed block of glass that he insists on using as an ashtray. “Art should be utilitarian as well”, says Doug.  He seems satisfied to make the work, whether or not anyone else sees it.

Joe Potts‘ paintings are also largely unknown, a type of wall sculpture with several painted canvases fastened together at skewed angles, moments of several planes of existence converging, as he puts it. His shyness is chronic, almost to the point of the pathological, preferring to leave it largely unknown that he is the one who formed Extended Organ as well as Airway.

Harold Schroeder and I lost contact when I quit driving a city bus, the job he and I had both transferred to from driving school buses. He had been talking about investing in rare minerals and had been doing drugs whose names were a mystery. So when he showed up thirty years later, for the LAFMS opening at The Box, everyone was glad to see him and a bit surprised he is still alive.

Chip Chapman told me that the title of the Le Forte Four LP Spin ‘n’ Grin came from the Potts brothers’ mother, who got it from the name of a kitchen drain appliance sold at their hardware store. Chip’s canary yellow Volkswagen Beetle with the clear plexiglas bubble mounted on the roof was instantly recognizable on the freeway. Chip now lives in the Hurricane, Utah desert where he puts his brilliance to effect in gardening, cooking, local alternative cultural events and a study of the history of the development of nuclear weapons. He and Susan Farthing Chapman are still happily together, one of the few couples I know who have managed that.

Leslie Pollock starred in the 8mm film It’s Halloween! before she and I got together for a short time. Leslie has always been adventurous, enthusiastic, up for discovering the unknown — especially if it’s generally frowned-upon.  She ‘sang’ so loudly during sex that my neighbors, worrying about her safety, wondered at first whether or not to call the police. Our paths crossed again once in Tokyo, where she gave me an audio cassette of some of the best Brasilian pop music I’ve heard, and several months ago on Facebook.  Leslie is now studying gourmet cooking and models sado-masochistic hardware for an internet sex-toys feature in Los Angeles.

Tom Recchion and Fredrik Nilsen have always had a penchant for strange objects found at garage sales. They both have daunting collections, especially Tom who has an entire house to himself to display it all — Fredrik gives space to his kids.  Tom also has a passion for cats — I remember he would let them roam all over the tiny bungalow he lived in and spray his artwork, which turned me against having cats anywhere near mine.

Vetza has always fascinated me, with a voice and willingness to explore it that easily equals Yoko Ono. She has worked for decades in Spanish-speaking television and theater, as well as conducting workshops for voice. Onstage, she actually makes me feel welcome. Everyone else there says ‘OK, sure, set up over there somewhere, do whatever’; she says ‘Come on, join me here, let’s have some fun!’

AY: What do you remember about your time with Allan Kaprow? What was he like as a person?

JD: Allan was always very gentle, gracious, generous with his time even under pressure. He treated his students as equals, which has had a much more lasting effect than I realized at the time.

AY: You’ve mentioned Carlo Gesualdo’s work as influential on your own. Would that be his chromatic language or his work as a murderer? Presuming the former: many composers have used chromatic scales and various languages of color in compositional practice. Arne Nordheim comes to mind. What was or is it about Gesualdo specifically that inspires you?

JD: Arne Nordheim is another influence… In Gesualdo’s case, I think it’s pointless to consider his music and personal life as separate. The choices made in the presentation of choral concerts, as well as in the music itself, reflect a man who was in extreme psychic conflict. That conflict is what I find interesting.

AY: What have you learned from your researches about the purpose, or lack thereof, of life on earth? Inasmuch as an electron is a metaphor for life, what lies beyond the death of the body?

JD: You tell me…

‘Purpose’ is a very personal thing defined and decided by each of us.  Living to make money, living for the kids, to gain power of various kinds, to enjoy being alive, whatever. Mine is to learn as much as I can in the time I have left. It drives us to put energy into our lives, which in turn gives energy to the system, if you will, that we all live in. Death is another way of giving energy; the cycle is endless and open. I like to think of it as a spiral moving upward or forward.

At the same time, this image is linear and does nothing to explain why, with no knowledge of a place or its past, I have suddenly felt physical pressure at the site of a crime committed centuries ago or discovered that I know obscure details of a building that I’d never seen, read or heard about. Why EVP recordings made at the place where I grew up include my name in them.  It says nothing about where such experiences, all as real as the touch of the keyboard I’m using, fit into the mesh of existence.

AY: According to Takuya Sakaguchi, you collaborated with Masami Akita, Keiji Haino and Hijokaidan. Is this true? If so, what can you recollect about these times?

JD: True. Masami and I played together a couple of times, once at a place called Strange Fruits in Tsurumaki Onsen well outside Tokyo that was packed SRO with an audience of ten people, another at a large hall in Shibuya. In Shibuya I performed Kick nude in front of several hundred witnesses; Masami performed alone – as I remember, at least – with a large video projection behind him.

Haino and I played together once at the rehearsal studio he usually rented and once live, I believe in Kichijoji. Haino let me play for about ten seconds before blasting over it with an endless solo.

Hijokaidan and I played together once in my house and once at La Mama live house in Shibuya. My part was to start things off, then fill up the place with stage smoke from behind the audience until no one onstage could see what they were doing.

AY: If you had never performed Blind Date, where do you think you would be today?

JD: Less informed, by at least an order of magnitude.

AY: When you performed it, did you have any notion it would turn your life upside down and that you would still be talking about it thirty+ years later?

JD: No. I thought my friends and the people I cared most about would understand and appreciate it, as they had with everything else I’d done up to then. I suppose a few of them do by now – if not the work itself then at least what I’ve dealt with since in my personal life because of it.

AY: Much of your work seems to function quite well without an audience. Why bother with one at all? Perhaps because, as in science, you hope someone out there will take the research in their own direction?

JD:  Oh yes, please. I always hope others will focus on the content of the work, rather than the tools it is made with, and take it as far as possible.

AY: You’ve described The Error as, ‘a book that invokes a logic unique to each reader, that to seek a universally applicable rationality always fails to account for some level of consciousness. To render the steps for getting there hidden and secret, by printing the entire text in black on heavy black paper, that have to be read by moving the page until the letters are reflected enough to recognize them.’ It sounds very interesting, but since there are only ten copies of The Error, it is unlikely I will ever see, much less own, one. Will you every print this again?

JD: Do you know a publisher who would like to?

AY: What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you?

JD: I’m still waiting to see.



  1. Chip Chapman says:

    My friend John has embellished my involvement in early parallel computing activities at Caltech to the point that I must correct his memory. I was involved with research in parallel computing going back to 1983 in Prof. Geoffrey Fox’s group, but that role was technical and supportive of the scientific staff. Over the years, I helped produce workshops and conferences, research exhibits and tutorials, as well as audio and video recordings. I also went from managing the educational computing project in the 1980’s to the campus parallel systems and high performance computing facilities beginning in 90’s before retiring in 2010. I’m currently working on new sound pieces at my studio in Hurricane.

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