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25 Years of UbuWeb, the Internet’s Best Kept Secret

Written By: 
E. Little
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A few selections from our favorite online archive of art, music, film, and all things esoteric.

Though you’ve likely stumbled across a post or two from UbuWeb during one of your internet excursions or referenced the site during college courses, perhaps it’s a good time to devote solid, focused energy on absorbing the profoundly deep lessons buried in the crucial online archive of art, music, film, literature and esoteric ephemera. 

This year marks UbuWeb’s 25th anniversary, but don’t expect a social media blitz, a plea for funding or a major web redesign. Defiantly utilitarian, it operates as a crucial resource while openly acknowledging in its About essay that its archive contains copyright-infringing content: “By the letter of the law, the site is questionable; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted. We’ve never been sued—never even come close.” 

But — and it’s a huge, stress-inducing but — the site makes no promises to be a forever resource. Notes the anonymous writer of the essay: 

By the time you read this, UbuWeb may be gone. Never meant to be a permanent archive, Ubu could vanish for any number of reasons: our internet service provider (ISP) pulls the plug, we get sued, or we simply grow tired of it. Beggars can’t be choosers, and we gladly take whatever is offered to us. We don’t run on the most stable of servers or on the swiftest of machines; crashes eat into the archive on a periodic basis; sometimes the site as a whole goes down for days; more often than not, the already small group of volunteers dwindles to a team of one. But that’s the beauty of it: UbuWeb is vociferously anti-institutional, eminently fluid, refusing to bow to demands other than what we happen to be moved by at a specific moment, allowing us flexibility and the ability to continually surprise even ourselves.

Surprises? You’ll find one with each visit, notes UbuWeb in the luminously outlined overview below:

The site is filled with the detritus and ephemera of great artists better known for other things—the music of Jean Dubuffet, the poetry of Dan Graham, the hip-hop of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the punk rock of Martin Kippenberger, the films of John Lennon, the radio plays of Ulrike Meinhof, the symphonies of Hanne Darboven, the country music of Julian Schnabel—most of which were originally put out in tiny editions, were critically ignored, and quickly vanished. However, the web provides the perfect place to restage these works. With video, sound, and text remaining more faithful to the original experience than, say, painting or sculpture, Ubu proposes a different sort of revisionist art history based on the peripheries of artistic production rather than on the perceived, hyped, or market-based center. 

In honor of its profound contributions to the spread of art and ideas, below are five doors that will lead you into UbuWeb’s wild and wonderful house of esoterica. You can browse the entire sound archive here.

Arthur Russell – Terrace of Unintelligibility; Some Imaginary Far Away Type Things/AKA Lost in the Meshes

https://www.ubu.com/film/russell.html

Those who have seen the killer 2008 Arthur Russell documentary “Wild Combination” will recognize this footage, which features the late Iowa-born minimalist genius as documented by his collaborator Phil Niblock. Both Terrace of Unintelligibility and Some Imaginary Far Away Type Things/AKA Lost in the Meshes were filmed in 1985, and the combined 50 minutes of footage underscores the depth of Russell’s muse.

RRRecords – 500 Locked Grooves (1998)

https://www.ubu.com/sound/rrr-records.html

Released as an LP by the lauded Massachusetts noise label RRRecords, the 500 Locked Grooves album features just that: 500 locked, looping grooves. If you’ve never seen a locked-groove record, unlike your average slab of vinyl, into which a single continual groove containing all of the album side’s music moves in a spiral from outside to inside, locked grooves are etched circles that don’t progress. So theoretically, you could listen to this album forever.

For this UbuWeb version, some kind digitizer has patiently documented, in order, snippets of all 500 loops. Contributors to the album include New Zealand guitarist Bruce Russell, Japanese noise artist Maso Yamazaki (Masonna), Sonic Youth, Terry Riley, Deerhoof, comedian Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger), brilliant sound artist Ryoji Ikeda and hundreds more.    

Delia Derbyshire’s electronic experiments and compositions

https://www.ubu.com/sound/derbyshire.html

The influential BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer has been the subject of a few crucial reissue campaigns, but a lot of Derbyshire’s most illuminating work on synthesizers starting in the 1950s is available to hear and download on UbuWeb. For example, Electrosonic, her mesmerizing KPM Library record from 1972, is yours for the taking. 

Pauline Oliveros’ various sound experiments

https://www.ubu.com/sound/oliveros.html

The brilliant music theorist, composer and educator Pauliine Oliveros coined the term “deep listening,” and with it brought new theories on listening and inventive experiments in sound as it lives in the real world. For “Alien Bog,” a 1975 excerpt of a longer work included on UbuWeb, she tapped a synth used by her friend Don Buchla. Notes UbuWeb: “In August, 1967, at the Mills Tape Music Center using the Buchla prototype 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System. It was part of a series of ‘Bog’ pieces inspired by listening to the frogs and creatures in the pond just outside the studio window at Mills. Alien Bog was premiered during a twelve-hour Tape-a-thon Concert of Oliveros works presented by Ronald Chase in his Embarcadero studio in August, 1967.”

Stereolab and Charles Long, “Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center (1995)

https://www.ubu.com/sound/stereolab.html

This hidden gem in Stereolab’s discography features some of the group’s most meditative work. Per UbuWeb: 

A collaboration between Stereolab and the New York Sculptor Charles Long. Stereolab provided the music for sculptures made by Charles Long. All of the sculptures were exhibited in New York and were offered for sale as were 1500 “first edition” copies of the CD. Charles also made a limited edition of “Amorphous Babies”. Each sculpture / Amorphous Baby was sold with a CD and the balance of the CDs were sold at the gallery and a few shops. The album was initially available only at the exhibit in a pressing of 1500; another limited pressing was later released to stores but it is now out of print. The tracks were included in the collection Aluminum Tunes: Switched On, Vol. 3.

Released in the period between the release of their back-to-back classics “Mars Audiac Quintet” and “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” the EP is available on major streaming services as part of Aluminum Tunes, but UbuWeb has a downloadable copy. 

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