This post is a revised and expanded version, originally published at A CLOSER LISTEN as “The Problem with ‘My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection.”
“It would be a lowly art that allows itself to be understood all at once,
whose apex can be observed by the newly initiated.”
There’s a lot to like about My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection, a tumblr blog that is refreshing in its open-minded and non-specialist reviews. The blog has been popular and much discussed because it’s actually a really great concept and is well executed. As she explains in the introduction, Sarah and her husband Alex have been living together for 9 years and in that time they’ve had to move 15 boxes of records every time they’ve moved. Recently Sarah realized that since her husband insists on keeping all of these records, most of which she hasn’t heard, she should try to listen to them all and document her experience. Sarah’s writing is energetic and smart, the photos often say as much as the review itself, and occasionally Alex chimes in to offer some sort of context.
Gender politics aside (this has already been addressed by others, for instance here), my problem is one I think a librarian or a DJ would have seen coming: curation.
Here are the rules I’ve set for my self. Start with the “A’s” these records are set up in alphabetical order by artist. Listen to the entire thing even if I really hate it. And make sure to comment on the cover art.
I appreciate the fact that she’s forced herself to listen to the entire record, and it’s a nice touch to discuss the artwork as well. I take odds, however, with the arbitrary structure imposed by alphabetization. First of all, this says a lot about Alex, as she’s adopting a structure dependent on the means by which he has ordered his collection. How many home libraries or record collections are organized alphabetically? Personally, I prefer a combination of genre/style, chronology, and idiosyncrasy, especially if you actually want to dig and play records regularly. If you know you’re looking for a particular record, perhaps alphabetical is the way to go, but I would bet anything that this means the majority of records go forgotten and unplayed. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself. The instinct of the collector is about more than the collection itself. When Walter Benjamin was asked if he’d read all the books in his library, he famously replied “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”
The Problem of Free Jazz – Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice
This starts out with a very free form sounding saxophone and some drums. It sounds really busy and hard on the ears at first, and then Alex starts humming along and I’m like, “excuse me?” This is not humming music, but then it does start sounding like a familiar patriotic song that I can’t put my finger on, but still really messy and almost like a band doing sound check. It also occasionally sounds like the trumpet that’s played before a hunt or a horse race. I have to say that at first this was all very off putting, but now I feel like I’m kind of getting it. It’s almost relaxing in its very busy way. But then it veers away from all melody whatsoever and really starts making me feel grouchy. Ack! It doesn’t even sound like they’re playing their instruments correctly and it also sounds like a desperate, crying, dying animal. Part of me feels like I want to be avant garde enough to get this, but then another part of me feels like the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes! What are all these musicians doing? Is this really enjoyable for them?
Sarah’s review of Albert Ayler‘s Spirits Rejoice demonstrates why an arbitrary order (alphabetization) fails in any attempt to understand a collection, acknowledged by her husband’s need to respond to her review. In many ways she’s a great reviewer: she hits on so much about Spirits Rejoice that makes it what it is. The “primativist” aspect of it going back to slave spirituals and early jazz marching bands, Ayler’s own time in the army, his unique tone (plastic, as if a toy) etc etc, but she has no real context for this music and is ultimately dismissive of one of jazz’s greatest innovators and visionaries as a result.
A good mix, compiled by a competent DJ or “selektor”, is one that is well structured, one that can think on multiple time-scales, in terms of impact in the moment as well as the narrative over time. A well-composed mix can be a form of education, leading the listener to places they wouldn’t go on their own. Some albums, some artists, are like a cool bath and sometimes the best way is to just jump right in and get chills, but often it’s better to prepare and ease into it.
A collection should serve a pedagogical function
I’m not criticizing Sarah here. Again, she did an excellent job critically reviewing her experience of this record, and that sort of experiential reviewing is often lacking in music criticism. Yet my own relationship to this music compels me to respond.
