Thursday, 30 July, 2009

John Schott - Shuffle Play: Elegies for the Recording Angel (2000)

Notes by John Schott:

I guess I’m attracted to old recordings for the same reason I’m attracted to much New Music: they’re strange, they speak in a foreign tongue. Often more noise than music, they require you to reach into the sound, and be a re-creative partner rather than just a passive listener. That implicit challenge brings with it the promise of unknown pleasures: the familiar made unfamiliar, a glimpse into another world. The earliest recordings are unique in that they are the only recordings uninfluenced by other recordings. Within a very few years, recordings would be everywhere. The world sounded different before recordings; the earliest recordings at once capture that world and kill it.

The nineteenth century

For a brief moment at the birth of recording, before the existence of the recording “industry,” notions of style, genre, and even taste evaporated. Sound was documented pretty much at random, with a quasi-democracy characteristic of the New World. Marches, opera arias, “coon” songs, vaudeville farces, banjo solos, advertisements (thank God that didn’t catch on!), vanity recordings, hymns … the performers all just seem deliriously happy, exhibiting a purity and optimism beyond belief. The first cylinder machines could not record in darkness or night.


While Ellington and Stravinsky certainly shaped some pieces directly for recording, it continues to astonish me that almost no postwar American or European classical composers ever really embraced the record as a basic unit of musical expression, in the way that has been taken for granted in popular music—at least since Frank Sinatra’s celebrated Capitol LPs. How strange that such far-thinking composers as Pierre Boulez or György Ligeti evince little or no interest in exploiting the unique attributes of the recording studio, or the CD as a specific medium. For them recording is a photograph of a sculpture; a picture, as it were, of the art, not the art itself. Whereas for the Beatles, the record itself was the art. To take another example, the great 78s of the twenties and thirties—and I’m thinking here of early jazz, blues, and rural Southern traditions—are typically very carefully orchestrated, as structured as a good sermon, their A and B sides dialectically engaged. What distinguishes the one approach from the other we could call self-consciousness.

Audio vérité

The randomness of old recordings: randomness of what was recorded, by whom, what survived, and in what condition. Random scratches and pops on the record’s surface, in counterpoint with a pinhole view into the past. Just one battered 78 of Cousins and De Moss’s Poor Mourner remains. Of Cousins and De Moss themselves, a complete blank: not first names, nothing. I record, thinking: “That could be me!”

What I did

I started with Poor Mourner. I researched the origins of the song in turn-of-the-century African-American and Southern folk-song collections. I became obsessed, listening to it over and over. I slowed it down, transcribed it, recopied the transcription, elaborated, scored it, scored it differently, slowed that down, multiplied the harmonies, compressed it into a single burst, folded it over on itself, applied distortion, filtered, signified, spiraled. For what it’s worth, every note contained herein is traceable to that spiral, or would have been at one time. The other source recordings were brought in as further commentary, and were likewise thrown in the blender.

The idea

The idea was to develop the material from as many angles as possible: free improvisation, musique concrète, post-war composition, AACM-derived strategies, and pop music, to name a few. Sometimes these idioms are juxtaposed, more often they are integrated, in a sort of polylingual counterpoint. I wanted the tracks to be widely varied as to length, instrumentation, subject, and/or recorded ambience, so as to place in the foreground the listener’s role in making it cohere: What do these pieces have to say to each other? It’s an attempt to listen and talk back to history.The old records are telling a story, but the story is garbled, it cuts in and out, you can’t quite make out what is being said. Each time you return, the message is different; you amass clues, but the piece that would make sense of the whole is always just out of reach. —John Schott

Recordings used in Shuffle Play

* 1. Handel Festival at Crystal Palace (rec. in London)—chorus of 4,000 voices recorded with phonograph over 100 yards away. June 29, 1888. This is believed to be the oldest surviving recording of music (one of three surviving cylinders recorded that day). It is previously unpublished. Unlike other source records used in Shuffle Play, it is presented here without any compositional commentary or interrogation. (Used on 22)

* 2. Whistling by Mrs. Shaw. August 14, Little Menlo. August 14, 1888. (Used on 5)

* 3. Soprano—sung by Teffie Stewart. January 1889. Taken by Theo. E. Wangemann. February 25, 1889 (spoken in announcement on recording). (Used on 5)

