Generator Returns ( briefly )
From August 4- September 1, 2013 Gen Ken Montgomery briefly reopened his Generator store and performance space in NYC. Below, is the comments he made when re-opening:
black and white photo by wowe
GENERATOR at AVA
August 4 – September 1, 2013
Open hours: Friday-Sunday, 12-6pm
34 East 1st Street
I’ll be there every Saturday and Sunday in August. Stop by for some cultural history and great listening.
Generator is the brainchild of New York based artist Gen Ken Montgomery. Known as “New York’s first sound art gallery”, Generator existed in the East Village and then Chelsea from 1989-1992. Content (cassettes, records, art, lamination, etc) from the original Generator will exist in Audio Visual Arts over the course of the this show. Gen Ken Montgomery will be holding down the shop each Saturday and Sunday through September 1. Content will be available for purchase, performances will take place, sounds will be heard.
Saturday, August 17
Jeanne Liotta & If, Bwana aka Al Margolis
Jeanne Liotta – Bees & Ears (16mm film)
“To inspire ambition, to stimulate the imagination, to provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style, and thus lead into broader fields of knowledge – such is the purpose of this work”. Jeanne has always been just right around the corner from Generator. If, Bwana (Al Margolis) will be joined by longtime Bwanettes Dan and Detta Andreana for a 3 synth set. Al Margolis has been active under the name If, Bwana since 1984, ran the Sound of Pig cassette label and continues to run Pogus. Al Margolis performed at Generator on June 24 & July 29, 1989 and Decemeber 9, 1990
Saturday, August 24 6pm
Sean Meehan & Gen Ken Montgomery
Sean Meehan will ‘read’ from Hermann von Helmholtz’s master tome On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, as well as his own Field Recordings Vol 3, and Audio. Gen Ken Montgomery will perform an octophonic Cassette Concert with analog synth accompaniment composed in Berlin, 1989.
Audio Drama + Radio Art Listening Hour
Sundays (August 11, 18, 25), 12-1pm
A rare opportunity to listen to master storytellers/audio artists in an intimate setting. All sessions are at AVA.
August 11 – Gregory Whitehead: Bugs
“I embraced analog broadcast radio as my ideal creative home because the airwaves seemed to vibrate with the same qualities I sought to capture in my own plays, and in my own thinking: indeterminacy, fragility of signal, random access, tension between public and private, ambiguous borders, modulating rhythms, complex polyphony, and a pulse rate set by a wild heart.”
August 18 – Rod Summers/VEC: Helgisaga III
Helisaga III has to be heard to be understood. IHelgisaga is a poetic rollercoaster ride through known and unknown cosmos. Rod has been playing and working with sound since the early 60s and he is a living master.
August 25 – Willem De Ridder: Snuff
Master story teller, the Fluxus chairman for Northern Europe, founder of The Mood Engineering Society and Chemix Radio. De Ridder will put a spell on you.
check the AVA website
Dedicated to Conrad Schnitzler (1937- 2011) – the fuel behind the Generator.
It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to cave a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.
— Henry David Thoreau
A History of the Generator Sound Art Gallery Adam Krause
Maybe you have some questions. Maybe you’re asking yourself, “Just what was the Generator Sound Art Gallery, and why was it so special that someone would want to recreate it in an art gallery more than twenty years after it closed?” It’s OK. You can ask that. And luckily, there are answers.
To answer your questions, we’ll need to go all the way back to 1962, when Philips introduced the cassette. Then we’ll need to jump ahead to the early 1980s, when the advent of the first affordable devices for home recording and cassette duplication made the so-called “Cassette Culture” possible — perhaps the first truly autonomous musical movement to appear after the invention of recorded music. In the cassette culture, home-recorded, hand-packaged, and self- distributed cassettes were circulated through nebulous networks created and maintained by means of personal contact lists and fanzines. Tapes were traded more often than they were sold. It was an underground of obscure artists making and sharing music for the sheer joy of it.
This network of largely unknown artists was a wonderfully confusing mess, which, however wonderful it was, remained a confusing mess. Perfect musical matches stayed perfect strangers because they moved in different circles. And in order to enter any of these circles, one would need to know that there even were circles to enter in the first place. Cassette culture was unknown to all but the initiated few. While this enhanced its mystique, countless potential cassette artists never made a single cassette because they didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “cassette artist.”
Gen Ken Montgomery created the Generator Sound Art Gallery, in part, to add structure to this nebulousness, and to make cassette culture more widely known and available. With Generator, Montgomery established a centralized location where the cassette artists he had connected with through mail, fanzines, and travel could perform and sell their work. At the same time, by opening a space for this purpose in his own neighborhood, he was able to use the works of these often international artists to engage with and strengthen his own local scene.