Like her husband, I have my own history with Ayler. I grew up playing the flute in concert band, and got into jazz as a kid because I was interested in other traditions and repertoires for my instrument. I had wanted to play the sax, but if they let every kid who wanted to play the sax then by the time we got to the unified middle school band half the ensemble would be saxophones. I chose the flute knowing the fingerings were nearly identical, and made use of the time hanging out with girls and learning what I could. (I never did get to play the sax…). I quit the flute in high school in protest of mandatory marching band, but by this time I was mostly into punk, hardcore and metal anyway. I had a parallel experience of digging deeper into jazz, discovering Miles, Monk, Trane, Mingus and so on. I accidentally bought a collection containing Coltrane’s Ascension and was totally lost. I remember downloading Ayler’s music on Napster, I think because I found a song called “For John Coltrane.” My first encounter with Ayler was thus also an accident, and I took the extreme, radically different music as a challenge. I wanted to understand what was going on, to experience this music and feel this music they way people who “got it” did. As I got deeper into noise music, it made sense to unpack free jazz, and so my ‘research’ continued but I began to be able to feel the music, its texture and emotions and raw energy, its rage and sadness, without having to understand it on an intellectual level. I don’t know that it “clicked” for me at any point, but I realized I couldn’t just start with Ascension and Om and Spiritual Unity. I had to follow the artists up to that point, I had to trace the lineage through Coltrane, Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray and so on. It’s a gradual process.
There’s a lot going on in this record which also makes the decontextualization particularly troubling. It’s not a stripped down trio like on Spiritual Unity, nor is it the bass/drum/sax/trumpet of Ghosts or Spirits, but one of his noisiest most inaccessible records, featuring a second sax player, and sometimes a second bass player and also a harpsichord. If she had begun with Ayler in a trio, then a quartet, and build up to this point, the experience of Spirits Rejoice would probably be quite a different beast.
That doesn’t mean everyone should have to put in the work. I get that. But if the experience were structured in a way that lead somewhere the experience of each album would be very different. Her point is well taken. This isn’t Meredith Monk or Steve Reich, or even Sonic Youth, artists that reveal themselves through repeat listens, through internal logic and attention.
As with many jazz musicians, the difficulties of his life and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death often overshadow the great contributions Albert Ayler made to jazz music, and to innovative art more generally. It’s hard to talk about jazz, especially free jazz, without underscoring the political context which all too often gets whitewashed.
I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Wu Ming 1, taken from the liner-notes to the ESP records double compilation he curated, entitled The Old New Thing, which will hopefully put some of the context back, and brings us back to Ayler.
Free jazz was not uprooted, abstract innovation: it stood on the pedestal of African American tradition, its feet were roots plunged in fertile soil. This is the most interesting aspect: a non-traditionalistic approach to tradition. This challenge is still valid, now more than ever we need an approach that would be neither subservient nor completely arbitrary, an approach that wouldn’t leave tradition unaltered but at the same time wouldn’t consider tradition an immaterial shopping mall, you glance at the goods on the shelves and pick them up at random, as happens in the Wal-Mart of so-called “World Music”. Such an artist as Albert Ayler, seemingly an anarchic and iconoclast one, had a great respect for tradition, his work cited old time street band music and small brothel combos, but this would never lead to slavish imitation, as happened with the Dixieland revival. Moreover, Ayler’s music had a spiritual dimension, which came directly from the Black baptist church.
There was another aspect of Free Jazz that stemmed from the tradition: its being “turbulent” and “riotous”. In African American culture, and in jazz in particular, there’s always been an identity between music and resistance, between improvising and struggling. The Black difference, the “double consciousness” (i.e. being both American and African) has given birth to a music full of nuances, subversive allusions, and coded messages that couldn’t be understood from “Whitey”, “Chuck”, “the honky”, “the Man”. As Ben Sidran put it: “To the extent the black man was involved with black music, he was involved in the black revolution. Black music was in itself revolutionary, if only because it maintained a non-Western orientation in the realms of perception and communication” (Black Talk, 1971).