* 4. Noel Josephs—Snake Dance Song. March 18, 1890. Recorded by pioneering ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850–1930). An a cappella excerpt from a Passamaquoddy Indian religious ritual, in a language that was virtually extinct at the time of its recording. (Used on 21)

* 5. Trumpeter Landfrey—Bugle Call for the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. August 2, 1890. Landfrey was one of the last surviving members of the Light Brigade, who were victorious at Balaclava in October 1854, despite losing 503 of 700 men in battle with the Russian artillery. On this recording he plays the fanfare he played there, on the same trumpet, which was, according to Landfrey’s recorded opening remarks, also used at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 (or have I misunderstood?). (used on 5)

* 6. Probably Emile Berliner—Twinkle, twinkle, little star. c. 1888–90. (used on 12)

* 7. (no artist given) The Spirit of ’76. October 30, 1894. (Used on 1, 21)

* 8. Cousins & De Moss—Poor Mourner. c. July 1897. One of the earliest surviving recordings of African-American music, this disc, of which only one copy is extant, is remarkable for its raw, undiluted African-American vernacular feel. It would be twenty-five years before anything this down-home and wicked would be recorded again. This floating-verse song was extensively anthologized in turn-of-the century African-American folk-song collections. The refrain is: “You shall be free, when the good Lord sets you free,” although in this recording, as in many others, the words “be free” are all but swallowed. (used on 10)

* 9. Richard Jose—Nearer, My God, to Thee. (Mason/Adams) February 2, 1906. From the Broadway musical The Old Homestead. (used on 14, 28)

* 10. Thomas Edison—untitled. c. 1915. This eerie recording, only recently confirmed to be Edison, has been the object of much speculation. Edison’s musical tastes were very pedestrian, and his abilities meager. These facts make this haunting Scriabin-esque impromptu all the more tantalizing; no one has identified just what Edison is playing here, which raises the question: Was Edison “inventing”? (used on 12)

* 11. “Walt Whitman”—America. The attribution of this recording—included over the years in several compilations of poets reading their work—has recently been shown to be spurious (see Allan Koenigsberg, “Walt Whitman Speaks?”, Antique Phonograph Monthly, Vol. X, No. 3, 1992). It is most likely a forgery dating from the nineteen-forties, perpetrated by a down-and-out New York elevator operator. Rosco Haley (1889–1982) claimed to have a number of turn-of-the-century celebrities on rare cylinders. At one point, he was in negotiation with Yale for the sale of his purported collection. However, they grew suspicious when he could produce only acetate or tape transfers, never the originals. But someone’s voice is on this recording (“…every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman), and that voice is reading Whitman’s America, and he intones it as if he were Jefferson reading the Declaration, which, in a way, he is (Used on 5)

Steve Adams - flutes, alto saxophone

Beth Custer - clarinet

Ben Goldberg - clarinets

Dan Plonsey - saxophones

Tom Yoder - trombone

Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman - violins

Tara Flandreau - viola

Matthew Brubeck - cello

Trevor Dunn - acoustic bass

Scott Amendola - drums

Gino Robair - xylophone, percussion, drums

Karen Stackpole - gongs, percussion

Rob Burger - accordion

Myles Boisen - electric bass

John Schott - guitar, organ, percussion

Released by New World Records in 2000



Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm speechless.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

wonderful read, putting my expectations high. thanks for this counter current, bravo. flawless presentation like always - you are a very constant juju.

bravo juju said...

Dear Lucko: you certainly exaggerate in your compliments, but thanks anyway.
The reading is very seductive and instructive; that's why I included so much text here. In fact, the reading here may be more interesting than the music itself, although of possibility of listening to the oldest recorded pieces of sound in the world is not something to be despised.

You can read the full text here:


Luckz said...

i tell you if i find the recording more or less interesting than the liner notes. new world rec. are famous for having all liner notes for their releases online as .pdf - i wish a label like ocora would be so wise, too.

and - i may exaggerate, but i don't have an idea what that means, because i'm no english native speaker, and too lazy to look it up, because i know what to expect from you... there you have it! :)

have a nice weekend,
be seeing you!

DON said...

I've been looking for this one. Muchas gracias

Anonymous said...

can't wait to hear this, thx a lot

Merry X-Mas said...

Merry X-mas and a better 2010 for dear all!

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