you are what you collect

by Bill Meyer chicago reader, 2011

With . . . I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces, Steven Roden finds meaning and solace in old records and older photos

You probably know someone who’s accumulated, as poet and Ubuweb founder Kenneth Goldsmith admitted in the Wire‘s May issue, more music on his hard drives than he’ll listen to in ten lifetimes. Chances are that even if you don’t spend your nights like Goldsmith, downloading still more albums that you’ll never hear, your digital music collection has gotten out of hand: according to recent datapublished by the makers of the Music WithMe app, its users’ average iTunes library has 5,409 songs, of which only 1,214 ever get played.

But other collectors of music bypass the unbearable plenitude of the digital realm in order to seek out the genuinely scarce objects of an earlier age—78-rpm records. Enough of them feel compelled to formally release their finds that people who still pay for music could blow their monthly budget on compilations sourced from one man’s library of 78s—Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts comes entirely from Frank Fairfield’s collection, Excavated Shellac: Strings from Jonathan Ward’s, and Black Mirror from Ian Nagoski’s.

Dust-to-Digital Records, which released the latter two discs, specializes in lavish collections of vintage music. The label has just released . . . I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs 1880-1955, an audiovisual extravaganza that does more than publicize the prizes of a private library: it explores and celebrates the intimate relationship between the collector and his beloved stuff. The collection in question belongs to sound and visual artist Steven Roden of Pasadena, California, an inveterate flea-market patron who hunts 78s and old photographs. I Listen to the Wind is a two-CD set packaged with a 184-page hardback book, which contains 150 of Roden’s found photographs, all of which are anonymous—he has no idea who’s in them, or in most cases even when they were taken. There are a handful of brief accompanying texts, some by Roden but most borrowed from other thinkers—poets William Wordsworth and Rainer Maria Rilke, filmmaker Stan Brakhage, film historian Philippe-Alain Michaud, and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, among others. The 51 tracks of music include blues, Hawaiian guitar instrumentals, sound effects, cowboy laments, folk anthems, and kitschy pop tunes. Five are anonymous home recordings—cut directly into acetate blanks using machines sold by Knight and Recordio.

The collecting impulse lends itself to categorization, whether chronological or more traditionally taxonomical, but it’s not easily constrained by such frameworks. Some of the texts in I Listen to the Wind date from the 1700s, others to the present day. The pictures appear to date mostly from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the music was recorded between 1925 and 1955. Likewise the landmarkAnthology of American Folk Music, originally released by Folkways in 1952, juxtaposed music from the dawn of electrical recording in the late 1920s with song synopses that read like newspaper banner headlines from the mid-19th century and illustrations lifted from a book by 17th-century mystic and polymath Robert Fludd.

Like Roden, the Anthology‘s compiler, Harry Smith, didn’t just amass 78s; he also collected Ukrainian painted Easter eggs, Seminole Indian textiles, and paper airplanes (his trove of which he donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum). But Roden has done more than combine two collections in I Listen to the Wind—he’s made the set about the experience and personal meaning of collecting.

Roden builds his case mostly with the explanatory texts. Benjamin establishes the revivifying bond between object and acquirer: “The acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.” Rilke asserts that the connection you can establish with what he calls “inconsiderable things”—stuff that is humble but beloved—is fulfilling “in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance.” Roden himself writes, “The best collections and the most visionary collectors bring objects together that do not necessarily seem comfortable with each other at first glance, yet upon deeper inspection these seemingly disparate parts reveal a consistency of thought rather than a consistency of form. Such cases have the potential to reveal the complex inner workings of the gatherer.”

But collections don’t just tell you about the collector; they nurture him. The act of maintaining a collection—sorting, culling, revising, regarding—is a kind of communion, one that brings the collector in contact with something that Michaud calls seelentierchen—”soul animals.” The record you spin when you’re sad doesn’t mutely absorb your suffering; it offers solace as surely as a beloved cat or dog that crawls into your lap. “These gathered things,” says Roden, “are listening.”

Nearly every picture in the book has to do with music, and though Roden doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it in his texts, he’s chosen quite a few that portray collections. In one photo a host of stringed instruments hang from rafters; another, apparently composed by someone who, like Roden, understands consistency as a matter of thought rather than form, shows an arrangement of 78s, books, neckties, and a cigar box. On a postcard a somber-­looking fellow (these photos are all from a time before people smiled for the camera) sits by a piano, banjo, guitar, and Victrola above a handwritten caption, “Papa and his only true friends.” On the facing page is the dedication from the obverse: “To my daughters From Papa, myself and my only Friends.” In 16 words and one image, you get an implied narrative of alienation, joy, and heartbreak.

The other photos show a fair range of subjects: record players, many with amplifying horns that look splendidly outsized in the age of earbuds; one-man bands, some with conventional instruments and others with Rube Goldberg-like musical contraptions; soloists in finery, posed in a studio; and amateur musicians lolling in the grass, dressed for farmwork. Some depict people who are desperately poor, while others look well-off. One African-American couple stares straight at the camera with baleful suspicion; another stands behind an empty bottle, and apparently in good humor, but the man is pointing a gun at the woman, who’s holding a guitar. There are a few shots of broadcasters speaking into primitive radio transmitters, but judging from the clothes and furniture, most of the pictures in I Listen to the Wind precede the songs on the CDs by a generation or two.

The music includes gospel from anonymous home recordings, a jaw harp solo, and an African religious chant performed in 1941 by Roland Hayes, an African-American lyric tenor. The songs are interspersed with bits of sound-effects records: rain, snow, birds. “I wanted to disrupt this notion that anything can be played on shuffle,” Roden told Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times in late July. “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.”

The songs are presented without commentary, unless the occasional texts in the photo book can be thought of as commenting on the music too. This hardly helps clarify Roden’s organizing impulses, except to make it obvious that edification doesn’t rank high among them. Many 78 compilations focus on a single artist or genre, while others express a conceptual or aesthetic point; Smith’s Anthology articulated his vision of what was great about American music, a vision supplemented by Nagoski’s recent To What Strange Place: Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora (Tompkins Square). Roden has a deeper appreciation for schmaltz than either of those men, who wouldn’t let shameless tearjerkers like Frank Ferera’s “Pinin’ Hawaii for You” and Nick Lucas’s “If You Hadn’t Gone Away” anywhere near their compilations.

The one song that Roden says anything about in his text is Bradley Kincaid’s “Froggie Went A-Courting.” He acknowledges the mediocrity of most of Kincaid’s output, and never articulates why this absurd, anthropomorphizing ditty touches his soul. But I have an idea. It’s a winding tale that starts with the titular critter trying to win a mouse bride, then relates the wedding ceremony’s unappetizing victuals (dogwood soup and catnip tea) and the groom’s regrettable end, and concludes with an invitation for the listener to take up the story after froggie goes down a snake’s gullet. The way it starts in one place and ends up somewhere you didn’t anticipate is a lot like this set’s illogical but compelling progression of images and song. It may not make sense, but it all looks and sounds great together. It’s a great thing to add to your collection.