Let’s take a look at the titles of jazz tunes that have become “standards” – and therefore “inoffensive”. Now’s The Time. The time to do what? The time to stand up. If it doesn’t sound like a big deal, that’s because we miss the context, it slips away from our hands like a rebel piece of soap. The Black community has always interpreted those messages correctly. We should never forget that Blacks, back when they were slaves at plantations, perfected a coded communication based on allegory, paraphrase, and roundabout references. All that stuff had crossed the Atlantic on slaveships. Ben Sidran: “The african tradition aims at circonlocution… The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative. [All contents are veiled] in ever-changing paraphrase”.
The “new thing” adapted that culture to the new times, times of overflowing anger. Now’s the time, the time to use less paraphrases. More direct talking: “Black Power!”
Albert Ayler. Ghosts and Spirits are renowned tunes. At that time, their most impressive feature was a non-dialectical, unpredictable (intellectuals would say “rhizomatic”) relationship between catchy themes and boundless improvisation. Improvisation was not “based” on the theme, and it wasn’t a mere “deviation” from the theme either. On the contrary, the theme was just one of the many potential articulations of improvisation. It was impossible to predict how and when the musicians would return to the theme, supposing that they had started from it. In the apparent confusion of sounds, you’d go round the corner and there it was, the theme, not farther than the end of your nose, completely unexpected. In the following years, our ears have heard all kinds of sounds, any possible genre and sub-genre of aleatory music, fractal break-beats and clashing loops. Strange to say, now the most “perturbing” aspect of Ayler’s music is the timbre of his sax. It sounds… “wrong”. It’s intentionally strident and, at the same time, it is “toyish”, “playthingy”. At times it makes a gurgling noise, as though there were water inside – hot, fumigant water.
This post received the following response from Kate Koeppel, a designer who makes record organization products:
Interesting read– in particular your comments about alphabetical organization caught me. Sarah is actually a librarian, and I can imagine that if she had started this whole project by first reorganizing the collection (that she was completely unfamiliar with) she would have faced another storm of critical commentary. In my profession, I have met many, many vinyl collectors who do organize by alphabet, as well as many who do not. I don’t agree that there is one system particularly better than all the rest, however I will say that alphabetical helps us find the record we’re searching for quickly, but it also leads to rediscovering forgotten albums, by simply browsing different parts of the alphabet.
To which I replied:
Thanks for your comment, Kate, that’s very interesting re: being a librarian. Though there may be autodidactic strategies that would be available to give the project more context, I’ll concede that it’d be difficult for her to construct an order, not being familiar with the collection. And of course random encounters alphabetically may yield interesting encounters, I’d pose a counter example: Often I’ll be at the research library and be searching for specific books. Thanks to the Dewey Decimal system, I often end up encountering books on a related subject that I wouldn’t likely encounter otherwise. Likewise for crate digging in a record shop, as opposed to, say, a flea market in which all the records are intermingled randomly. When I think of record collections of serious diggers, collections belonging to people who often need to find records (so basically club DJs, turntablists, radio archives, etc) they tend to be organized by genre, style, and alphabetically or chronologically. So, for example, funk, soul, house, techno, esoterica, breaks, etc. Like the Dewey Decimal system, one can easily find what one is looking for while also having said record surrounded by related records.
Sarah’s most recent post was a Crom-tech 12″, published little more than a year after my original post. As it’s been close to 4 years since then, it is also presumably her final post. With my above commentary, as I suggest in my response to Kate and throughout, it was not my intention to criticize Sarah’s project, or even Alex’s chosen organizational system. Like Kate, I don’t believe that one system is right for everyone. Every collection has been assembled uniquely, each collection was shaped by different forces and is put towards various utilities.But I stand by my initial intuition, which is that proceeding through her husband’s record collection alphabetically is not the optimal means of understanding said collection. Perhaps Alex could have produced a listening order that would have had more of a narrative then proceeding in an arbitrary manner.
