Every project needs parameters, principles, and guiding ideas. With them come as many irreconcilable sacrifices and compromises. When I began the original Hum site, the hope was to indicate rather than fulfill – to offer the seeds for a developmental curiosity – to promote exploration, rather than to imply a complete image of a subject. There was also a secondary desire to slow the temporality of the internet’s constantly shifting focus – to limit distraction. As a result, I chose not to include links, videos, or sound files, hoping that a self-initiated Google search held the potential for a reader to take possession over this process, instigating chance encounter and singular paths experience.
The blog grew out of desire to share the very thing that I was consciously omitting from original site – media which I had encountered through chance and purpose on the internet. As its scope and audience grew, I began to receive requests from artists and labels to review their releases, and again was forced to consider a set of parameters, principles, and guiding ideas, through which to determine inclusion. I settled on a fairly simple set. A blog, rather than a magazine, is generally accepted as a single voice, and as such highly individualized and subjective. If I chose to review something, and by extension recommend it to others, I was accountable in a way that a magazine’s scope generally diffuses. Thus, I asked myself of each release, if I would buy it. If I was hypothetically willing to sacrifice a proportion of my personal economy to it, then it seemed reasonable and ethical to suggest the same of others. This came with the secondary benefit of allowing me to focus on things that I love, respect, and appreciate, rather than getting caught in the quagmire of lukewarm, negative, or under-informed and dispassionate reviews.
Within my personally applied principles for engaging with the economy of recorded music, I only purchase physical releases. Within the perimeters of my criteria, I decided that I couldn’t justify extend my focus to digital downloads, even when I loved the music.
Some of my advocation for the physical object of recorded music, draws on its capacity to instigate a developmental relationship with its aural component. We have a greater tendency to return to it, grow with it, and place value on it, when it occupies a physical space in our lives, and we have made a tangible sacrifice for it. Extending from the later, is a recognition that music, within the terms that we are discussing, exists within a system of economics, and that system is Capitalism. While, at the root of my philosophical ethos, I am an anti-capitalist, I also distinguish between distinct modes and applications of Capitalism, recognizing that it is highly unlikely that the use their primary architecture will be replaced any time in the foreseeable future. As a result, I choose to participate with it as consciously and ethically as is possible, rather than seeking to fully undermine or replace it.
A fundamental component of Capitalism is the application of abstracts – the transmogrification of time and energy into a symbolic object – money. While practical, this process activates a schism within how we determine real value – what is actually being exchanged for what, and thus what is sacrificed and gained within such an action. The process of abstraction is the key to Capitalism’s success as an applied system, and the root much of the abuse which occurs within it. Logically then, the way to operate within it ethically, is to limit abstraction. In broad applications, this can be established comparatively – is a CEO’s output of time and energy worth a thousand times that of another employee of the same business? Unfortunately, there is little beyond observation and awareness that comparison can directly achieve in localized or personal considerations.
The standard bedrock for Left-Wing critique of industrialized Capitalism – beginning with Marx, Proudhon, and Bakunin, etc, usually concludes that system itself is inherently flawed because its motivation toward the consolidation of wealth and application of value and exclusivity to that which should be a fundamental right. While this has proved historically accurate, I am inclined to see these tendencies as the apple in Eden, rather than the tree. They are a product and temptation of the system, but engagement with them is not exclusive to its use or success. Theoretically, there is an application of Capitalism where wealth can be consolidated at an equal rate of distribution within the entire population, and property can be both owned and accessible to all. This hypothetical is a pure form of Socialist Capitalism. Though far from my ideal realization of exchange, it is certainly more ethical than any that currently exists. It is a step on the path. The crucial distinction within nearly every contemporary paradigm of Capitalism – its primary formative element, is the universal application of competition, which is not, despite common perception, inherent the broad system itself, rather one of its temptations.
