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.
2 thoughts on “something old, something new, something reissued – a brief consideration of the contemporary culture of recorded sound”
Now this is a topic I have been contemplating on for so long if not.. constantly. As of this moment I do not have the same structured thoughts that you brought forward, but the thing is, yes there is something progressive toward the past going on – as well as annihilating or neglecting what is going on right now. When I came up with this title Archaic Inventions, I mean obviously my point was that things from the past relate to the future and vice versa. It’s a parado (an invention cannot be archaic), yet showing that things of the past have their value in the future. For me, someone born in 1991(!), for god’s sake 🙂 I was and am still confronted with peers of a generation that lost their complete sense of perspective culturally, which intrinsically means their “historical perspective” as well.
Being part of the nonsensical end of history and neoliberal melting pot of post cold war Europe moving into the digital era of control, quantification, economic values and posthuman conditions I mean it always felt as a sensible counter movement to try and actually hold still for a moment and try to organize and position yourself in a world that constantly defines you with restlessness though the communicational overload of influences etc. Even more so since you do not have the choice no more to say I want to be engaged with them or not. Look what has become of the chaos: fake news, trolling, social media loophole perspective self-constraint: just utter insanity. And the worst part, people can actually profit from it and extend their powers by deliberately confusing the other.
Now besides this position, I guess, like you wrote once before, we are also part of a small circle of let’s just say avant-garde/strange music fans, collectors, historians, with a certain sensitivity for these thing… and we’re also the gatekeepers. Besides that ones also finds some kind of simple purpose in life. Something you grew up in, with your whole apparatus of understanding and positioning that you intuitively internalized. I can tell that I like to do this, that I like to dig deep and research, even worse/or better, some of the stuff I only know of because of my upbringing. Otherwise some of this artistic expression from the past would have been lost already.
I sometimes think we are already a special case hahah, when looking for these things, putting them in perspective as a historian etc. The dominant consensus in the underground music world I encounter is that people basically look for contemporary/new music all the time. The metaphore for being emerged in old stuff I encounter is basically: if you don’t vote you also don’t have the right to criticize, have an oppinion etc. on the political situation. A case of social pressure saying “I live right now”, “it’s me who should and deserves to have an oppinion about things”. Not thinking of communities, the future (society/environment), you name it .
Just like some people know everything about another topic, we’ve reached our point.
The reason why many of the reissues are hip now or that many things are looking to the past is because it also exactly thrives on new generations and people, sometimes receptive for life-changing input, sometimes just hipster self-indulgence and randomness. We really have to shed light on contemporary things as well, even more so I am always extra excited when something shows up in my life made by young people and it’s actually amazing. I cherish that and I NEVER act like I know it better than them (I had my phase already). Being receptive to a journey in music that excites and inspires you is the most incredible thing, just like straight edge punk and the whole roller coaster. We know a lot, but that also defines us!!
Maybe this all makes no sense,I just kept typing! But what I do think… to conclude and to say something about reissues and their labels is: we are at a point at which we literally redistribute artistic expression from the past and we confine that in particular styles and interest. Whether it’s the ambient new age side of the spectrum… funk/jazz/ african music, whether it’s the industrial/minimal wave of the spectrum. It’s also serving people to be, cool, being respected… the DJ status, the label, the blog, the radio, the network of people etc. Positions are taken, held and defined by our appropriation and adaption of things that are not primarily our works. Yet we also want to make this world a better place, shed light on forgotten stories, point out historical and contemporary social and political injutsice, beauty and the best music that has ever been created on this planet. We also want to Decolonize, de-genderize etc etc
We have to find the right balance between the “I” and the frame this old music is being put in. Second step is to defy the fear of disposition. What I don’t listen this music because the label has such and such ID. Ofcourse. But don’t be afraid to listen to the music and make it your own. Objectivity vs. positioning. The historical facts versus your oppinion and emotion. Always a tricky one. No idea where I got with this exactly.
Nice article! Thanks!