Thursday, May 25, 2006

recorded music and the abyss

From my friend Evan's Blog

Sunday, May 21, 2006

do you speak javanese??????
Current mood: anxious
Category: Music

if so, you might be able to help me recover one of the greatest recorded pieces of music I've ever heard.

I'm an obsessive collector of musical recordings. a consummate nerd, especially in terms of vinyl. And I am ever grateful that we possess the technology to record music. Imagine if it were otherwise: not only would music be less sophisticated since artists would no longer be capable of responding to a rich historical precedent of other musicians, but also (more disturbingly) any music could only exist in the single instance of its originary performance, never to be repeated again. As soon as the unrecorded music is heard it is simultaneously exiled into oblivion, destroyed and never capable of being experienced again, unless of course through imitation, which always makes it not quite the same. When performed music remains unrecorded it slips into the void before our ears can even take the time to fully imbibe the richness of what is offered, and that is an abomination.

Years ago I saw a friends' rock band perform at the BQE lounge. The music was an artsy electronic experiment that evoked aspects of both Robert Hood's minimalist abstraction and Brian Eno's ambient works. It was arresting and beautifully melancholy. I was enraptured, so was everyone attending. The haunting and doleful synth patches transformed the otherwise raucous patrons of the bar into quiet, introverted bodies, no longer intent on loud social interaction. I was impressed. After the performance I marched over to the band to congratulate them on their success, but also to determine when a recording might be available. Sadly, no. The recording equipment failed. Could the band at least reattempt an approximation of what was earlier achieved? No, it was a one time only experiment. What? You mean to say that I'll never hear this music again? Precisely so.

Music mimics the ontological character of our lives. It is temporal in both senses of the word, that is to say, 1 ) music happens through time, and 2) it is essentially ephemeral. Much like our lives, performed music exists never in a perfected instant (except in the form of sheet music), but as a flow that moves through time, and it exists as we do with a deadline; it's terminus is always audibly anticipated.

Recordings, however, change the rules. Recordings (as with any system of writing as Derrida would note) defer the oblivion attached to the transient sound. A record allows me to listen to the same piece of music again, and again, ad infinitum. The recording staves off the death. ...ah, now the depth of my neurosis is more clear. There is a distinct link between my archival obsessions and mortal anxiety, I will admit that. But you cannot deny the beauty of how recordings (audio, or visual; what is said of music is equally valid in terms of film) reassuringly suggest a quality of permanence in a world where absolutely everything else is doomed to disappear into an abyss that is unyielding.

This leads me to consider some of my greatest musical experiences of my life and whether or not I can attain recordings of these performances. Two experiences spring to mind. The first takes me back to Somerville, Massachusetts, Summer 1991. I was a long-haired hippie doing school courses in philosophy in Cambridge, but I was spending the the majority of my time taking mushrooms with other hippie friends who lived in the neighboring county of Somerville. (surprised?) We would regularly convene at one friend's house who was roommates with an old delta blues man named "Watermelon Slim." (no kidding, honest.) Slim stood over 6' 3", was white, sported an impressively well-groomed moustache, spoke with an impenetrably dense southern drawl...and he was arguably one of the greatest living pundits on the blues. Many of the fellow hippies at the party were Berkley Music School kids. They knew their shit, and they revered Watermelon Slim as God. I found out why one night after Slim decided to bust out the steel guitar and slide after putting back 2 mugs of mushroom tea. He played a rolling medley of classics (muddy waters, howlin' wolf, robert johnson, etc.) for something like four straight hours while the whole house of hippie kids (about 15 of us) sat transfixed, wordless, barely remembering to breathe. Afterwards I thought that I witnessed the best music I've heard. ever. Years later I realized how tragic it was that it was not recorded. Perhaps there are recordings of Slim now? doubtful. In 1991 he was an alcoholic in his 60's who had no success at all in the music industry. In all likliehood Slim and his music have left us forever.

The second greatest experience takes me back only four years to an Indonesian restaurant on East 4th Street in New York City. One night I had dinner with 2 old friends at this establishment. During the meal the owners of the restaurant played tapes of music from Southeast Asia. One tape stood out. It was a recording of 150 Javanese boys playing the gamelon. Holy Shit! It was stunning. Loopy, percussive, cyclical rhythms, densley layered and reminiscent of Steve Reich. Trance inducing and hypnotic. I was smitten. After the meal I requested to buy the tape. No such luck. Sadly, not for sale. bummer. Months later I went back with $80 in my pocket. Ready to shell out for a recording that I figured was worth preserving. Unfortunately the tape was missing....fuckkk!!!!!!!!

It would seem that I'm doomed to never acquire the tape; there is however a faint glimmer of hope. I have the name of the tape. Here it is: JARANAN GENDHING GENDHING DOLANAN OLEH PAK KATNO DENGAM PUTRA 2. I tried googling this info. no success. also my handwriting is a bit sloppy when I copied the "dengam" part, it might actually say, "densaw"...not quite sure.

This is a most inauspicious predicament. It would seem that the gamelon recordings have eluded my grasp and have (like so many other musical experiences) vanished into oblivion. If, however, you know Javanese, you might be able to help. Does the title of my tape mean anything to you? Please let me know. Seriously.

I have remote and unlikely fantasies of becoming an English school teacher in Jakarta, who, once fluent in the regional dialects, could become better acquainted with the Indonesian music recording industry. Then perhaps I could parlay my skills into those elite circles that would know the tape that I heard only once, but have been haunted by for years. Wouldn't that be a journey! All to save some music from the abyss, so that one day my ungrateful grandkids can hear it with all of my dusty, old house records from the early 90s. Ha!

Currently listening:
By Psychic Ills
Release date: By 07 February, 2006

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