Taking control of Capitalism begins with each of us. Applying it ethically within one’s personal life, is dependent on recognizing the character of the system as we encounter it, and then stripping the abstraction of labor, and what it is exchange for (commodity). To do this, one must acknowledge a two tier system within the primary – literal cost / value, and relative cost / value. Within literal determination of value, a twenty dollar LP has a very different cost for someone who makes six dollars an hour digging ditches in the hot sun, against someone who makes twenty dollars an hour responding to emails in an office. The value applied to expenditure of time and energy differs, while the energy and time needed to produce what they are exchanged for, is reasonably static (at least when viewed within a short increment of time, free from the immediate effects of inflation and demand). Relative cost on the other hand, is determined by the effect that an exchange has on the total economy of an individual. In each case, the degree of cost is likely to effect the value we understand the object to possess, both literally and relatively. In the current Western economic paradigm of Late-Capitalism, within which there is no logical or uniform corollary between labor output and exchange (factoring both time and energy), nor a standardized regulation of the cost of living, both of which enabled Marx’s concept of surplus labor, the causal of exchange must be determined on a case by case instance – thus personally. We are each our own relative economies, and thus, within Late-Capitalism, the value of the abstract (money) is never equal.
At this point, you’re probably asking what any of this has to do with our subject (democracy and sound). Everything. Democracy is currently intrinsically linked to Capitalism, as is the distribution of recorded sound (which I believe has the potential to promote democracy). It is something that I can never avoid through what I choose to review, and no listener can sidestep, if they want to own music.
My choice to only review releases which a offered in a physical format comes with complications, some of which are irreconcilable. That accepted, this choice draws on observations of how we experience and sacrifice through perceived value – that recorded music is an object for which something is exchanged. It is an attempt to keep music from becoming taken for granted, or disposable, in the way that so many things in our society are – to sustain their power and potential.
Applying a universal value to a work of art impossible. It is inevitably subjective – some people place value on a work which others offer none to, vise versa, and everything between. Accordingly, we must then dismiss the perception of creative value within a system of economics, and accept that all creative output, regardless of how it is housed or distributed, has the potential for an equal value, to be determined and applied by those who interact with it. As a fundamental, creative value is free from the effects of Capitalism, until it enters into its apparatus, at which point the two become difficult to untangle. Beyond taste, an object of recorded music, when choosing whether or not to buy it, is best viewed structurally (objectively vs. subjectively) – through what it offers within an exchange, with that contribution evaluated relative to that of another object – in this case, format. I deconstruct this in a very basic way, not unlike one would decide to buy any product over another. What are the benefits of said object / format – appropriateness, fidelity, growth, sustainability, material quality, etc.
In addition to the subjectivity applied to the contents of an object – its sound, (a value which exists outside of Capitalism, but which motivates us to participate with it) there is increasingly a duality of relational symbolism, applied the object itself. An LP, for example, has come to signify sacrifice and depth of concern for a music on a label’s part, which is then mirrored by the buyer. While the physicality, durability, and fidelity of LPs have an implied value, there is equally meaning and value which extends from the financial investment we make in them. The fact that we are willing to spend ever greater sums on vinyl (in the case of both producer and consumer), is an actualization of the value we place in their contents. In other words, Capitalism is connected to the way we qualify the less tangible elements of their being (creative value). Cassettes on the other hand, have an entirely different symbolic meaning, signifying their own relational proximity – often a dedication to analog sound and the physical object, accessible economy, as well as the implication adventurous sonic territories where a financial imperative can not be a guiding motive. A tape implies an attempt to offer as much as possible, within limited circumstances. In other words, the object has become a signifier for an ethical economy, with a creative and commercial integrity – a context (or a relationship to a context) which effects how we approach and understand it. Within this line of thinking, offering a digital download for sale as an autonomous object, can be understood as accumulating a meaning entirely separate from its primary element – the sound itself. The reading of this meaning is relative to a context which includes, and is informed by, other formats, as well as to the personal economy – the symbolic, implied, and real (relative and literal) value within it.
Effectively, all of this is to say that to function within a system of Capitalism ethically, we must be conscious of all of its operations. This system enforces itself on the music we love, through its means of delivery and consumption. In my view, a digital download, as a commercial object, because of its lack of physicality, undermines the potential investment and experience that a listener will likely have with its contents – sound, and that relative to the other available options – LP, tape, CD, it offers a less balanced economic exchange – less value for your money. While I completely respect anyone’s decision to purchase them, and can not presume to know how each individual experience and relationship plays out, I also can not recommend in good conscious anyone buy them, when I choose to not do so myself.