The alphabet, for what it’s worth, is organized arbitrarily and could have easily been organized differently. If I remember correctly, the order of the alphabet as we know it was only formalized post-Gutenberg, in order to allow for pedagogical and indexical utility. Arbitrary associations, such as Captain Beefheart next to Wendy Carlos, or Sam Cooke next to Alice Cooper, may or may not be meaningful, perhaps some extreme shifts are even welcome after a half dozen Clash records or Christmas albums.
The surprise associations, affiliations, and random juxtapositions of analog media necessarily grow out of techniques which do not always coincide with the now dominant digital access of media objects. In music, the shuffle function is something that we have all become accustomed to over the last few decades. The multi-CD changer allowed for unplanned combinations of tracks from various discs, something that previously would have been organized by human intentionality, e.g. the disc jockey, patrons making selections on a jukebox, choosing records at home. The shift towards the mp3, and massive digital archives like iTunes or streaming services like Spotify or YouTube have their own logics, following opaque algorithms rather than truly random movement, but nonetheless it has accustomed us to a mode of listening that is radically different from the experience of listening to an album, a tape, or a CD. But I don’t mean to make a normative argument, as our general relationship to music is not something static. The emphasis on the album only really took root after the shift from a singles economy (45s) towards album length works, in part spurned on by the technological developments of stereo playback and multi-track recording, which largely inspired the album-oriented rock (AOR) phenomenon of the 1970s.
Want to be surprised? We can put iTunes on shuffle, let YouTube’s algorithm lead us somewhere new, or we can pick out random records from physical media. But although these may be techniques of discovery, they don’t have a pedagogical function, and since our tastes are increasingly cultivated (indeed, manipulated) by large corporate entities and opaque algorithms, any discussion of collecting, of aesthetics, of taste, should have a pedagogical component.
Arranging my Library
“… For what you really collect is always yourself”
It takes a certain type of person to collect books. That was true even before the ebook and Kindle shifted the scales in favor of digital access. Books are heavy, they take up a lot of space, they are a pain when you move house, and like Benjamin’s retort, we haven’t read most of them anyway. The same, of course, can be said for records. If you have a terabyte of digital music or PDFs on a small hard drive, how can we justify filling rooms with thousands of books and records any longer? Anyone whose moved house more than once has certainly asked themselves why we continue to weigh ourselves down in this way.
And why do we collect at all? In his 1968 book The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard attempts to make sense of this question. In the section “A Marginal System: Collecting” he argues that every object has two functions, to be used and to be possessed. Possession, unlike utility, is not a practical matter but a means of subject formation. That is, investing our energy in collecting is also an investment in our emotional state, status, and individuality through these objects. A sense of property and ownership allows us an outlet, an aspect of control over what might evade other facets of our life.
These are my records. Together they construct a world, a “private totality.” Like the 90% of Benjamin’s library which goes unread, “the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status: it becomes part of a collection.” Such an object (stripped of function, made abstract, part of a larger collection) has become a fetish. And what is the function of a collection? Why do we collect, order, organize? According to Baudrillard, “the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects.” Any true collector knows this. How can a collection be complete if a run of a comic book series is missing issues? If I don’t have every every 45 released on a label? If there are gaps in a writer’s oeuvre? The collection, always partial, reaches towards an ideal, completed, state, just as a capitalistic economic organization always seeks to expand.
Objects are classifiable, they can be re-ordered. This grants the organizer a level of control that eludes most of us in relation to the World. “You can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” Even without the psychologizing this statement implies, there is still something about this idea which rings true. Record collecting is about meaning, not function. This is why the impracticalities (of, for instance, moving dozens of boxes of books, thousands of pieces of vinyl, etc., is not a rational decision. The functionless accumulation, the great (literal) weight of storage. This of course has become part of the fetish. Our vinyl weighs a ton.
This level of investment is not just functioning on the level of the personal. The fetish also unites us in a shared ritual. The “meaning” which drives collection is a collective one, and the act of digging, ordering, arching, and listening is a social meaning, a communal practice.
