Below, a new guest post from artist Jesse Boardman Kauppila, on his fascinating project "Remastering the Anthology of American Folk Music." And a quick reminder: if you haven't booked yet for America Changed Through Music, time is pressing!
The "Anthology of American Folk Music" is successful because it was curated by Harry Smith, an artist that understood the power of aesthetic eccentricity. In a recent project I sought to rediscover this eccentricity, what has come to be called the "weird" sound of the "Anthology of American Folk Music." I then wrote a "lab report" evaluating the success or failure of this project.
I find the use of scientific method when considering aspects of culture such as "The Anthology of American Folk Music" to be absurd and that is precisely why I use it. By demonstrating the absurdity of science in the face of aesthetic eccentricity I attempt to demonstrate and understand the power of weirdness, strangeness. Harry Smith understood this absurdity and that is why "The Anthology of American Folk Music" is curated as it is and not dissected into scientific typologies.
For Jesse Boardman Kauppila's “Remastering the Anthology of American Folk Music” the act of listening is an act of devotion. It is both a form of aural exegesis and deep reading that results in copper plates that can be played on a turntable which an also be used to create minimalist prints resembling vinyl records. Both serve as talismanic emblems to the power of embodied music.
By simultaneously engraving a rotating copper plate and listening to the “Anthology [...],” analysis and creation occurred simultaneously and became psychosomatic. This methodology was based on the work of psychologist Joachim Entremer. He describes his walking cure as an “approach rooted in the many alternative traditions of circle dancing [...] dervishes that enter into the circle of repetition to achieve ecstasy through psychokinetic travel.” Entremer’s opposes the hierarchical, analytical techniques of Freud et al which emphasize the specialized training of an elite expert rather than a personal journey of self discovery.
“The basic technique,” Entremer explains, “emerges from a series of experiments that I performed on myself beginning in the year 1995 and it involves dissolving the self into a circle of time in a way that releases what I call the existential gramophone.” Practically this involved walking in a five-foot diameter circle while talking at one’s leisure in sessions lasting up to twenty four hours long. In the circle’s center a recording device is placed to record one’s “essential broadcast.”
Entreme describes this broadcast as:
[G]iving voice to anything and everything that comes up through the circle, through your nervous system and larynx and out into the world. We need to imagine that the inner part of the circle is a record for the inner part of ourselves and that the feet are frictive needles releasing the information on the record through the application of sustained animal energy.To remaster the “Anthology [...]” this process was reversed in the way a speaker can be transformed into a microphone and made to pick up sound and convert it into electricity, rather than converting electricity into sound. Through intense concentration, this sound became electric “animal energy” that was deposited into a copper plate through engraving. Essentially the engraving burin became a “frictive needle,” which rather than playing sound, deposited sound into the copper plate. This process, of course, necessitated entering into a meditative state in which the body became a conduit through which the “Anthology [...]” could flow from the ears down through the fingers and into the new master.
Originally the “Anthology [...]” revealed a strange new aspect of America. Kauppila similarly revealed other American traditions that are also home grown, but of another ilk. These include both noise music and minimalism. Not exactly two things as American as apple pie. But could they be? Folk music was not always the national symbol it is now. School children didn’t sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” they were singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and swinging to Glenn Miller’s “Chatanooga Choo Choo.” Perhaps it is possible to similarly understand these art forms as strange American traditions in their own right with similarly broad appeal.
Minimalism has a certain democratic impulse in its simplicity and the necessity that it be activated by the viewer.. Noise music has a grass roots, DIY culture. They both resist commodification because they loose so much when photographed or recorded. As Michael Fried writes in “Art and Objecthood”, minimalist art has a certain theatrical presence. I would argue that noise music is similarly theatrical, you have to be there, in situ.
Kauppila attempted to avoid the temptations to stage a nostalgic reenactment, the sort which classic rock cover bands and folk music groups often cave into. Indeed, this whole process involved an attempt to listen to and understand but also move beyond avante-garde and alternative culture of the sixties. The “Anthology [...]” stands with such totemic volumes of the sixties as Stewart Brand’s “The Whole Earth Catalog”, Llyod Kahn’s “Shelter”, and Bill Holm’s “Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form.” All these volumes were uniquely formatted, creative text books, which mapped out manners of living, building, making art, and making music. They were not, however, the dry prescriptive “How-to-Books” which overpopulate pristine “ticky-tacky” book stores. Instead, the author had their own voice. They had some thing to say and didn’t just want to tell you what to do. In many ways not just the content, but the form of the presentation of this content was itself, dare I say, inspirational. Kauppila’s experiment is an examination of the appeal of the structure of these totemic volumes.
As one might suspect, and as writer Charles Bernstein articulates, this process of “revealing code” can be poetic in its own right.
It’s like swimming or something. You move from one part of the pool to the other, you never completely re- veal the entire system. That’s impossible, but you use the reflection, the making visible that which was invisible, making audible that which was inaudible or not noticed or being aware of things which you were otherwise not aware of. [...A]nd once you are aware of something you were not aware of a whole realm of other things fall into the realm of non-recognition. It’s always a partial process of moving through, traveling through a space, that is ultimately extremely dark, [..the world in which we live...] you can create this little reflection of light within that darkness almost as a self generating engine of the poetic imagination.This project is an attempt to jump-start the “self-generating engine of the poetic imagination” of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.” Whether the charge of “animal energy” remains long enough to jump start other imaginative engines remains to be seen.
