Robert Millis – Indian Talking Machine (2015)
Collecting – surrounding one’s self with objects of one sort or another, is a complex thing. Whether viewed from the outside or from within, understanding this compulsion – what drives and motivates it, as well as its symbolism, can be elusive. For some it begins, particularly regarding those cases pertaining to fine art, as an outward expression or signifier of acquired taste, wealth, or intellect. For others it is embedded with nostalgia – grasping for the warm feeling attached to the objects of youth. For some it may be simply a matter of aesthetics – the desire to be surrounded by beauty. While for others, as is often the case for book and record collectors, it is often an extension of a passion, combined with a desire to learn, discover, rescue, and archive, not to mention simply wanting have these wonders easily at hand – allowing them to be returned to and experienced again and again. But, despite the range of motivation and desire, in nearly all cases, the act of collecting draws on something deeper. These objects, with the exception animals or organic specimens (collected by some), are the products of human hands and minds. They are expressions of some form of otherness and self, sharing our spaces and thoughts, consuming us – sometimes literally as much as figuratively, growing within us and changing as we go. If ever there were a breed who understood those words by John Donne – No man is an island, it is those who collect. This act has everything to with acknowledging and placing value on the lives and efforts of others – sacrificing for them and inviting them into our lives. It is an extension of the human need to commune.
This review is a long time coming – in part because the book at hand was a long time coming, in part because my words are long overdue. I was late to get a copy – it came out in December 2015, and, forever struggling to keep up with the many things which I hope to offer my attention to, am considerably later in sitting down to write. I rarely allow myself consider timing when it comes to reviews. These objects should endure, yet too often fall under the critical eye within a simultaneous spasm, then drifting from view. It important to return to them outside of the usual press cycle, but, in this case, the passage of time comes with an unfortunate byproduct. Indian Talking Machine, researched, photographed, compiled, and written by Robert Millis and published by Sublime Frequencies, went out of print shortly after it was released, making currently difficult to obtain. Because my reviews are almost always founded on love affairs, coupled with the hope that others will buy these things and be allowed to have their own, I am forced to write with the dream that my words will help motivate this book’s return to print.
As a fairly serious record collector, not to mention one who retains a particularly focused passion for the music of India – the subject of Millis’ book, I write from the inside. My overwhelming love for music – the desire to learn as much as could and to always have it at hand, motivated my early urges to collect. The same remains true, decades down the road. But importantly, it was the act of collecting and all that came with it – recognizing its symbolism, which motivated me to begin writing. It wasn’t just the music itself. It was this act. My belief in the importance of collecting, on whatever scale – sacrificing for these objects and sounds – inviting them into our lives, is at the root of nearly all of my words. As such, this is a book which resonates deeply with my heart.
These days record collecting has become something of trend – one which I expect is partially founded on a kickback against the vacuous ether of the digital age – the beckoning need to hold an object in one’s hands – to see it sitting there, calling our return – to have something in our worlds which tells others about us – our passions taking physical form. Magazines and papers write about it. Fashionable photographers propel images of scantily clad women thumbing LPs into the world. There are million and one hashtags guiding the way. But it wasn’t always like this. For decades the shops were tumbleweeds, populated by a different sort – the lonely nomad digging in the bins. It was another time, marked by the grumpy know-it-all clerk who judged you brutally for your buys, snobs, hoarders, protectionist, and ageing geeks – balding ponytails, talking endlessly about elusive first pressings and run out grooves. But that wasn’t all there was. A great many of us – those who ultimately became instrumental in vinyl’s return, sculpting much of its contemporary context and life, drew on different depths. We just loved music and wanted to explore and learn. Records were a world of shadows where you could endless fall, never knowing what you would find. Before us stood the voice of humanity, scattered and captured on little black discs. Ours was a world of discovery, warmth and sharing – of community and collectively offered knowledge, and this, so many years later, is where Robert Millis returns.
With the resurrection of vinyl, records have become something of a fetish. They’re hip – totems of belonging and signifiers for culture and taste. It’s not just those scantily clad women thumbing LPs, the lined shelves in interior design magazines, or the carefully calculated and curated Instagram feeds. There has been a whole new breed of publishing born – books, usually focused on a single genre or theme, featuring endless photographs of record sleeves. While often not without value, these publications tend to be burdened with an unfortunate paradox – a niche subject within which it is rare to encounter information which everyone in the given niche doesn’t already know. They’re redundant by default, at best serving to thrill the buyer with the gratification of seeing a record they already know or own, reproduced officiated form. Fortunately, this is exactly what Indian Talking Machine is not. It is a unknown narrative of images – humanity captured on little black discs – a world of shadows, discovery, warmth, and sharing – of community and collectively offered knowledge which can only exist in the real world. It is a book which doesn’t set out tell you the tale of a music, preferring to capture the world which currently surrounds it – that of those who love it – those who are attempting to save it and offer it a life beyond the bounds of time.
