If this was Radiohead, I wouldn’t hold back. One premise of the Un-Popular Music site is that vintage recordings of world music, if even on the radar of the average music lover, are assumed to be some combination of dull, alien or difficult. Even if there is an allure of the exotic or primitive, once on the CD-player too often the music feels like too much hard work- crackling, dense, repetitive and seemingly a far cry from the gushing notes. Another UPM premise is that amid the specialist chatter lie numerous jewels that would transfix a mainstream audience. But there are some varieties of old world music harder to wrest from the caricature.
Two examples- Bali 1928 (World Arbiter, 2009), the first of five CDs resurrecting the earliest gamelan recordings (the rest of the series seems never to have appeared), and Open Strings (Honest Jons, 2009), a collection of 1920s instrumental pieces from the Middle East. I’ll admit I can’t make much sense of either. Yes, hazy, shimmering gongs and cymbals; evocative for a minute or two but quickly swirling and confusing. Curling, tense oud solos that flash and tease but offer no compromise. No vocals, unconventional rhythms, rhythm as melody in Bali, and no notes or even track details in the case of Open Strings. I don’t like this music!!!!
These might both be labeled “classical” music, the ill-fitting English term applied to any music regarded as more composed than social, more studied than spontaneous, and more refined than raw. Including such under UPM’s “old world music” heading is akin to considering Charley Patton and Elliott Carter in the breath. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but how to be sure that the music will be judged using the “right” criteria? Indeed, the Bali 1928 CD is not merely “classical” but billed as avant-garde.
My temptation is to conclude that this kind of old world music does indeed play by different rules. The setting may be ceremonial or theatrical accompaniment not solo listening, responses to unheard precedents, or self-conscious experimentation. I get impatient with any presumption that I must simply work harder to assess the music on its own terms. The reality is that these recordings could hardly be more distant in time, culture and intent from today’s listener. Aside from cultural insiders and specialists, like any music this has to connect anew viscerally not academically. The recordings have long drifted far away from context, cannot change but must adapt or be content with the stacks.
In my view, many old world music recordings, particularly those with “classical” airs, suffer an unfortunate combination of excessive respect and scant attention. Open Strings included a companion CD of contemporary responses to the older pieces. The reviews I’ve read tend to praise the former for hiss and vintage but critique the latter for being a bit trite. This translates to these older recordings being considered sufficiently obscure and other-worldly as to be beyond critical grasp, yet add a drum machine and reaction flows freely. The no-notes format of Open Strings implies that statement and interpretation are somehow illegitimate, reinforcing the “silence” of old world music recordings. Open Strings is so open its closed.
What is needed is honest, contemporary evaluation of old recordings in their new setting. It is essential to acknowledge that the original setting was quite different, and the performers may have found meaning in the music that we may be hard pressed to capture let alone fully appreciate or share.
My goal with UPM is to bring my long search for musical wonders to a wider audience. I’ve spent many years immersed in vintage recordings of world music precisely because, by definition, this “genre” hides the greatest amount of sonic treasure. The sheer array of cultures, peoples, styles and periods swallowed by the best catch-all term I could come up with- old world music- is overwhelming. In the early 21st century, we are moving from a constant musical present to a growing realization that more than a century of recording leave us with an ever-deeper, accessible musical past. The recordings survive even when the performer expires. As inherited musical variety has steadily diminished, recorded variety continues to increase, even as awareness of recorded variety staggers.
But I am in the business of shaping taste. Our ears are cultural and deaf through habit. Music contains powers of expression and communication that, under certain circumstances, can soothe personal anxieties and jailbreak political fixes like nothing else can. Never mind crises, music is a daily joy and refuge. In the United States, in 2014, it is hard to conclude that a musical era is not coming to an end. Most even remotely popular music is derivative of styles that peaked years ago. I don’t think this is just part of the “kids these days” cycle. Creatively there is nowhere else to go inside the same old paradigm. Vintage recordings of world music represent a wealth of old/new ideas. Where else will innovation come from? Old world music is promising precisely because it is unexpected. Magazines like Songlines and FRoots are full of “world music” acts, both local and fusion, but ultimately revel in seemingly inevitable obscurity even while mainstream ignorance is bemoaned. True mainstream relevance looks rather different.
Tapping this musical energy means being critical as well as intrigued, selective as well as embracing, contemporary as well as historical. The Bali 1928 CD, by itself, sits squarely in the specialist camp, although might contribute to something more. Open Strings attempts to look in both directions, but is literally tongue-tied. Let me lead by example. I found both CDs generally dense and unexciting. If you disagree, please return the favor.
Verdict: Bali 1928, still available from World Arbiter scored 1.8 (52nd percentile)- intriguing enough to avoid castigation but sufficiently obscure not to push higher. Open Strings, still available from Honest Jons, ranked just above at 1.83 (48th percentile), for the same reason. The best track on the first Open Strings disc is the final one- Mehmet and Ahmet Balki-Oglu – Aydin Oyun Havassi (details are on the Honest Jons site, but not in the notes).