the Wire: Adventures in Modern Music, 363, May 2014 issue

Compilation Fever

There appears to be, in the field of sound art and electronic music, a flurry of compilations and anthologies currently available and in preparation, each aiming to demonstrate a comprehensive, consolidated and curated overview of “what is going on”. Companions, Anthologies, and Guides are being brought out that present overviews and connections and aim to catch the ephemeral and passing nature of sound and sonic production into a sense of stability and correspondence, affirming historical trajectories: where things come from; and determining present horizons: what belongs together.

These are books and CDs, words and sounds, organised into overarching themes, dates and genres, and with commercial, pedagogical or instructive goals. They perform an appeasement of the anxiety of ignorance and determine aesthetic, theoretical as well as commercial trends and values. They re-order personal and accidental explorations into shared vocabularies of musical production, overlaying private listening with a shared map of hearing.

Currently Oxford University Press and Routledge are working towards tomes of knowledge about sound art that are to rival the equivalent endeavours in the visual arts, taming the uncontrollable spirit of sonic expression rather than allowing sound’s invisible and unreliable nature to question the visual ideologies that drive us to organize knowledge. At the same time sonic and musical works are being curated into categories, genres, dates and place of origin in an effort to tidy up and designate what things are and where they belong.

SubRosa leads the way in firming up territories of musical knowledge and history. The reams of anthologies available on this label seduce through the appearance of clarity and orderlyness. Their series of anthologies of noise & electronic music, are each neatly labelled and organised to produce a chronology: a visible path of musical development and affiliation.  They function as portals and enable access to music and sound art, but they also bar creative engagement - facilitating listening within a very narrow focus and restricting criticality. They are the archive of now that presents a snapshot of the past while impressing on us the only location the future can come from. Their authority pervades tastes and opinions, and deforms listening into one way to hear.

The problem lies not with what is included but what is left out, what remains inaudible because of what the compilation makes us hear. That is the great paradox of compilation fever: the fervent desire to compile and organize, label and categorize to attain clarity and comprehension insidiously frames and prejudices the accident and serendipity of listening to anything else. SubRosa’s anthologies are useful, they create accessibility, opening the field and fostering comprehension, but they distort and conceal the as yet unheard by framing the audible.

While I agree with the introductory aims of anthologies it is only when approached with critical engagement that they can be anything but conferrers of normative taste and value. However broad and potentially infinite the selection of categories, they persuade us of certain contexts and associations rather than let us play with what might or might not go together.

Some compilations don’t start with pre-existing categories but in the practice of making sound. They come out of a shared effort rather than a historical or generic organisation, or they bring together various artists without insisting on the authority of the anthology but engage in more playful and momentary juxtapositions. The tapes made from residencies at Villa Arson, a contemporary art centre in Nice, for example, bring together work not for their historical relevance and reference but because of a shared moment of practice, and the sets of compilations produced by the Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine that was active in New York between 1983 and 1993, respond to more local sonic developments and tell of a more personal preference of the compiler that we are invited to hear rather than be instructed by. Reassuringly there exist contemporary versions of such endeavours such as Compost and Height, which makes available small and fleeting connections, and the recent republication of the 1990 book Sound by Artists, a collection of works, interviews and texts by artists working with sound, confirms that the anecdotal, collages of ideas and the compiling of unrelated narratives are as important to the sense of “what is going on” as the more formal knowledge production of anthologies.

To answer the compilation fever we need some nonanthologies: uncurated disorganizations of sounds and words that are aware of their individual and contingent nature, that do not confirm the past and do not guide us into a certain future but that narrate listening as a fiction, as an archive fiction that leads to a plurality of future auditions. These are the compilations we all did with casettes in the 70s and 80s, and then again burning CDs for our friends in the 90s before spotify and itunes started to survey and corporatize sharing: mix tapes, with hand drawn covers or later self-made but printed labels, handed from friend to friend, confirming taste and affiliation as a private and passing pursuit. These tapes do not confirm history but produce histories through the personal and generous compiling of what sounds at the moment. In turn they demand an engagement, a response and a desire to explore, to hear the audible and the inaudible and make up our own minds about the things we hear.