Despite my avocations and preferences, this has irreconcilable elements which do not sit well with me. In the case of recorded music, an object’s greatest value is the content – its sound. In order for us to enter into a Capitalist exchange with music, this value, which is unquantifiable, must outweigh the sacrifice we make to participate. It motivates us to engage with Capitalism in order to acquire it, which in turn effects its meaning and our interpretation of the object and that meaning, at time risking the sublimation, or inflation, of its primary value.
Contention with my arguments is likely to arise from two notable fronts. The sustainable economy of music, which allows it to continue to be made, is no longer what it once was. Cost of living continues to rise, while wages for the vast proportion of people on the planet have stagnated or dropped (when adjusted for inflation). This means that buying a CD or LP is going to have a greater relative impact on a personal economy, with further effects manged by its literal cost. Less people can afford them, and those who can, less than they once could. They are increasingly viewed as a luxury item, and out of reach to many. In addition to this, material costs of making a physical object have risen, while the retail prices have grown at a much slower rate. In this light, the basic economy of a digital download, when viewed from the perspective of the producer and consumer, is probably closer to the economic balance achieved by an LP forty years ago, than to what it is today. That said, just because the digital download is a logical adaption to the economic conditions, or a perceived demand, does not mean that it represents the best value, or ethical application, within an exchange.
The greatest source of my discontent (and the second logical contention with my arguments), is a question which arises when the creative or cultural value of sound (the primary value of recorded music) is so powerful, that it trumps all potential effects of Capitalism. When it outweighs all value potential which can be applied to a given object, and the sacrifice we make to acquire it. In simple terms, what happens when the music of a $5 download has more creative value than a worthy $30 LP? While this occurrence is rare, as a thing of such worth would have little trouble finding the faith to release it in a physical format, one such instance crossed my path the other day.
I get requests for review and consideration daily. It’s a wonderful compliment, but its impossible to find the time for everything. Last week I got a lovely email from a man named Bulat Khalilov, who lives in the city of Nalchik, located in North Caucasus, Russia. He wanted to tip me to worked housed by the small digital label he runs with a group of like minded peers called Ored Recordings, which is entirely dedicated to field recordings of traditional musics from Caucasus. Not only did I immediately recognize a kindred spirit, but was forced to acknowledge a wrench in the cogs of my rational for selecting recordings to recommend and discuss. Despite the fact that these recordings were only available as digital downloads (with the exception of two small edition cassette compilations, recently coreleased with Death is Not the End), both the spirit in which they were made, and their quality, trumped all potential effects of Capitalism – furthered by the fact that Ored allows the buyer to determine their price – their value within an individual economy, and thus calibrate according to relative and literal cost. Anyway you look at it, there was no way I could sidestep this astounding work.
Thus far, The Democracy of Sound Project has largely attended to geographies, cultures, and contexts which have found themselves the victims of Western political racism and xenophobia, but Ored’s recordings from Caucasus offer a necessary opportunity to pull back the lens, toward a view of the larger aggregator of these conditions – a politically activated separation, which serves the consideration of wealth and power, and undermines democracy. When viewed structurally (examining the root causals), there may be no better example than the perpetual schism between Russia and the United States and its allies in Europe. One hundred years ago today (stretching from March to November 1917), a revolution was being waged, laying the groundwork for a fracture which has remained ever since.
I could dedicate countless pages deconstructing post-revolutionary Russia (The Soviet Union, and then Russia again), and the relationship of that country to the Capitalist nations beyond its borders. It is a fascinating dynamic, which can tell us a great deal about our contemporary context, but I have already strayed too far from the music at hand – indulging in my thoughts and whims. The most important thing to understand is that little has been what it seemed. The presentation of difference and polarity, has obstructed overwhelming similarity. The fact that the two largest Communist dictatorships – The Soviet Union and China, have come to embrace extreme realizations of Late-Capitalism (a distinctly American economic paradigm), is no accident. The power dynamic idealized by dictatorship and Late-Capitalism are closely related – consolidation within the smallest possible number of individuals.
