Pep Llopis – Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes (1987 / 2017)
Record collecting is among the most misunderstood practices within the contemporary culture landscape. For many, it recalls the poorly socialized introvert, the hoarder, the obsessive, ponytailed nerd – living in their parents’ basement, slowly buried by piles of rare Beetles LPs. While many of us are likely to recognize the archetype in real life, and may even go as far as wryly prescribing aspects to ourselves, it is an image which fails to capture the depth and truth of our drive – to do justice to its place.
Record collecting, in a form similar to what it is today, has existed nearly as long as the format itself. Its origins, are the best access to its truths. The practice began during the 1940’s and 50’s, with figures like Harry Smith and Joe Bussard, who combed the United States for rare blues and folk 78 rpm discs. While driven by a passion for the sound which these objects contained, there was a deeper, more prescient root to their hunt. With the onset of the Second World War, the products of the great boom of recording during the 1920’s, were increasingly devoured and destroyed in recycling drives for shellac. Early record collectors recognized that an entire cultural history was locked the grooves, endeavoring to discover, save, and preserve it. While the initial threat faded at the close of the war, it reemerged only a few years later with the introduction of the 33rmp LP.
My generation began collecting records during the 1990’s for similar, though slightly less urgent, reasons. Beginning in the mid 80’s, at an ever increasing rate, persisting into the early 90’s, the record industry’s attempt to phase out the LP, in favor of the CD, was incredibly successful. People literally threw records away by the cart load, or donated to thrift stores where it would lay gathering dust. While vinyl’s low cost during this era was unquestionably part of the attraction, what remains less mentioned is the fact that we were acutely aware of how much was being abandoned in the dust of time – what wasn’t, and in all likelihood would never be, reissued on CD. The financially motivated change in format, was effectively obscuring and erasing vast swaths of cultural history.
Particularly in the era of the internet, it’s easy to assume that we can capture a fairly accurate image of any given cultural landscape with the click of a mouse. Every serious record collector knows how false this is – how much remains undiscovered, is not discussed, and hasn’t been archived. I have hundreds of incredible releases which have no presence on the internet, and my collection is nothing compared to that of many. I can only imagine what’s out there.
The true record collector may be nerdy and obsessive. Our shelf bowing collections may be the bane of our bank accounts and romantic partners, but beneath the practice is a noble truth. We are the archeologists of lost history and art, we are the anthropologists of culture in sound – of its people, their voices, spirit, and ideas, and we are the preservationists, archivists, and distributors of what we find. We carry the voices of the lost to the future – to those who will inherit what we leave behind. From our precursors – Smith, Bussard, and others, to those of working in the present day, the hallmark of a record collector is not to hoard, but to learn, discover, and most importantly, to share.
The best way to understand the impact of the record collector, is through the vinyl revival and reissue culture. This unexpected reality, which twenty years ago was unimaginable, is now a curious fixation of the media and the industry alike. It began as a series of simple gestures – a desire on the part of record collectors, consumed by passions for what they had discovered in the dusty shadows, to share them with the largest audience they could – to rescue, and to offer these objects the attention they deserved. When scanning the best labels currently dedicated to the format, in almost all cases, you will find a serious record collector – a sonic archeologist, anthropologist, preservationists, and archivist, at the helm. One of the more notable and fascinating instances is New York based imprint RVNG.
RVNG was founded quietly during the mid 2000’s, and while, in recent years, it has gathered ever increasing note and renown, beyond all the incredible music, what makes the label fascinating, is how singular and difficult to chart their output is. There isn’t really an equivalent in the contemporary landscape – its discography bearing the unmistakable mark of the guiding, carefully honed ear, of a serious lover of music and record collector – its founder Matt Werth. The label’s early output was largely dedicated to fascinating contemporary incarnations of left-field disco, but it wasn’t until their FRKWYS project that they began to achieve wide notice and acclaim. In retrospect, the releases falling under that banner, offer important insights into how the label’s diverse efforts should be approached as a whole. FRKWYS was founded as an attempt to encourage cross-generational collaboration – pairing (relatively) young practitioners with their heroes / sonic predecessors – Arp (Alexis Georgopoulos) with Anthony Moore, Blues Control with Laraaji (Edward Larry Gordon), Steve Gunn with Mike Cooper, Rob Lowe with Ariel Kalma, etc. It’s a brilliant conceit, and takes great strides toward untangling many of the complicated dynamics of making and releasing records today – positioning efforts conceptually and in time.