There are those, so it would seem, who think that without a standard agreed upon order things can not be understood. They have no meaning. Or there’s too much noise in the signal. Arbitrary becomes conflated with random. Your books aren’t alphabetized? No Dewey Decimal? Records by genre or chronologically? By label? Publisher? All of these are in some sense idiosyncratic and reflective of the use we put our collections to.
In this first photo, the famous producer and musician Madlib is pictured standing in a cluttered room, surrounded by stacks of records. This is far from the image of the regimented collector, though I presume that the Beat Konducta can find what he needs when he needs it. Most of his music is sample-based, and often produced using very rudimentary means, recorded direct to cassette tape. Madlib’s aesthetic has always revolved around the practice of “digging” for loops and samples from records which have mostly been lost to time. He’s not just trying to be obscure and score those records before other producers find them. He’s daring his listeners to track down the music he’s drawing from. He’s teaching us, leading us to the fountain of musical energy that has animated his love of music. This is perhaps nowhere more true than on the Madlib Medicine Show, his 13-album series featuring samples from Africa, Brazil, India, various strains of jazz, reggae, and soul music.
The second image stands in stark contrast. The artist Cory Archangel turned the collecting of records into an art installation with The AUDMCRS Underground Dance Music Collection of Recorded Sound (2011). He acquired upwards of 800 trance records from a retired DJ, which he then professionally archived and stored. Installed in various contexts, ranging from an art gallery to a library, audiences find Archangel’s meticulously catalogued collection alongside a binder with discographic information for each release, a set of white archival gloves in order to handle with records with, and a turntable, receiver, and set of headphones with which one can listen to the LPs. At the very least, this potential allows the records to retain some of their use-value and not simply exist as fetish objects against the pure white cube of the gallery space (though it is doing this as well), which seems to be a large part of what elevates this rather mundane practice into an “artwork.” The disconnect is further made evident by the incongruity of treating trance music, a somewhat derided and critically maligned genre of techno popular in the 90s, as worthy of the archive. This was before Lorenzo Senni‘s semi-ironic rehabilitation of the genre, but even so, the disconnect between the perceived cultural import of the collection and the manner in which it is archived and displayed is what gives the work the tension which animates it.
An interest in how individuals order and present their physical music collections inspired my friend Matteo Uggeri to create Concrete Shelves, a blog in which he solicits photos of music collections and then asks questions about them. I was featured in an early post, in which I explained that:
My system of order is pretty idiosyncratic, I think. My books are probably easier to figure out. Chronological and by genre, more recent stuff alphabetical by author or title, depending. While my records are grouped by aesthetic or time in my life. All the classic rock in one section, then punk and hardcore. Post rock and electronic, jazz and R&B and soul, then classical and avant-garde. Non-music, Italian traditional music, and other random stuff. And then a big mess of new stuff that should be sorted one day. I always love seeing how other people think to organize their books and records, it is a kind of microcosm of how someone’s mind works, eh?
I could relate to the impetus of Matteo’s project. Whenever I find myself in someone’s home, I’m instantly drawn to their books or records, trying to figure out their approach, and quietly passing judgment on their taste. I was once at a party at the home of a well known queer writer, the husband of a friend of mine. Most of the party was spent on the roof overlooking St. Marks Place, an area I’d spent much of my teenage and college years. When we fist arrived at the party, my companion and I found ourselves accidentally on an adjacent rooftop, having entered the wrong place, and had to make our way across a narrow gap between the buildings. So when we left for the night, it was our first time seeing the inside of the apartment, a narrow former tenement now full of cats rather than relatives, with long walls perfect for book shelves. As I browsed I quickly grasped the logic of their arrangement, and said as much to the writer, who I think instantly paid me more attention realizing we had similar organizational approaches. Here again is the pedagogy and the social component of collecting. Because the point, for any collector, is not just the future ideal of the perfect (read: complete) collection, but also of the ideal audience to appreciate what we have collected.