May 8, 2012
“Littre’s dictionary defines ‘objet’ in one of its meanings as ‘anything which is the cause or subject of a passion; figuratively – and par excellence – the loved object’.
Let us grant that our everyday objects are in fact objects of a passion – the passion for private property, emotional investment in which is every bit as intense as investment in the ‘human’ passions. Indeed, the everyday passion for private property is often stronger than all the others, and sometimes even reigns supreme, all other passions being absent. It is a measured, diffuse, regulating passion whose fundamental role in the vital equilibrium of the subject or the group – in the very decision to live – we tend not to gauge very well. Apart from the uses to which we put them at any particular moment, objects in this sense have another aspect which is intimately bound up with the subject: no longer simply material bodies offering a certain resistance, they become mental precincts over which I hold sway, they become things of which I am the meaning, they become my property and my passion.” 1
This is Jean Baudrillard’s opening to a brilliant chapter on the topic of collecting, and defining one’s self as a collector, in his book “The System of Objects.” Admittedly, it’s a slightly heady entry for a journal striving to exculpate new music from a latent elitism and strip it of academic pretensions. It may seem even more out of place in an issue focused on vernacular music. But using Baudrillard’s ideas about our relationships to objects as an approach to Ben Hall’s Gospel Archive in DRAM is the kind of critical thinking—taking an idea, digging into it and finding out what is hidden behind it, who’s doing the talking, and what they’re trying to say—for which the forum of Sound American was created.
The music featured in this issue of SA comes from a collection of Gospel 45s and LPs amassed by Detroit based percussionist and visual artist Ben Hall called, ingeniously enough, the Ben Hall Gospel Archive in DRAM. Novelist Rick Moody, who is our welcome guest this issue, writes about the music (and the man who brings it to us) so elegantly in his essay and interview of Ben that we are at a loss to add anything of substance to either topic. And so, since Rick has been able to elucidate the first two terms in the title of Ben’s collection…Ben Hall and Gospel….it falls to me to dig into the term Archive, or to use a word much more comforting to most anyone that is passionate about music, the Collection.
“Every object thus has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed.” 2
“….the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status: it becomes part of a collection.” 3
There are very few musicians and music lovers that you will meet that haven’t developed their own purely intuitive understanding of Baudrillard’s definitions of objects and collections. All one has to do is remember back to their first trip to the record store or, maybe more to the point, their first trip home from the record store, to tap back into that rush of ownership and the discovery of the unknown. All music freaks have developed their own version of the sacrament, as laid out in the definition of Collection above. The use ritual is made up of the first consumption of the object—in this case a recording; and let’s put an even finer point on our example by talking about vinyl. Because what better consumable object of music is there than a large cardboard canvas for artwork and liner notes and the warm tangibility of an LP in your hand. You drop the needle and step back from the speakers to consume your object. A 20 minute chunk of organized sound, the delicate interruption of turning it over, the bittersweet knowledge that you’re already half way through the magic of the first listening. This is the purest example of use possible in the world of music collecting: this initial consumption is the truest use, in Baudrillard’s terms, of the object. That first listen, that first read through the liner notes and scan of the cover art can never be repeated, even though the listener may have epiphanic spinnings long after the LP has gone from use to possession.
That shift from use to possession is what defines the collection and that’s the vital practice of the ritual. If we maintain our example of the vinyl LP, this may include actions like the delicate return of the LP to the sleeve, perhaps a cleaning of the vinyl surface, perhaps the entombment in a mylar sleeve of the whole experience. Then comes the cataloguing, the alphabetization, the home-grown Dewey decimal system to cross-reference sidemen, composers, labels, genres, and time periods, the memorization of the object and its place in the conglomeration of similar objects that make it a collection. Once this shift has been made from use to possession as part of a collection that LP, no matter how many times you listen to it, will always be defined as a part of something larger than just vinyl and cardboard and it will also become infinitely harder to define.
This process of ritualization, of course, is never conscious. A subject doesn’t wake up one day and say “I’m going to collect records”. Rather, he or she walks into their living room/dining room/bedroom/bathroom/kitchen at some point, sighs, and says “I have a record collection”. They just look at the rows of spines, be they the cardboard of LP covers, the dull plastic of CDs, the boxy squatness of cassettes, or some version of all three, and acceptance permeates their being. These people now fit an archetype….they are a MUSIC FANS.
