State of the Arts: Cairn Desk releases book albums

BOOK ARTS: Collaborators, from left, Alec Sturgis, Shane Parish and David Grubba. Photo courtesy of Cairn Desk

CDs are on their way out. For some music fans, they’ve been dead for years.

As downloading and digital streaming continue to consume the music industry, more and more artists and boutique producers are embracing that transition by turning to alternative means of  preserving the physicality of the album. Vinyl records have come back in a big way. Cassette tapes have also made a substantial return, particularly in experimental and avant-garde music. Now books are getting into the mix.

“Books have such a connotation of taking time, of sitting down and appreciating the quality and the content of what you’re spending time with,” says Alec Sturgis. He’s a co-founder of Cairn Desk, a quasi-Asheville-based and self-described composition front and sound studio. “That connotation is important as an access point to the music itself,” he adds.

Cairn Desk, whose name harkens to hand-stacked rock formations that often serve as guideposts for hikers, was co-founded in 2013 by Sturgis and David Grubba of Minneapolis. Grubba previously lived in Asheville. The label recently joined the small-but-rising wave of those ventures releasing albums by book with the debut of Desert Installation, the newest album by Asheville-based guitarist and composer Shane Parish.

The book itself falls somewhere between a zine and a chapbook, combining illustrations and graphic scores with philosophic and poetic verse. At the back is a small card stamped with a URL and a code for downloading the album. “We download so much music these days, but that often leaves us empty-handed,” says Sturgis. “This book is about providing listeners with a threshold for the music.”

Desert Installation is a living, evolving piece. The album consists of a single track — a sonic movement — in which 13 participating musicians on guitars, violins, horns, bass, percussion and vocals were given schematiclike graphic scores. The notation loosely instructed musicians on when to play, but not necessarily what to play — a musical philosophy that descends from John Cage’s concepts of chance, sound as sound and silence as silence.

“The piece can be assembled anywhere, at any time and with any number of musicians of any skill level,” Parish says. “In one sense it was designed to be social, but there’s also a simultaneous solo aspect to it where everyone is performing separately.”

Parish created the piece in 2012 while flying over the desert in the American Southwest. The drifting soundscape reflects the austere aesthetic of the desert through the lens of classically oriented avant-garde music. “There is a kind of romantic aspect to it,” says Sturgis, “one that’s traditionally pastoral, like Beethoven in a sense, but using the language of experimental music.”

Since its inception, Parish has performed Desert Installation at house shows, downtown venues and Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center’s annual {RE}Happening. The current iteration is roughly 30 minutes long and was recorded in the lobby of UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Auditorium.

Parish’s is the first in a series of book-albums that Cairn Desk is planning to release. While Sturgis and Grubba may at first sound like producers, they see themselves more akin to gallery curators, hand-selecting music that is naturally and stylistically related.

“We feel that there are things that we want to hear that we haven’t heard,” Sturgis says. “This is a way for us to create a space for artists that we’ve recognized, dialogues that we’ve observed, and to make it as accessible to as many people as possible.”

For more information on Cairn Desk, visit Find Desert Installation at

[Editor’s note: Alec Sturgis is a contributor to Mountain Xpress.]


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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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