Indian Talking Machine was researched, written, and photographed between 2012 and 2013, while Robert Millis was working as a senior Fullbright scholar in India, studying that country’s historic 78rpm gramophone record industry. These objects – both 78s in general, and those capturing the sounds Indian culture, are among his life’s great passions. He writes from inside. Being an obsolete format, and thus its industry having naturally disappeared, Millis took the logical path – he followed the keepers of the knowledge – record collectors like himself. And so the tale unfolds, as abstract as it is.
Any collector of Indian music, regardless of the era in which it was produced, is aware of certain immovable challenges. This music, and I mean nearly all of it, is uncharacteristically rare for one largely produced by a major label industry. Of course this less the case inside of India, given that most was recorded and distributed for a domestic market, but, like so many of those black discs which captured localized traditions of music in different parts of the world, access and sustainability are endless plagues. Only certain people could ever afford these objects, and tropical climates and economic challenges have reeked havoc on their passage through the years (not unlike the 78s which documented the indigenous southern folk traditions of the United States during the 1920s and 30s). Every collector of Indian music is forever faced with three primary challenges – simply discovering and understanding what exists, the time it takes to hear, track down, and acquire, and, particularly if the years since its production where primarily spent in India, the condition in which it is found. And thus, while Millis’ book is very much about the people who love and have become the caretakers of this music, it also possesses a rare and multilayered sense of dynamic depth. It is about the passage of time, with those inevitable losses and discoveries along the way. His subject – these objects – 78rpm discs, carry ghosts, not only of the humanity of those voices captured within, but of the hands and experiences which have scratched and crumpled their way into them, marking their passage through the years. They are, as they appear before us in all their worn glory, the results of love affairs and unconscious collaborations – the kind which is only encountered imprinted upon objects, existing in the real world. It is a form of beauty which can not be faked.
With all these things in hand, as much as it imparts a wealth of knowledge, Indian Talking Machine presents something far more potent and difficult to nail down. It is ultimately a book of subjective passion and abstracts – of a rare and authentic beauty. It is more of a work of art than a scholarly effort, for its themes are imbued with a sense of humanity’s survival and loss – the value and love placed upon others, transmitted through, and applied to, the objects which they leave behind. There are explicit narratives – Millis’ own, those of the industry and the collectors he encounters as he goes, found in a series of short texts which appear at the beginning of the book, but even here there is a palpable sense that we only getting a single strand in the vast wealth of what the author and his subjects know. Knowledge of this sort is not the point. He has not set out to tell where the best recordings lay, what they are or why. It is not about how they came to be or what it was like when they were made. It is a book about where they lay now – lost in shadows, joined together in bundles and stacks, hiding on shelves and under beds – reformed into a new kind of beauty – new lives and collaborations which continue to unfold and evolve. In the end, Millis chose to let the images speak for themselves – landscapes, still-lives, portraits, each a capturing an unknown narrative of unfathomable depth – for what each of these objects says and holds, what each of these hands knows. Over his hundreds of pages, it is rare and mater of fact beauty which unfolds.
It is within the very last pages of the book which Millis provided a small kernel of the sort of knowledge which record collectors crave. The book is accompanied by two astounding LPs drawing on material which its author has uncovered along the way – 46 tracks of pure gold, the majority of which captures a vision of Indian Classical music in the earliest days of recording (a blink of an eye within a tradition which is thousands of years old), a moment which these days is almost never retuned to or heard. It is here, both through Millis’ sections and the accompanying texts he drafted for each, through which we catch a glimpse of his towering passion and knowledge – each has a mesmerizing story, bound to history, the culture, and the artists from which it springs. For this alone, outside of what the book as a totality achieves, makes it invaluable and essential for any fan of the music of India. Inevitably it Millis leaves you yearning for more, but this may be part of the point – a spark for subsequent passions and explorations, yet to unfold in each of hands.
Even for someone like myself – a man who has taken many years to cultivate a fairly developed knowledge of Indian – a man for whom this subject is among his greatest passions, Indian Talking Machine is a revelation. It is work of art of profound and unfolding depth. My hat goes off to Millis. Every one should own a copy of this. Let us hope that Sublime Frequencies – once again proving themselves to be one of the most important efforts in the contemporary landscape of music, brings it back into print.