Box Set Match – Two Ways Of Anthologizing Music

by michael j kramer culture rover, 2011

what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into…collecting rather than a collection. — Walter Benjamin

…the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. — Dan Chiasson

I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates…so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood – it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation…. — Walter Benjamin

…if you read this magazine in the first place, you’re more or less like the author of this article, whose most memorable childhood fantasy was growing up to have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing—alphabetized in endless winding dimly-lit musty rows—every album ever released. — Lester Bangs

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. …what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? — Walter Benjamin

Bill Meyer has a fine article out in this week’s Chicago Reader about music collecting. He uses Steve Roden’s new I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces (Dust-to-Digital) to probe the reasons why we collect music, and how collecting can become a new kind of listening.

As Roden himself would have it, the assembly of tracks makes its own song. “I wanted to disrupt this notion that anything can be played on shuffle. There’s not a narrative to it, but those are breaths, they’re pauses. They’re moments of contemplation, and they break up the segments of songs—like a sonnet or something. There’s a form to it.”

What is Roden getting at? That there’s a difference between assembling songs into a collection and random siftings through what Bill Wyman described as the appearance, in our digital age, of Lester Bangs’ fantastical catacombs of all recorded music.

And there’s more to this. As Dan Chiasson noted in a review of Keith Richards’ memoir, scarcity used to produce the aura of musical objects and sounds. But, as Kenneth Goldsmith has been the foremost in noting, in the current age, overabundance is the new norm.

What’s intriguing is that the result is the same. One set of ears cannot hear everything. The imagined sounds of sound, with all their mysteries, remain. Even “retromania” cannot overcome the mystery of those gaps in completeness. We still cannot quite remember everything.

And even when we do hear recorded music, it is as a kind of reliquary, a placeholder for something that was perhaps once there, or might be there again, but has left only traces and fragments behind.

Meyer’s article resonated with Victoria Gannon’s recent meditations on contemporary art’s fantastical explorations of scientific knowledge. Gannon connects this art to the tradition of wonder chambers and curiosity cabinets, themselves early moments in the development of Western science.

One way to conceptualize the burst of obscure music anthologies coming out from labels such as Dust-to-Digital, Numero Group, Tompkins Square Records, and others is to return to the differences between wonder chambers and curiosity cabinets in European collecting traditions.

As Celeste Olalquiaga argued in an article for the appropriately-named Cabinet magazine (thanks to Gannon for opening that drawer), wonder chambers (wunderkammern) were pre-Enlightenment attempts to draw together objects not to make sense out of the world, but to generate a sublime senselessness and summon the macroscopic mysteries of the universe in microscopic form. After the Enlightenment, Olalquiaga contends, curiosity cabinets strived to do just the opposite, to give the word systematic order, to assemble the small details into an overarching vision of the universe.

Roden’s box set seems closer in spirit to the spiritual designs of wonder chambers. The box set is less concerned with a total vision than the striking juxtapositions of incompatible parts, the haunting stories that emerge from the impossible coalescences.

By contrast, anthologies that document a particular artist or genre or theme with rigor seem closer to curiosity cabinets. Like Roden’s collection, they are also interested in matches, but the complete recordings hope to make them rather than ignite something.

What’s strange is that Roden’s wonderbox actually seems the more complete for the silent gaps it seems to include, while the airtight anthologies seem to have somehow left out the essence of a musician’s oeuvre or a genre’s magic or a theme’s subtleties.

Stranger still is that despite this, the two modes of collecting never entirely diverge from each other. There’s always a bit of order to the mystical, and a whisper of wind that threatens to obliterate even the most complete of discographies.