“Letter” from an Editor
When I started writing about music several years ago, I was still wrestling with a complex against documenting things I enjoyed. That never seemed like enough reason. As a consequence, I may draw too close a line between frustration and motivation; frustration sometimes being a big part of what motivates a lot of what I do in public, whether it’s how I write or what I’m trying to do with my art.
Not to say that anger is always my immediate “motivation” or that when I say “public” I mean out in the courtyard, but frustration is often at the root of my desire to make sense of myself for the sake of myself and other people. Outside of that equation, ironically enough, my reasons for being seem wholly sufficient. So, why should I presume upon others by writing at them? I mean, what happens then, ideally? I could say something that would resonate and then be unable to follow it up with either shared experience or, depending on my disposition, consistent affirmation of the idea. In the context of music, I’ve tended to feel like my experience qualified me only to navigate my experience and only in ways that would be meaningful to my experience.
Such as I am, I consume. Rapaciously, though I can qualify that by saying that I do try to draw connections whenever possible, but when Byzantine choral music and contemporary experimental music have to co-exist in a given framework, those connections become abstract, at first only consequential because I can say of both “I fucking love it, give me more”. What great citation does that leave us with…
“Look at How Many Disparate Things I Can Enjoy”, published in the Journal of Self-Indulgent Ephemera (Somewhere in Woods: Take It, It’s Free Press) March 25, 2012.
Quite the riveting read, I know. But that’s the challenge. Someday I hope to draw some more generally meaningful link between chants and warped synths – because God knows there is one – but in the meantime I risk silence. Even that state is foreign, though – real silence is not an indigenous phenomenon to “Our Amazing Spaceship Earth”, to quote a truly magical being: Dr. Bronner. Like Dr. Bronner, I think the world should communicate as a vector for resolution, each of us entitled to a three thousand word rant-for-humanity in Tetris blocks of text around the packaging of our eponymous soap.
I find a lot of affinity with the vision of Folkways Records founder Moses Asch: to document “all the sound of the world.” Dan Sheehy, the current curator of Smithsonian Folkways, told writer Richard Carlin while assembling his book Worlds of Sound how he thinks the extensive catalog he administers can function for society at large…
“The recording has a certain power, to move people, to break people out of their old modes. Each one of these recordings of less-familiar music is an opportunity to build a new window in our metaphoric house of how we view the world.”
Folkways has consistently proven to be one of the century’s most effective cultural insurance policies, preserving in their catalog – which thanks to the stipulations of Mo Asch’s will, the Smithsonian must keep in print, in its entirety, at all times – a treasure trove of unmatched international and field recordings. Even more elusive, its catalog preserves the heritage that most Americans have the greatest difficulty coming to grips with: an American heritage. Recordings of healing meditation when the tradition had more to do with German lifestyle management than new age or esoteric traditions, Tony Schwartz’ recordings of the “audible expression of life” as it was in 1950s New York, compilations of broadcasting sound effects from the early 20th century, even an historic recording of the 1962 meeting of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in San Francisco.
Today, we face a more kaleidoscopic vista of cultural stimulus, much of it documented with ease. With the human project expanding thanks to the manifold ways in which digital technologies allow us to carry our pasts with us, a new generation of adults explores this documentary impulse. This desire to reconcile more and more of our individual experiences, with the totality of our lives and of our communities, in much the same way that over time America as a nation is coming to terms with being a single nation with a shared history, despite our enormous individual differences. As a changing nation with only two hundred or so years under its belt, how could Mo Asch’s library of sounds not inform our forward progress?
From my perspective the populist mission of Folkways has stood up exceedingly well. For decades most titles in their catalog have been available on vinyl, cassette, and CD. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how Folkways will expand its reach or how it might be embraced over time. What opportunities will new listeners find to enjoy their work?
That returns me to my question, why write and why speak up about things that perhaps only you like? Last year, I bought one of Folkways’ cassette releases – they’re expensive but I was curious to know how they were packaged – a collection of traditional Norwegian dances and songs. I’ve recently started to suspect a Scandinavian genetic heritage for our family, and in a small way the music – recorded in 1954 – helps form a bridge between myself and some imagined family progenitor, for whom the music might have been normative, routine even, rather than gripping and cathartic. By trying to replicate a blank-slate impression of the music, the sense of connection to a way of life that informed Norwegian music-making traditions becomes even stronger. By understanding the prisms through which others translate impulse into art, labor into creativity, we can all better understand our own motivations and how to reconcile them, that because of how useful music has been in packaging beliefs.
