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Noise Ecstasy

Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

At approximately 5 a.m. on September 9, Gary Todd, 38, founder of the Malibu-based Cortical Foundation and its record label, Organ of Corti, fell from a third-story balcony at a friend’s home. Rushed to UCLA Medical Center, he underwent brain surgery for eight and a half hours. He remains in a coma and is listed in critical condition at UCLA, where he’s watched over by friends and relatives who pray that Gary can hear their words of encouragement and comfort. This article was written a few months ago, when Gary was working hard to complete several new Cortical releases before embarking on a much-anticipated trip to Vienna. It offers a glimpse into the atmosphere of feverish artistic activity that Gary’s life was, and, we all hope, will soon be again.

An ecstatic clangor of church bells joined by a cacophonous blast of trumpets bounces off the high-ceilinged walls of Gary Todd’s mixing studio, discreetly tucked away in an old storefront building on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. It’s midnight, the ocean’s only a few yards out there, and I’m taking in the gratifying wall of art and music books crammed floor-to-ceiling in this, Todd’s one-man creative hothouse — the headquarters of his uncompromisingly avant-garde record label, Organ of Corti, and the Cortical Foundation.

Sitting at the mixing board, Gary gets out of his soft chair and swivels it around. “Why don’t you have a seat here and listen?”

As I lean close to the speakers and take in the pealing blast, Todd hands me a freshly minted copy of the gatefold cover for the new Cortical release we’re listening to — a limited-edition vinyl LP plus CD-ROM of Austrian composer/artist Hermann Nitsch’s Orgies Mysteries Theater, a six-day-long ritualistic bacchanal drenched in music, “noise ecstasy,” bull sacrifice and crucifixions. The album’s cover is a gorgeous color portrait of a young Germanic woman beaming beatifically, her face covered in a watery red mess that Todd informs me is a mixture of “tomatoes, blood, grapes and water.” Both Todd and photographer Fredrik Nilsen went to the composer’s castle in Prinzendorf, Austria, in August of ’98 to record the event in sound, video and photographs, but it occurs to me that those who might be put off by the idea of bull sacrifices and stomping on animal intestines to achieve Dionysian ecstasy can enjoy Nitsch’s fascinating, Teutonically severe music without lingering too long on the spattered goings-on depicted in Nilsen’s photos. I have a feeling, though, that for Todd that would be lame.

“A lot of people seem to react to it in some kind of cowardly way,” he says. “I very rarely meet anybody who understands the depth of the work. But this is what I’ve been immersed in for the last year, just reading and reading, ’cause I want to represent what he’s really about.” He mentions Friedrich Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy as a helpful guide to the composer’s Greek-myth-informed Gesamtkunstwerk.

Leaving the room, he returns with a stack of recent Cortical releases by major avant-garde composers such as Terry Riley (You’re Nogood — an early-’60s tape experiment in which a catchy Motown-ish tune gets phase-shifted and looped beyond recognition), John Cage (the first-ever CD issue of The City Wears a Slouch Hat, a 1942 CBS radio drama featuring Cage’s spooky percussion- orchestra mood music), and Charlemagne Palestine (Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone, a pipe-organ recital performed by the pioneer minimalist composer at the Hollywood Methodist Church in ’98 as part of the Beyond the Pink festival, a citywide, 13-day cluster of experimental music and performance initiated by Todd).

It might sound corny to use the word mission to describe Gary Todd’s tireless one-man cultural enterprise, but that’s what it is; hence the persistence with which he’s managed to track down aging reels of magnetic tape containing historically important works of experimental music, some of which had never even been heard. The most spectacular example of this was when Todd’s inquiries to Terry Riley — about some early pieces he’d only read about — ultimately resulted in the discovery of long-buried tapes, including The Gift, a prototype tape-loop piece from 1963 with jazzman Chet Baker (!) and a precursor to the more famous In C. “They’d been down in his barn for 15 years in this garbage can. They were on their way to the dump, essentially.” (They’re now on Organ of Corti.)

In his quiet but intense voice, Todd distills all of the hard work, enthusiasm and excitement of discovery to a simple goal: “To get this material out there.”

Before I finally leave at 6 a.m., a notion in my head sharpens into an awkward question, and I ask it: “Gary, since you’re always working on such fascinating stuff, are you in a kind of constant low-level euphoria?” He looks away and gives some kind of lateral response, but later says he likes the question.


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