John Cage’s music and ideas were instrumental in putting Montgomery on the path toward opening Generator. When he was seventeen, Montgomery took a job shelving books at the local community college library. One day, in the stillness of the shelves, he noticed the word Silence printed along the spine of a book. It was John Cage’s first collection of essays, originally published in 1961. Montgomery pulled it out, started reading it, had his mind blown, and has yet
to return it. Reading Cage’s essays, in particular the “Lecture on Nothing,” Montgomery became conscious of listening to the sounds of everyday life as if they were music.
It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.
— John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing”
When he found Silence, Montgomery had already been listening to, “and liking, the most far out music [he] could find.” But, he states, “Silence got me to listen even more.” In fact, Cage’s book got him to listen to everything as music. “The effect that had on me was profound,” he says. “That’s something I carried with me for the rest of my life.” When he moved to New York City, he was able to appreciate the various sounds of urban living that many find obnoxious. The screeching subway, constant traffic, incessant car horns, and the other ordinarily off-putting noises and hums of the city were transformed from nuisances best ignored into fascinating sounds worthy of attention.
Montgomery moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1978 and entered film school, but his obsession with sound tended to dominate his projects. Though ostensibly working on films, he “would completely obsess with the soundtrack.” Around this time, Montgomery met the electronic musician Charles Cohen. Cohen suggested that Montgomery forget about films entirely and simply compose music. As Montgomery recalls, “I was like, ‘Yeah, but I don’t know music.’ [Cohen] just smiles and says, ‘You don’t need to.’” Thus inspired, Montgomery started experimenting and recording. In the early 1980s, he also attempted to join a few post- punk bands. But it turned out that Montgomery’s intuitive approach to sound and noise-making clashed with the expectations of more conventional musicians. Or, as he says, “They couldn’t understand that I didn’t know the notes.” So, bereft of band mates, he recorded a solo cassette called Gen Ken and the Equipment with just himself and, as the title implies, his equipment.
That cassette, Montgomery says, “became my ticket to correspondence. Once I made Gen Ken and the Equipment, I started mailing it to people.” He was thus able to join the cassette underground. “These relationships,” claims Montgomery, “became the most important relationships in my life.” Of particular significance was his friendship with the Berlin artist Conrad Schnitzler. A former student of Joseph Beuys, Schnitzler had initially been a performance artist and sculptor, but had abandoned visual art in order to devote himself entirely to sound. And he quite literally abandoned visual art, leaving all his sculptures in a field one day. An early member of Tangerine Dream and a founding member of Kluster, Schnitzler was also a prolific solo artist. He had printed his address on the back of one of his records, and Montgomery sent him a cassette. In turn, Schnitzler invited Montgomery to send a track to be included on a compilation LP called International Friendship. Schnitzler and Montgomery, along with David Prescott from Boston, soon started a record/cassette label focusing on the various artists they had come into contact with through the post. The label, Generations Unlimited, further expanded Montgomery’s contacts and relationships. Their first LP bore the rather appropriate title of No Borders.
The relationships that arose from Generations Unlimited, as well as sending recordings to other artists overseas and PEOPLExpress $99 flights to Brussels provided Montgomery with the opportunity to spend time in Europe. It was there that he envisioned a space in New York City
for the music he was involved in. “There were,” Montgomery recalls, “scenes I was connecting with in Europe that I found missing in New York.” He was impressed by record stores carrying artist-produced records and cassettes like Staalplaat in Amsterdam, and Gelbe Musik, Zensor Records, and Scheissladen in Germany. His time in Berlin with Schnitzler, “who constantly threw out a million ideas every time we sat down at the table,” also contributed to the formation of the idea to create a place where their friends’ music could be heard and bought.
The exact details of this proposed place were still undetermined even after Montgomery had returned to New York and begun work on it. As he states, “I was still coming up with the name for Generator after I had signed the lease.” In many ways, however, the exact nature of Generator is still undetermined, or at least, very hard to pin down. It was a record store where many of the records were not for sale, an art gallery devoted to sound, a musical venue, and an info-shop for the cassette underground. It was each of these things, but not reducible to any of them. Moreover, its nature changed and evolved throughout its existence. One of Montgomery’s earliest statements on Generator claims: “Generator is a public experiment begun on June 1, 1989, to expose a world of international sound art to new audiences who wouldn’t have otherwise known that this underground network existed, and to provide a meeting point for the people already attracted to this international network that has previously remained accessible only by post. […] It’s about everything small and everything New York is not. Small editions by unfamous artists. […] Come hear the modern folk artists.” Generator, like any experiment worthy of the name, did not have a predetermined goal, but rather, sought to discover something new and unforeseen.
Montgomery thought of Generator “as turning [his] apartment inside out.” All the things he had previously done at home would be moved to a storefront where anyone could walk in off the street and see what was happening. He listened to music, kept up correspondence, and basically continued to partake in the cassette underground. The only difference was that he was doing these things in an open storefront rather than in his apartment.