For instance, in the 90s and 2000s some of my fellow 20-somethings may remember a fad/trend in movie soundtracks (Gladiator being an example that’s stuck with me), ululating or lilting female vocalists creating an atmosphere of Eastern mystery, or something trite like that by throwing themselves into a garish, husky yodel. That sense of “eastern”-ness that the sound conveys is appropriate, it being the legacy of Byzantine choral music, which preserves a variety of Western and Eastern traditions, in this case passed on heavily in a tragic tradition of compositions lamenting the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the 1500s. At the risk of sounding pedantic, there is enormous unattended significance in the specific ways that a larger, “over culture” propagates itself. In counter cultures, active participants are advantaged by the need for reconciling a smaller number of experiences – there we can highlight why a country the size of the United States would be so heinously divided. We live in a poorly muddled multitude of experiences with nothing to unite them except abstract platitudes about “the state”, patriotism, or progress. There is no singular “American” or a singular American way of life, so obviously it behooves no one to go on acting as if there was.
Without an accepted range for what is “American”, “American”-ness is no longer a point of unity. But talking about countries is just another way of talking about people, and my question remains: why talk about things that only you might like?
Perhaps I can explain the question better. Before Decoder, there was Get Off the Coast, started by Jheri Evans before we rechristened the site altogether, along with my wife Liz. GOtC, as we abbreviated back then, was part of an early crop of small, new-music blogs that helped signal and carry through a small value-shift in the music industry here and abroad. By talking about new music that seemed great, for often no other stated reason than that, the shapes and symbols of the “sincerity movement” began to appear in how these small blogs were talked about. However more or less vacuous the symbols of the trend have become in some parts of the culture, it at least created a new polarity in music criticism. Another acceptable reason for talking about music: being fond of it.
That impulse creates a disjoint, in that often self-taught music writers have a harder time justifying their interest beyond just having it. Sometimes they haven’t been “trained” to a certain standard, but have approximated and attempted to build on their own voice and vernacular, much as anyone would be doing at the beginning of a language’s life on Earth. Like these hypothetical writers, I am mostly self-taught. We try to set Decoder apart by being “non-establishment”, to the extent that we won’t sacrifice any aspect of our independence that requires synchronization with other standards, while also offering a commitment to refine ourselves and our approach within that framework – to approximate the standards of professionalism without being subsumed in the mistakes of an older generation, that made work coincident with life, rather than constituent.
Often, critics of the blog scene and websites that have participated in it point out that there are no negative reviews. When you build from a baseline of writing about things only because you like them, why would there be negative reviews? Over time, as favorite artists developed, go in less interesting directions, than there’s a direct link that suggests “maybe a negative review would be constructive”. The blog movement has retained so much of its force today primarily because it is a vested interest of artists to work on the basis of friendship. Who wouldn’t rather send a demo to a friend vs. at best a faceless admirer and at worst a faceless disappointment? Thanks to these positive relationships, the core of our “professional” undertaking is friendship. No matter how far back we choose to recollect, there is only a collection of friends. Whatever work we do, can acquire the character of a favor for a friend, and I’ll take that over the gold standard any day. Though there are perhaps some potential pratfalls to this approach that could be brought up for the sake of argument, particularly if we speculated about larger and larger groups operating on that basis. Is the narrative thread of history only positive achievements? It doesn’t matter, so long as the system’s primary pressure it to preserve friendship while building efficacy, than at least we can rid ourselves of some tension in the course of figuring out how to live as individuals.
To date this is the third launching of Decoder; the first happened after GOtC’s name was changed, the second by way of an update, and now to accommodate our expanded staff – a couple dozen new writers grandfathered in after Brad Rose retired renowned web-zine, Foxy Digitalis, to focus on his experimental imprint Digitalis Industries. Many of you will have come to the site thanks to them and their legacy. To them and anyone else, we hope you’ll enjoy what we’ve planned for the site and the work that our volunteers have done to populate it. Though in many contexts speaking forthrightly can precipitate a lot of bile, the devil heaving his arse over the lip of a sulfur-churning bathtub to personally squeeze excrement into waiting mouths, we hope that through our efforts the artists, labels, writers, and readers we’ve sought to represent, will be able to come together here in the spirit of hashing out new ideas together.
Thank you for your trouble and time reading, all the best!
Dwight Pavlovic & The Decoder Staff