What makes today’s social, economic, and political reality so fascinating, is that these truths, which have been successfully obscured for a century, are becoming transparent via the connection between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The fact that they are part of the same equation, have the same disregard for democracy, and are working toward the same ends – the consolidation of power among the few, has almost become unavoidable. Crucially, this should not be seen to represent a coming together of the two countries, but rather part of a process which is further isolating each from the international community – something which serves the ruling elite of both nations. While these two leaders express admiration for each other – something which should worry the people of both countries, every indication is that we are about to ricochet further apart than we’ve been in a generation – quite possibly, into war.
This is why the recording of housed by Ored are so important, and their arrival in my life so prescient. Beyond what they are, as an action – viewed locally and expansively, they carry a profound symbolic meaning within (and without) the potentialities of the interlacing dynamics of democracy and economics. They are a reminder of the power of art – of our voices, and that the fundamental value of sound and music is greater than money. They allow us to know each other – to bridge the divide, and undermine abstraction. These are recordings of people who make music because it is necessary, captured by those who recognize value beyond the web of Capitalism. Art promotes democracy, and until it enters into an agreement with it, is free of the influences of Capitalism (which in most cases undermines the potential for true democracy). Through the activities of Khalilov and the other recordists of Ored, we can recognize what so many of us endeavor toward, and through the work itself, we are allowed to see beyond the veil, into the lives, voices, and people from which we are cut off by the political and economic apparatus which attempts to silence our voices.
Ored’s body of work, which currently extends across fifteen digital releases, centers around indigenous folk musics which come from Caucasus, among the most linguistically and culturally diverse regions on the plant, including Circassians, Abkhazians, Pontic Greeks, Dargins, Chechens, Laks, Kalmyks, and Caucasian Turks. It is the label’s hope to document each as purely as possible – to offer these people voice, representation, and value – as each of us deserves. This in itself is a noble task, but within the contemporary context, these sounds double as a historic window, and parable for the present day. Many of the cultures and people of Caucasus have been long oppressed, beginning in the 19th century under the Tsars, extending through the Soviet period, for the same differences as many people across the world currently find themselves persecuted for – their religion and culture. Much of what is now Caucasus, was, for most of its history, part of the Persian (Iran) empire, and thus many of its people were (and remain) Muslim, at the region’s conquest of by the Russian Empire during the first half of the 19th century. So began an extended period of persecution and purges upon the people of this region, leaving the work of Ored filled with tragedy and truth.
Within the labels recording, we are faced with the sounds of one of the most culturally diverse regions on the planet – a melting pot, where the past and the present exist as one. But within these songs is a tragic dichotomy of what is, and what is absent. With roughly two centuries of persecution in the region, laying behind its people, one can’t help but ask what might have been – what this music might have sounded like, how much more of it their might have been, had bigotry not laid its waste. Equally, these sounds stand as a testament to resilience – that no matter the great the destruction, we survive, and our voices carry through time – waiting for someone like Khalilov to capture them (you can read more about his process and ideas here), take them into the future, and spread them to the wind.
And so, after a long digression, I bring the voices of people who struggle as we all do – who lay obscured behind same the architectures of power which seek to silence us all. They are the meaning of Democracy, and symbols of humanity’s resilience against the evils of the world. They are pure, untangled and unfettered from the economic burdens which mediate so many of the experiences in our lives. I thank all of the remarkable individuals of Ored for all of their hard and selfless work, and encourage you to support it in any way you can. Until next time, I leave you with the sounds. They speak volumes beyond what I possibly can.
Khagaudzh Ensemble – Songs of Caucasian War
Iynar – Balkarian Legacy of Omar Otarov
Tembolat Tkhashloko – Sing Alone
Khakurinokhabl. Zachir: Circassian Religious Chants
Boris Kuthelia – Keeper of Abkhazian Music
Kazachka Ensemble – Terek Cossacks Songs
Gunda – Professional Abkhazian Folk Music
Tatiana Dordzhieva and Maria Beltsykova – Kalmykian Archaic and Soviet Folk
Nikolas and Konstantinos Singerov – Pontic Greeks from Abkhazia
Kazbek Nagaroko – Modern Authentic
V/A – Khachesh: Circassian Sacred Space
Hapshima – Old Dargin Songs
Balkhar Ensemble – Songs of Balkhar’s Women
Maisat Midaeva – Chechen Nasams
V/A – Djegu: Live from Aslanbech Chich’s Circassian Music Festival