The Wire

In Writing

Unofficial Channels Extra: The Library of Babel

Music history as we once knew it is unravelling, says Dan Warburton

August 1979, Harold Moores Records, Soho, London. Fingers sore and caked with grime after hours thumbing through racks of dusty vinyl, I find my copy of Stockhausen’s Telemusik / Mixtur, the climax of an orgiastic day of record buying. Now, in less time than it takes to remove that LP from its (truly hideous) cover, a quick Google, a couple of clicks and the music I spent three years hunting for and a small fortune acquiring is flying through cyberspace to the hard drive. Sure, as any vinyl junkie will tell you, a download, however lame or lossless it might be, is not the same thing – but only madmen and millionaires collect rare vinyl today. Why spend months scouring fleamarkets for a mint condition Geechee Recollections when you can hoover up a dozen Marion Browns in less than half an hour (I did)? But having done so, do you take the time to convert the file, burn the disc and stick it into a shiny new jewelbox with a high-res print of the album cover and a copy of the original booklet? After all, once they’re on your machine, those mp3s have a nasty habit of disappearing.
So, sadly, do record labels. Downloading is having quite an impact on the record industry, especially small, dedicated imprints which care enough about OOP avant-garde music to reissue it in properly mastered limited editions with elegant packaging and well-researched liners. The doyen of reissue labels, Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series, has been pretty quiet lately, but at least it’s still a going concern, unlike Meidad Zaharia’s Mio imprint, which, after several handsome slabs of vintage French prog weirdery by the likes of Philippe Besombes, Jean-Jacques Birgé and Jean Cohen-Solal dropped out of sight just when Zaharia was optioning the rights for the 1976 Berrocal / Tusques rarity Opération Rhino. Don’t fret: you can get it if you want it, for £99 on eBay, or free as a download – I found it in fifteen seconds flat. The sound quality’s a bit duff, but I’m £99 in pocket and digging the music.

Similarly, if you’re prepared to put up with a bit of snap crackle and pop, why shell out a three-figure sum for the Mosaic Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, when the albums it contains are already available as free downloads? Skip the question of whether it’s morally right to stick something on a blog when it’s technically back in print. One feels no qualms about downloading things that are long unavailable and show no sign of reappearing – the Giorno Poetry Systems LPs over at Ubuweb, the ICP back catalogue, Radu Malfatti’s FMPs with Stephan Wittwer, neither of which Radu is ever likely to reissue – but how many of us can put hands on hearts and swear they’ve never downloaded things for free they could just as easily have bought with as many clicks over at Amazon? Not I. Nuff said. Move on.

The implications of all this are more far-reaching, and go way beyond simple P&L. Downloading ultimately calls into question the time-honoured idea that education is about the transmission of important information from Those Who Know (to quote Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) to Those Who Don’t, the idea of knowledge as something painstakingly acquired through a long process of apprenticeship and research. The legions of bloggers who spend their free time digitizing and uploading rare platters for public consumption aren’t so much Those Who Know as Those Who Have. And having isn’t the same as knowing. Professors of Musicology and The Wire journalists alike love to chart out linear paths through history like the opening of Matthew 1 – Brahms begat Schoenberg begat Webern begat Boulez etc – but the bright red threads they’ve left us to find our way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth are being tangled up in the ones and zeros of cyberspace. Music history as we once knew it is unravelling. Rhizomes are in, roots and branches are out, and nobody needs Those Who Know sitting at the top of the tree anymore.

Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs, like John Zorn before them, became poster boys for the avant-garde not only because of the originality and diversity of their own music but because of their unbridled enthusiasm for long OOP albums by the likes of Arnold Dreyblatt, Folke Rabe and Mayo Thompson, which they shepherded back into circulation on their now defunct Drag City subsidiary Dexter’s Cigar, and later individually on Moikai and Blue Chopsticks. In the past couple of years though both Grubbs and O’Rourke have moved out of the limelight a little, and nobody seems to have emerged to take their place and tell us what to rush out and buy next.

But the number of people who rushed out and bought Thomas Lehn and Ray Russell because Jim raved about them pales into insignificance compared to the hordes of mad completists who’ve tried to track down music by anyone on the infamous list of alt.music oddballs that accompanied the first Nurse With Wound album, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella. The Nurse List immediately established NWW’s Steve Stapleton as one of Those Who Know, and it’s been keeping collectors of weird music busy and broke for over a quarter of a century. Not anymore though, since much of it is now available for free download. Now we all know, or think we do. With our little laptops we can all be composers (being able to read music doesn’t matter anymore), critics (why pay journalists to research and write reviews when we can stick up our enthusiastic knee-jerk reactions for free?) and DJs, ripping and posting those oldies, goodies and weirdies for our personalised mixtapes. In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 Megabytes. Or, as Syndrome says to Mr. Incredible, “everyone can be superheroes. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.”

The world of downloading is a world of crazed bulimia. A good friend whose collection already includes several thousand free jazz rareties (including the complete Brötzmann and the complete Braxton – quite a feat) still downloads everything in sight, “for the hell of it.” Not that I can talk, with 12 Gigabytes of unheard mp3s languishing on the hard drive. But I do know the joy of unearthing not one but fifty buried treasures soon gives way to feelings of inadequacy and frustration, as you realise you’ll never be able to listen to everything out there. If Pascal were writing today, he wouldn’t be terrified by “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,” but by the eternal noise. The French Bibliothèque Nationale that Alain Resnais affectionately portrayed in his 1956 short film Toute la mémoire du monde is rapidly becoming Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel.

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