Harry Smith sought to expose the world to a more authentic, rich, but American cultural tradition by reaching back in time to recordings from the America of the 20’s. In doing so he exposed the uprising of youth at that time to a more real, authentic living tradition of music which was - at the time - weird and strange, an authentic tonic to all that appeared wrong with American society.
By “Remastering the Anthology of American Folk Music” Kauppila sought to synthesize his particular experience at a noise and folk concert on the same evening. By hand engraving the “Anthology,” Kauppila could both pay homage to the music he liked while also creating something exciting, new and perhaps challenging.
One evening while attending college in Portland, Oregon, Jesse Kauppila was double booked. Two different sets of friends were putting on concerts. One was put on by a very good, but dissimilar friend of his. It was a noise concert. The other was put on by a group of his friends and was to be all folk music.
Kauppila went to the noise concert first. It wasn’t really his scene. It was in a big house with a lot of older goths, punks, and drugs. Kauppila knew almost no one, but here people were just having fun making the sounds, building (and sometimes even destroy- ing) their own physical and digital instruments with their friends. It was pretty pure, unbridled, creativity, but he had to go. Kauppila had friends across town that were putting on their own show.
In a clearing, in an old orchard, between the art building and the “psycho path” a group of Kauppila’s friends were putting on a folk concert and potluck. They had brought in hay bales and beer pro- cured from a legendary dumpster. Everybody sat around and stared as the performers sang. There was none of the give and take, the irrational exuberance, there was a clear line between the performers and the audience. It felt too staged. Basically it felt like everyone was pretending to be Bob Dylan, clearly these were all friends and Bob Dylan was not in attendance.
Harry Smith was also a shaman. He grew up in Portland, Oregon and from an early age recorded and learned various Native American songs and languages and also collected religious objects. collection of early folk music recordings Smith similarly attempted to capture ritual, as Greil Marcus explains, “it was the scent of ritual Smith pursued.” Interestingly enough Bob Dylan saw a similar link between folk music and ritual:
Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels - they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that some- one’s going to come and take away their toilet paper - they’re going to die. Songs like ’Which Side Are You On?’ and ’I Love You Porgy’- they’re not folk - music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.
Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact . . . traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player.In this statement Dylan to subscribes to a shamanistic view of art. The work of art acquires agency. Anthropologist Alfred Gel explains art as a sort of shamanism,“[A]rt as a system of action to change the world rather than encoding symbolic propositions about it.” Similarly, when recognized for the ‘Anthology [...]’ with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Harry Smith perhaps remarked at the success of his shamanism when he stated. “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.”
By creating a print from this plate Kauppila also intended to create an homage to the talismanic quality of the history of the “Anthology [...].” Even when the recordings compiled in the “Anthology [...]” were first sold in the ‘20’s they were often bought as objects and were never played as Greil Marcus describes.
Many copies of these records were bought by people without phonographs. They bought the discs as talismans of their own existence; they could hold these objects in their hands and feel their own lives dramatized. [. . . ] Why was it inexpressibly more exciting to hear a song you could hear next door or at a dance next Satur- day night coming out of a box? Precisely because you could have heard it next door or even played it yourself - but not with the distancing of representation, which made a magic mirror and produced the shock of self recognition.It is this distancing effect of representation which Kauppila sought to recreate. It was not only Kauppila, however, in a way the entire project was an attempt to create a mirror that reflected the story of Harry Smith’s “Anthology [...].” This started with listening to the most recent re-issue of the “Anthology [...]” by Smithsonian Folkways on an iPod and creating a physical record from this act of listening. Simultaneously, however, videographer Chris Edley taped this process on a handheld black and white tube camera. Photographer Ethan Rafal photographed both the engraving and the videotaping of the engraving using first both a digital and a large format, hooded camera.
These anachronistic processes both documented and recreated a new “Anthology [...]” that similarly built upon both old time music as well as several different centuries of technology to continue a tradition of appropriation and re-contexctualization.
Kauppila also wanted to be part of a radical tradition of aural disruption. He wanted to create something that was radically strange, but yet attached to tradition. The power of this contrast is profound. Ironically, this technique of aesthetic contrast also has something of a tradition. Not only was the “Anthology [...]” powerful because it coupled strange sounds with traditional American culture, so too was Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, which started with a Lithuanian folk song and whose subject was a pagan ritual (and which incidentally sparked a riot) . This tradition of the radical power of sound goes back even further, argues Luigi Russolo:
[T]he first sounds that men were able to draw from a pierced reed or a taut string were stupefying, something new and wonderful. Among primitive peoples, sound was attributed to the gods. It was considered sacred and reserved for priests, who used it to enrich their rites with mystery. Thus was born the idea of sound as something in itself, as different from and independent of life. And from it resulted music, a fantastic world superimposed on the real one, an inviolable and sacred world.This experiment is an analytical search and an attempt at a historic re-enactment. A meditation, and mechanical incantation con ducted to create something new and strange from cultural artifacts and technology in the same way that Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” elicited a response that changed America through music.