Yesterday, the composer Sarah Hennies tweeted – Amazing to me that i can get 100-200 “likes” on fb for some totally silly bullshit and then I post great new music I like and it’s crickets. The passing statement, which might be seen to indicate the fickle character of how we interact online / through social media, or have come expect those actions to elicit response, dovetails into phenomena which increasingly weighs heavily on my mind – the stark difference in attention received by musics from different eras, in our own – a condition within which, I am both participant and observer.
Sarah and I are of the same generation – I was born in 1978, she in 1979. Age, timing, and personal experience, play roles in interpretation. The era during which we have been active in the world of music – beginning in the early 90’s at the outset of our teens, and stretching to the present day, has been one of unprecedented change – unleashing an astounding flux in the meaning we attached to the object of recorded music. In many ways I was lucky. I entered the world of underground music before external influence and agenda fully reared their heads. Acquiring my first tapes by the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Minor Threat, in 1989, I immersed myself, allowing Punk to reconcile my awkwardness and isolation. It was a new life – one where I felt less alone, was offered voice to emotions bubbling below, a vehicle for ideas, and the means to form meaningful relationships within a community. That moment, begun at the tender age of eleven, and what ensued over the coming years, laid the groundwork for nearly everything which I still believe, pursue, and chase.
The legacies of the early 90’s swell around us today – aspects of which, I explored in my article on cassette culture – Why Tapes Matter, but there is a great deal more. When the mainstream record industry co-opted the underground, a consequence of the unexpected success of Nirvana in 1991, many of us – youths like myself, where pushed from a culture where we had found safety and a home. Our social proximity and identity was stolen from us – fodder for mass marketing in the hands of corporations. Though confusing and heartbreaking at the time, the results weren’t all bad. Most delved further underground – exploring sonic worlds, far more challenging and creatively ambitious than any mainstream audience would approach. We found shelter in the shadows, forming new sonic and social networks, and, with a hunger for more, began our explorations of the past.
When speaking to anyone of my generation – those still engaged with underground, experimental, and avant-garde musics, the 90’s contexts of punk, hardcore, and indie / post-rock, are nearly always close at hand. They are the bedrock from which we grew. While, during that era, we were heavily involved with contemporary scenes (as most of us remain), we equally began to rigorously explore and develop relationships with the musics of previous eras – establishing a duality and developing widely varied tastes – finding mirrors for ourselves throughout time.
It was my generation, and the one just before, which offered the audience and enthusiasm for the neglected sounds and wilder musics of the past. From our interest, the vinyl revival and reissue culture has subsequently grown – but hiding in the midst of these wonderful things, despite their remarkable spirit, are dangers to the present day.
They say that history is damned to repeat, and when it comes to avant-garde music, many of us are inclined to hope it might. There is an inevitable romance with the past – particularly when observed from a distance and smoothed of its burs. For those of us with veracious appetites, it equally offers an overwhelming and endless wealth of material to explore. For myself – a naturally inclined historian, a bookish nerd, and an unrepentant non-conformist, the past has always been a means to find others like myself, and to learn from them. This is something I often touch on when speaking of Tony Conrad. He was a wealth of history and experience, living and working in the present day – proof to those us who occupied a similar social and creative proximity, that a sustained life on the margins was possible. He showed us the path.
This era – our own, has been largely come to be defined by historical reappraisal – most often emerging in the hands of the vinyl reissue. My generation, and those who proceeded us, found remarkable things in the shadows of time – long neglected works, which deserved to be championed and heard. It was a task which we happily and enthusiastically embarked upon. The hunt, research, and indicating discoveries, take up a significant proportion of my work, but importantly, this always pursued with an eye on the present. My historical efforts – those found on the Hum and elsewhere, are intended to offer a framework, guidance, support, and context, for contemporary creative gestures in sound. They are part of a duality – means to offer attention to deserving artists from other eras – to amend former sins, and to capitalize on their work and experience as a means to build toward a better future.
I write with love, hoping to translate my enthusiasm, bridging the gap between my subject and readers, and to offer each object equal thought and attention. I see the present as part of a nonlinear extension of the past. It crucial to acknowledge historical context and precedent. It is also important to bend time – allowing historical works to live in our moment, and contemporary works to be afforded distance and perspective – allowing art from diverse origins, to converse on the same temporal plane. The context of my early historical discoveries, extended from the activities of contemporary scenes. I attempt to construct the same in support.
Experience, as I happily plod along, has occasionally burst the bubble of optimism. With almost universal consistently, when I write about works from the past – particularly reissues or archival works, traffic shoots through the roof. When I write on contemporary efforts, I’m lucky if they’re read at all. It’s confounding. I apply equal passion, belief, and enthusiasm, to everything I choose to promote. If I take the time to write about it, I believe that the bedroom efforts of a 19 year old are as worthy as an archival release by Tony Conrad (I assure you, he would have preferred the former receive more attention). The patterns indicate worrying trends.
It seems, if my data and Sarah’s experiences indicate broader truths, that we historians may have done our jobs too well. The past has risen to a towering scale – taking up an ever increasing presence in our cultural lives. Enforced by romanticism, and the validation of time, the reissues and archival releases keep coming, while the efforts of our contemporaries fall further into the shadows – pushed from view. Rather than learning from the past, remedying the sins which rendered so many of these artists obscure, we are unconsciously creating an contemporary culture of neglect – one suffered by those closest to us all, the amazing artists who are working today. If we are not careful, while distracted and looking the other way, we may witness the erosion and destruction of the very social and cultural networks that we, with those before us, helped to construct.
As a lover of music and history, as a record collector, I adore the endless stream of reissues and archival releases. Nothing makes me happier than the emergence of sounds that I have passionately hunted for years. As they come, may we not forget how their initial neglect came to be. That all the ground we have gained, all the good we have done, may be our undoing. We must do better, never damning history to repeat. We must acknowledge, support, and champion the remarkable artists of our own time – leaving a legacy for those who follow in our wake. With one eye on the past and the other on the future, despite the overwhelming pace and difficulty in staying abreast, may we never forget the wonders of our present day, and the remarkable gestures of our friends.