But beyond that basic first step, he remained open to its evolution and development. “It was kind of beyond me,” he claims. “That’s why I can’t take credit for Generator’s success. What happened at Generator was an accumulation of many generous people who sent me their music, ideas, and support. There was an openness to create a space for something to happen. And in that space, lots of things happened that I couldn’t have predicted.”
The first incarnation of Generator, located at 200 East 3rd Street, existed from June 1989 until June 1990. As Montgomery describes it: “I had cassettes hung by Velcro all over the walls, a small bin filled with records, fanzines and fliers, and small cassette players attached to the walls so people could come in and preview cassettes. There was also a cassette recorder on the front door and one in the toilet for people to record anonymous sounds. I had a small but powerful PA for concerts. People would crowd in or stand outside in the street to listen because of how small the space was.”
The musicians associated with Generator bridge the aesthetic divide between the modern classical tradition represented by John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, and their ilk, and the world of DIY punk rock, industrial music, and straight-up noise. As Montgomery summarizes: “A lot of the music coming through the cassette network was made with primitive toys from Radio Shack, self-made instruments, or modified instruments, the Casio VL Tone,
synthesizers, cheap drum boxes and anything they could find that made noise – even amplified household appliances. It was very much using what you’ve got. You didn’t have to buy expensive equipment or go to a recording studio to record your ideas. You were in total control of your own sound. You could be spontaneous by sending cassettes in the mail to fanzines and other artists. You could reach your audience immediately and directly. It was a world of folk- noise. […] You wanted to share it with anybody who might appreciate it.”
This folk element to the cassette underground was very important to Montgomery. As he states, “I was much more excited about someone sending me a cassette from a small town in Texas who didn’t care about a recording contract with a record label, who was obviously doing it because he loved doing it.”
By creating a space for such artists in New York City, Montgomery met many local artists involved in cassette culture that he had not previously known. Before Generator, he had created musical contacts all over the world, but few in his own community, except Al Margolis and David Myers. Myers (aka Arcane Device) was an artist who designed Generator’s logo and built the record bins. For the most part, “there weren’t many cassettes coming from New York City. They came from all over the U.S. and even from Spain, Holland, Japan, France, and Russia to name a few. So I kind of had this vague feeling that I was missing out on something in my own town. Part of the idea of why I called it an experiment was I wanted to find out whether or not there were more people like me interested in my kind of underground music in New York City. […] I thought if maybe there was a place to go, I’d meet like-minded people.”
Although the majority of his contacts still came from out of town, Generator certainly did manage to become a social locus where Montgomery was able to meet like-minded locals. Al Margolis, who ran the cassette label Sound of Pig, Carl Howard of Audiophile Tapes, Matty Jankowski who founded Circle Arts and The Body Archive, Shalom at Fusion Arts, Mariano Airialdi at XFH (X-Funeral Home), and Geoff Dugan, who now runs GD Stereo, were among the new local contacts Montgomery met because of Generator. He also got to know a number of DJs from the legendary free-form radio station WFMU, including Fabio Roberti, Dave Mandle, Your Host Bobby, William Burger, and Tony Coulter. There were also local sound and noise musicians like Donald Miller of Borbetomagus, Tom Hamilton, and Istvan Kantor (aka Monty Kantsin) who all made Montgomery’s acquaintance because of Generator.
Montgomery was also able to use Generator to collaborate and cross-pollinate with a number of like-minded art and music collectives in the neighborhood such as Gargoyle Mechanique Laboratory, The Gas Station, XFH and Webo. Generator also regularly hosted a still extant network of improvisers called A Mica Bunker. In other words, the space quickly became an integral piece of the local arts community.
Generator also attracted curious newcomers who (often quite literally) just walked in off the street with no idea what they were stepping into. As Montgomery states, “As well as people who were already making noise and music, there were people who just got into the spirit and started doing their own thing after seeing there was an accessible venue for their creativity.”
As Al Margolis says, “It really was important, for various reasons, but just as a meeting place and support system it was great.” He further elaborates: “Generator was the place to be early every Saturday evening during its existence. There was always a really interesting live
performance or sound event, so that if at all possible one had to go. […] So cassette folks, noisemakers, et cetera, what in those days was a relatively small community of sound/noise/experimental music makers and listeners could actually hear what they were interested in and actually just meet up week in and week out.” Among the artists who performed at Generator were Conrad Schnitzler, Phauss, Zbigniew Karkowski, Benoit Maubrey, Nic Collins, Tom Hamilton, Thomas Dimuzio, Adam Bohman, Merzbow, Zoviet France, Illusion of Safety, and many, many more.
