Scratchcard. This is a review of two recent LPs from Sublime Frequencies, a Seattle- based label specializing in world music, old and new. The LPs are Scattered Melodies: Korean Kayagum Sanjo and The Crying Princess: 78 rpm Records from Burma.
The most significant thing about these releases is that each opens a window on a part of the world very rarely touched by reissues of old recordings. Prior to Scattered Melodies, I had found a mere 11 tracks from Korea, almost all field recordings. There are no pieces from Korea on the Secret Museum series, and nothing on the Excavated Shellac list of in-print CDs and LPs. Korea represented c.0.7% of world population in 1900, my proxy for the ratio of old recordings we should expect other things being equal, but constitutes less than 0.2% of my collection. This is among the larger gaps of any country. Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, which lasted until the end of World War II, was bad timing for early recording of traditional and popular music. Just as the first wave of audio technology was maturing, the famed “Hermit Kingdom”, long in thrall to both China and Japan, suffered colonization, with seemingly no Imperial interest in local culture. Sustained freedom and wealth in South Korea should have prompted collation of what older recordings were made, but perhaps any reassessment has been marketed to locals only.
Burma, today’s Myanmar, is similarly under-represented. Nothing on the Excavated Shellac list, only one track from the Secret Museum, and just 11 tracks in my collection prior to The Crying Princess. Burma’s population in 1900 is said to have been less than half that of Korea, but still the country’s track total lags. In Burma’s case, it is unclear whether British occupation until 1948, interrupted by Japanese invasion, created positive recording conditions, but no doubt isolated military rule from 1962 hampered international awareness of any legacy output. With the country now moving towards democracy, perhaps further reissues will be possible.
Either way, Robert Millis, the compiler of both LPs and co-founder of Sublime Frequencies, didn’t wait for a CD to show up in his mailbox. He and other co-founder Alan Bishop traveled to both Korea and Burma, looking for 78s. Millis is an avid collector, behind the Victrola Favorites book and CD on Dust-to-Digital. Neither record offers much detail on his journeys, but what is presented stems from finds in stores and homes, and from local collectors. Like other compilers, Millis is quick to state that the recordings are far from representative of either country, little is known about the performers and styles, and the usual mix of exoticism, rarity, age and mystical affinity drove the endeavor.
The Korean pieces, improvised plucking of various stringed instruments, notably the kayagum, a local zither, evokes comparisons with Blues slide guitar. Ethereal and raw no doubt but monotone and tedious after a while, as much meandering as direction, at least from this distance. This is the inevitable downside of the Sanjo technique, these “scattered melodies” as the translation has it. Perhaps accustomed scales and intervals box me in, but I heard nothing here to match, say, Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark was the night, cold was the ground. That piece scatters the pedestrian Blues norm, but shows what was possible. The Korean sample is very small, so there may be exceptions yet to be discovered, if my ears can hear. The record notes quickly swirl into a general ode to 78s, positioning the particular records as more sign than meaning.
The Crying Princess largely consists of angular, scraping, often conversational pieces that suggest story as more important than music, encrypting the whole for the foreigner. There are two big exceptions. The first two tracks on the second side are gloriously strident, melodic and heartfelt. Oddly, to me at least, the liner notes simply state that these tracks are performed on the Burmese harp, and devote more time to side 1.
Overall, I am most impressed with the efforts of Millis and Bishop to hunt down old recordings from the four corners of the earth. Millis is now in India, on a Fulbright Scholarship, beginning to piece together the 78 rpm inheritance of another country where reissues are thin on the ground. For both Burma and Korea, this is just the start of collation, dissemination and evaluation of what was left to us in shellac and field recordings. But as always I’m craving more opinion and less throw-up-your-hands subjectivity. Millis writes that music is too “wide-ranging, too subjective [to admit judgment], and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise”. Yet everything my ears have always told me says it’s not that simple.
I also can’t resist commenting on the LP format. Part of me thinks that LP-only reissues, in this day and age, confine old world music to an even more remote corner of the cultural attic. Not only is the music and age of the recordings not instinctive for the vast majority of people, but an “obsolete” format only adds to the obscurity. I suspect Sublime Frequencies simply accepts specialist status and regards the LP as more aesthetically attractive to the tiny coterie of likely buyers. The typical run of 1,000 copies reissues the rare and forgotten only for it to be quickly rare and forgotten once again. I suppose this is making the most of bare financial viability, but I’m convinced different presentation could change the equation.
Verdict: 1.94 for The Crying Princess (29th percentile); best tracks Perfumed Forest, Parts 1 and 2. I ended with a 1.75 average for Scattered Melodies (60th percentile), which is my compromise between inscrutable allure and listening reality. Both LPs are still available from Sublime Frequencies.