The dynamic of most well curated contemporary record labels, splits energy between reissues and new releases. When done well and consciously, reissues serve to combat the sins and neglect committed in the past, while establishing a context and framework for contemporary efforts. Unfortunately, as most engaged with this complex dynamic know all to well, this is easier said than done. What makes RVNG so successful, remarkable, and unique, is how it draws a direct links within the labels catalog, not only making the intended dynamic clear, but also pushing older artists into younger consciousness – into the present day, by encouraging new works and cross-generational collaboration, activating archival works and the new, on the same temporal plain. Importantly, in the case of RVNG, because of the strength of their conceptual framework, they are able to take greater risks in what they approach and release – plumb the depths further, toward more singular, free-standing, and creatively adventurous realms.
Even for a seasoned record collector like myself, the reissues which RVNG has embarked on are full of shock and surprise. It’s been a marvel to watch unfold, one record after the next.
A few months back, I caught wind of the launch of a new imprint called Freedom to Spend, emerging within the RVNG family, and run by Pete Swanson and Jed Bindeman. Swanson has been in more bands than I can easily count, and Bindeman copilots Portland’s legendary Little Axe Records. It was instantly clear that their joint effort was positioning itself to raise the already high bar of RVNG, drawing a wealth of passion and knowledge, presented their first two releases – Marc Barreca’s Music Works For Industry and Michele Mercure’s Eye Chant. I’m a longtime fan of Barreca, but was surprised to see such an obscure, idiosyncratic, cassette release like Music Works For Industry, reissued. Mercure’s work on the other hand, had, until then, eluded me. Close on their heals, came cause for true celebration. I learned that they would be reissuing Pep Llopis’ Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes, originally issued in 1987 by Grabaciones Accidentales, and one of my great holy grail LPs.
The 1987 pressing of Pep Llopis’ Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes
Pep Llopis is a sinfully overlooked member of the European movement of musical Minimalism, in part, like many of his continental contemporaries, because of the difficult in locating and classifying his work. While nearly all Minimalism toyed with, and blurred, the line between popular and Classical music, most moved decidedly from the later toward the former. In the case of the more interesting examples from France, Italy, and Spain, it very regularly went the other way, and, as such – growing from Prog and Psychedelia, was more willing to break with orthodox sets of aesthetics and rules. A great deal of this music was, for better or worse, misunderstood and bound to the New Age movement, dragged down when the tide of public opinion changed. And so it lingered in the dusty shadows. The decades passed, waiting for a new generation of sonic explorers to come along.
Llopis, like Ariel Kalma, Giusto Pio, Ragnar Grippé, Luis Delgado, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and so many others, is an artist who demands being approached entirely on his own terms – whose work simply refuses to bend to existing presumptions of what a music should be. Herein lays the truth of so many historic sins – the ear’s (and the critic’s) unwillingness to relinquish what it presumes to know – to hear something for what it is, on its own terms. And this is what Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes demands. It is like little else.
Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes was conceived for the Poiemusia in 1986 – a spoken word and music festival in Valencia, and was recorded shortly after. It’s a synchronistic hybrid, drawing on, and enveloping, the work of the poet Salvador Jàfer, who performed with Llopis at the festival, as well as on the LP. Its works, which are arguably best approached as a totality, grew from an attempt to combine poetry and music, but their strength emerges from a resistance of the literal, or an obvious path – Jàfer’s words and ideas offering structure to its content and generation of sound, becoming one with them, sublimating themselves, as though into the sea on which they dwell.
Those few who have written about Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes, often raise the influence of Steve Reich. While this is not unfounded – the use of perfect intervals, with arpeggiating and repeating cycles of notes, it’s a designation too easily offered – born on the relentless need to locate and define, and an unwillingness to hear something entirely on its own terms. This is a work which Reich would have never written, and should not be defined by its moments of similarity, but rather for what its totality stretches toward – the places it goes, and the breadth of territory it treads, where few others have – for the association of its diversity, and in celebration of its difference.
Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes is unquestionably one of the great lost works of musical minimalism. Perhaps more difficult, but as deserving of celebration as the recently resurrected masterworks of Kalma, Pio, Grippé and Midori Takada. A missing piece of the puzzle. A part of an inconvenient body of truth, long obscured. What happens when art doesn’t play by the rules. It is an album filled with beauty, layered dimensions of the poetic, sweeping resonance, and repetitive rigor – as seductive as it is dislocating and uncomfortable. Remarkably, through its difference, Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes is a work entirely located in its moment – the melancholy of a period, witnessing and grasping at the fading idealism of the former – a metaphor for the inescapable tide of time. Resurrected through a new brand of cross-generational collaboration – given new life by Freedom to Spend, it is a fragment of a vast and profoundly important cultural history. As such, for its musicality, its creative singularity and power, as much as its function as bridge, its reissue is an event of deep importance. An emblem, not only for the virtues of art and collaboration, but of the necessity of exploring the shadows – of picking through the dusty bins of time – for sharing what history has lost and obscured, leaving a better, more democratic understanding of what once was, to be inherited by those who take up what we leave behind. You can check Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes out below, and pick it up from your local record store, or directly via RVNG.
Pep Llopis – Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes (1987 / 2017)