But the very things that made Generator special also made it economically unviable. As Fabio Roberti points out, “Ken’s business model wasn’t exactly one geared toward making a lot of money. On the contrary, I didn’t have much optimism for the long-term survival of the first Generator (or the second one for that matter). Still I loved what it represented – the total immersion and support for sound-art and audio forms that had little or no interest from the mainstream, and it attempted to do this with almost no outside financial support.” During the entire year Generator was on the Lower East Side, Montgomery worked at a busy photo lab in midtown from early in the morning until two in the afternoon, and then stopped at the post office before going to Generator from three until midnight.
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the monetary burden became too much, and rather than turn the space into a more financially promising, but personally unpalatable entity that might support itself, Montgomery decided to abandon the project. He still had numerous contacts looking to set up performances, so for a year or so, he organized concerts at other venues including “Generator at Webo” and “Structured Noise From The Generator” at Roulette.
Soon, however, some friends urged him to revive Generator and offered him an affordable loft space on Chelsea’s West Side. This incarnation, located at 547 West 20th Street, existed from June 1991 until June 1992. It was different from the East Village location in several respects. It was in a loft, on a third floor, in a neighborhood with almost no foot traffic. There was a women’s prison across the street and an after-hours S&M bar on the corner. Everything else was industrial. People would have to know about it and make a special trip. There would be no more curious strangers stumbling into Generator. The opening hours were less extensive, and while the archive of cassettes and other recordings was housed there, selling things was hardly the focus. This second incarnation of Generator focused primarily on sound installations and immersive performances, exhibiting artists such as Paul Panhuysen, Gordon Monahan, Ron Kuivila, and Ken Butler, among many others.
This increased focus on installations arose, in part, out of the experiment that was the first Generator. As Montgomery recalls, “When I first opened the storefront in the East Village, there weren’t really any sound installations. […] Three or four months later I had the first sound installation by Chop Shop, aka Scott Konzelmann. In the tiny, decrepit basement, Konzelmann installed Furnace Plate, a 200-pound piece of rusted metal with a 16-inch speaker welded into it. Its sound was a physical experience like sitting next to a jet engine. Upstairs he had five or six other speaker constructions all running simultaneously throughout Generator’s open hours.” This initial installation helped direct Montgomery’s interest more toward immersive sonic environments, leading to the much more installation-focused second incarnation of Generator.
While some remember the first incarnation of Generator much more fondly, like when Al Margolis points out, “The original Generator, more so than the second one, still resonates,” the
Generator in Chelsea definitely had its charms. For instance, GX Jupitter-Larsen of the Haters remembers it as an especially wonderful performance space. “Every time I performed at the Generator in Chelsea, I used the freight elevator as a stage. I like elevators, and Generator’s was a classic. Made for a handsome performance space. It was also the Generator in Chelsea where I did my first performance using amplified hand-held hole-punches. The clici-clic as I called it. Sound wise, it’s still my favorite New York show of mine.”
It was also at the Generator in Chelsea that Montgomery received an unexpected phone call from John Cage. Montgomery had lent out the copy of Silence he had permanently borrowed (but eventually paid for) from the library, and had completely forgotten about it. He ran into an acquaintance on the street, who mentioned that she had a book of his that she needed to return. Montgomery claims that “When I got the book back, it was like a long lost child returning. I realized how much Cage’s ideas and spirit had been indelibly imprinted into the DNA of Generator.” It was just a few days later when the phone at Generator rang with the unmistakable voice of John Cage on the other end. Someone had told him about Generator and he wanted to check it out. He paid a visit, and then invited Montgomery over to his house, where Cage introduced Montgomery to his friends by saying something to the effect of, ‘This young man has made an art gallery just for sound. Isn’t that amazing?’
With both versions of Generator, Montgomery sought to provide a place for artists who slip through the cracks: musicians too experimental for the music business, but too noisy and rough for the art world. The cassette-based artists who fell through the cracks and landed at Generator prove that it is possible to forge a free space beyond the marketplace and the museum, a space where interesting things can happen that don’t need to fall within the confines of any given parameters. Folk-noise artists releasing small editions, doing it their own way, without the permission or blessing of the culture industry. It was, and is, a beautiful thing.
So maybe that answers some of your questions. If you have any more, you might want to come down to Audio Visual Arts this month (August 2013) to see the reignited Generator. Tapes, records, zines, ephemera, and maybe even a lamination or two will be on display. Gen Ken Montgomery will be present each Saturday and Sunday. There will be performances, including octophonic cassette concerts composed by the late Conrad Schnitzler.
For more information about Gen Ken Montgomery, visit www.genkenmontgomery.com, www.generatorsoundart.org, or www.MinistryofLamination.com.
Adam Krause is the author of Art as Politics and The Revolution Will Be Hilarious (New Compass Press, 2011 and 2013).
An earlier version of this essay appeared in “Signal to Noise,” Issue 64.