“An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent. And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.” 4
The collection allows us to give ourselves definition. In referring to the rest of this issue, one could say that Ben Hall is partially defined as a gospel collector; an incredible simplification, as it would be for anyone. To follow in this format, though, a person could conceivably define themselves as the jazz collector, delving as deeply as stacks of heavy 78s and bootlegs of off gigs of Eric Dolphy in Stockholm. Or the classical collector, complete with 19 versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet and a definite, passionate opinion about the 50s and 80s Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations. However, the most common way that the music fan defines themselves is as the pure eclectic collector, proudly exemplified perhaps by the proximity on their shelves of the complete Decca recordings of Duke Ellington’s 30s band and Aloys Kontarsky performing all of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke in the pristine vinyl box set.
The eclectic collector is collecting at its most deviant and conceptually pure. It is also fertile soil for Baudrillard’s idea of collecting as a source of anxiety. This attachment to the object is what is meant when a certain person’s wife (unnamed) uses the word “completist” with derision. It is a part of the collector’s definition as a human being or as a music fan to be passionate not only about the music you own as objects you utilize to possess that music, but also about possessing ALL of those objects in their individual series. If a collector likes David Tudor’s Rainforest, then they will need to have every recording of every performance of the piece ever released, and something feels off if any representation in the sequence is missing. It’s not just a hole in the record cabinet—it’s a hole in their definition of self.
“…through collecting, the passionate pursuit of possession finds fulfillment and the everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry, into a triumphant unconscious discourse.” 5
“Passion for the object leads to its being looked upon as a thing made by God. A collector of porcelain eggs is liable to believe that God never created a form more beautiful or more singular, and indeed that He devised this form solely for the greater delight of collectors.” 6
Admittedly, that last bit about the anxiety around collecting began to swerve into a dangerous and dark place: a vista from which we may be able to view ourselves, as music fans and collectors, as one copy of The Arista boxset of Anthony Braxton away from our very own episode of “Hoarders”, complete with teary eyed family members wondering why we won’t part with our copy of The Miles Davis/Gil Evans CD box, if we already own all the music on LP. But, that would be going too far. There is a profound distinction between amassing objects and collecting. The difference is that the focus on collecting doesn’t remain simply on the commodification and disposable consumption of the recording. To the true collector, the accrual of these specific objects is an expression of love and a definition of self. Therefore, it can never be involved in the grubby, day-to-day machinations of capitalism that breeds the idea of “having stuff”.
And, there is one more primary element that makes the collector a redeemable character. It can be summed up in this way: in my experience, I have never met a collector of music that is not interested in sharing their collection. It simply doesn’t happen. Try to prove to me wrong…go ahead, it’s like walking slow while listening to Beat It…it simply can’t be done. And it’s this desire to share that, on a broad scale, makes the obsession of collecting socially okay, maybe even morally imperative. Even the collector at his or her most fastidious provides us with a positive social service. Ultimately, the hours spent figuring out which should go first—Pollini or Serkin’s versions of Schoenberg—pay off in that someone is having the debate. Thinking about the differences in performance, making value judgments based on critical listening, appreciating the subtle shades between the two recordings. And then, talking to their friends about it. With true music collectors and fans, debating minute differences in performance practice isn’t about proving one’s self right; it’s a means of joining and then expanding the hermeneutic circle. A discussion of these two minute piano pieces might open up into an argument about writers, legendary sports figures, movies, (god forbid) politics, and end in a lofty discussion about broad abstract ideas, like what it means to collect.
In the last issue of SA, a certain manifesto was set out that our purpose was to save music from this perceived sense of elitist academicism, and to some this talk of collecting and the inclusion of Baudrillard may seem like we’ve jumped the rails already, but it’s the Schoenberg example above that allows us to believe that we’re still talking about the same basic values we set out at the beginning. Thinking isn’t evil. Thinking isn’t hard. It’s actually pretty fun to talk to human beings and find their opinions are well considered and different from yours. That’s called diversity. It’s a word that gets used a lot, but very rarely does one experience it with any depth. Collecting allows that to happen, it sets up a base component of comparison, of thought, of passionate obsession with something that is less micro-temporal than who won a Grammy this year. As music fans and collectors, we choose to go through ritual of the transition from use to possession and, with that ritual there always seems to be a waste product of thought and consideration, and this is a good thing.