PRINT November 2008


Victrola Favorites and Sublime Frequencies

MP3S CAN PROVOKE a metaphysical crisis in a record collector. If you don’t have to pack them when you move, do they exist? To my analog brain, when music is “ripped” from a disc, it enters a mysteriously disembodied space. For once digital files have shuffled off this mortal coil, they lose not only the plastic and lacquer that once housed them, but the context those materials provided. From the beginning of commercially recorded sound, packaging—the 78 label, the LP sleeve, the CD jewel case—has been a container for everything that tethers music to this world. In fact, the first copyright ownership for sound recordings applied only to their paper labels and sleeves: How could one own the sound contained within them? That would be like laying claim to air, reasoned the courts of the time. Our experience with the immateriality of MP3s is perhaps an unsettling return to what the first recordings must have felt like to those unaccustomed to sound being separated from instruments and bodies.

Two independent labels have recently responded to this devolution not by fighting it with ever-larger box sets, but by pushing their releases closer to a truly unmediated musical experience. Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital imprint was launched five years ago with an admirable mission: to rescue the music contained on little-known 78s, and disseminate it with meticulous documentation and pristine sound quality. The company’s maiden release, Goodbye, Babylon, was as thorough in its survey of underappreciated gospel music as its packaging—a simple pine box—was wry about the death of vinyl. (Reportedly, Bob Dylan bought one as a gift for Neil Young: Could there be any better proof that this was a vintage record lover’s dream?) Goodbye, Babylon was one of a long line of similar efforts— among them, Harry Smith’s landmark 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music and Bear Family Records’ continuingly dazzling output—to archive valuable recordings saved from oblivion by collectors. But Dust-to-Digital’s latest release, Victrola Favorites, attempts something entirely different: Here the ephemerality of 78s is not resisted but celebrated.

“Each plays slightly different than the last as the needle bites deeper into the groove,” says Robert Millis, one of two compilers of this project, describing the morbid pleasure of playing 78s on an antique Victrola. So rather than seek the cleanest possible digital transfer, Victrola Favorites takes pains to reproduce the sound of worn 78s spun by a manual player—surface noise, wobbly tone, variable volume levels, and all. To complete the picture, Millis and collaborator Jeffery Taylor exclude from their package anything but the meager information one might glean from the original 78 labels. The music is thereby “revealed but not deciphered,” Millis writes.

The result is deliberately confusing. Without narrative or explanation, the 144-page book that houses the two CDs consists almost exclusively of images—color reproductions of 78 labels, sleeves, print ads, needle tins, and catalogue pages, all printed in a deeply saturated, aromatic ink. The book reeks of history, like a hot attic. Leafing through it is a sensual, tactile experience—quite the opposite of the immaculate reception of an MP3. And yet, paradoxically, the strategy is strictly shuffle: Victrola Favorites offers a seemingly random, unmarked path through the 78 era.

The Sublime Frequencies label of Seattle employs a similar strategy, but its nearly fifty (and quickly counting) releases since 2003 are intended to bridge the gap between cultures rather than eras. Each of the label’s projects has plunged listeners into the unlabeled, unalloyed confusion of the traveler to a foreign land. The inaugural volume, Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra Vol. 1, set the tone, with musician/adventurer/label cofounder Alan Bishop (formerly of the American experimental outfit Sun City Girls) compiling music taken from cassettes he haphazardly collected on the Indonesian island. “Some of the tapes are unmarked with the artists unknown,” Bishop writes in his brief liner notes “[A]ll of them are decaying documents of various sound quality containing some of the most eccentric artifacts.” The label’s second disc, Radio Java, moves even further away from the traditional CD compilation by simply presenting whatever sounds Bishop chose to tape off the radio—“news snippets, folk music, radio commercials, Jakarta DJs, the west Java Sundanese sound, spooky theater extracts, and high octane Jaipongan variations that are completely over the top,” is all the explanation he provides for what we’re hearing. “There has never been anything like this!” says Bishop. (Except, quite obviously, in Java.)

Sublime Frequencies’ third disc of the initial trilogy takes one last logical step toward a straight transcription of sound, forgoing any previously recorded or broadcast intermediary. Night Recordings from Bali consists of field recordings, but unlike an anthropological undertaking, it makes no effort to limit or define the scope of what is being heard. Instead, the CD is something like audio superrealism—no more or less than what one hears wandering around the island at night. Musical celebrations, insects, television dramas heard through windows, wild dogs, and mysterious, unidentifiable nocturnal noises merge into a vivid, corporeal experience of Bali through nothing but disembodied sound. Without contextual information, the entire Sublime Frequencies program, like Victrola Favorites, transforms the detachment of the MP3 into the kind of heightened encounter with unexpected sound that would have delighted John Cage. This is not just random shuffle; it is a purposeful purposelessness

Damon Krukowski is a musician and writer based in Cambridge, MA.