YmeragaMTCfinal “Good morning, my precious little Estonian on the other side of the speaker”: Ethnolinguistic Nationalism and Estonian Hip-Hop

Erik Dardan-Ymeraga

Brown University

December 2012

 

 

 


The Case for a Community Archive of Live Recording in Providence, RI

            I distinctly remember the moment I first began to see myself as more than a spectator in the Providence, Rhode Island underground music and arts scene. I had already been taking and casually distributing amateur recordings of local live performances for some months, but I had never stopped to consider my own unfolding role until an acquaintance whose set I’d taped, by way of thanks, summed it up perfectly in five words: “Everyone has a job to do.” As a self-consciously non-performing musician in a community where it often feels as if everyone has at least dipped their toes into public sound-based art, I strive constantly to take these words to heart, and have found them deeply indicative of my broader experience here. With the encouragement of my peers (and by grace of the decreasing consumer costs of handheld digital recording technology), I took on the task – essentially unfilled since the Minidisc era – of documenting the sounds of the Providence underground. It’s been a year and a half since my first “bootleg” as I affectionately call them, taken from the dusty asphalt of an Olneyville warehouse loading dock; the iTunes playlist I use to collect my edited recordings currently reads at forty-six hours and was last updated just four days ago, though at least five more sets remain in the editing queue. More salient than their volume, though, is the enthusiasm these documents elicit in others. Some time ago I adopted the practice of sending performers the final edits of their set, initially unsure if they would have any interest in hearing them; to my relief, the response has been almost universally positive.

I refer here to editing, and perhaps should briefly explain my methodology in doing so. Using open-source audio editor Audacity, I cut the raw audio files generated by the recorder into individual tracks, when relevant separating out and identifying pauses for tuning, banter or technical difficulties. This is done in the interest of creating self-contained song tracks conducive to either individual or full-set consumption at the listener’s discretion. After identifying track beginnings and ends, I apply basic mastering, boosting volume levels as much as possible without distortion. In the case of spike-producing heavy drum hits or when applause levels are higher than those of the music itself, I experiment with different mastering levels to achieve the most balanced possible sound, often lowering applause levels when I am able to do so inconspicuously. Finally, I export the tracks as high-quality .MP3s, tag them with artist and album title (the venue and date of the performance) using iTunes, and upload the set to a free registered Mediafire account (which guarantees files will not be deleted in the event of inactivity) as a single .zip file, generating a static link that can then be shared.

 

The seeming ease with which these sets can be shared online brings into light a new array of promises and complications. As the sight of my recorder has become more and more ubiquitous at local shows, I’ve begun to receive and honor requests for audio from friends and fellow concert-goers, and it’s not unheard of for friends to write me to verify that my device and I will be in attendance at key events. As for the musicians themselves, I have found them to be almost universally happy for their live audio to be passed along to others; not once have I encountered concern that freely available live recordings will cut into an artist’s merchandise sales. (Bizarrely, some musicians go so far as to ask my permission to publicly post their own music.) Still, there remains something deeply dissatisfying about disseminating what I believe to be a community resource exclusively via semi-private and ineffectual channels. I sometimes share sets on Twitter and Facebook with modest success – two sets, both later re-posted by the performing musicians, have notably broken the forty-five download mark – but these platforms are more of a blunt instrument than a sustainable solution. While Twitter boasts a surprising number of Providence musicians as members (a slightly older generation of which made their initial jump to the platform from Citizen’s Band radio) it remains stylistically impenetrable to many; Facebook, while increasingly a site of scene dissemination via its event listings, features a more saturated membership at the expense of the visibility of any single piece of posted content. It’s not just me who finds the current system, or lack of one, wanting: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked “what I do with the recordings” and been unable to give an answer. The response to my befuddlement is loud and clear: “make an archive”. But what might such an archive look like?

            It is the aim of this paper to begin to address that question, to lay the groundwork for an eventual community-oriented online space in which to share and interact with local live recordings. I will begin with some remarks on the archival act itself and in defense of its expediencies in this particular case, followed by an examination of the specific archival requirements and concerns implied by those expediencies. As a launching point towards potential implementation, I will lastly examine several currently existing sound-sharing platforms, including Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and the Free Music Archive, for their qualities and drawbacks with regard to the specific archival priorities of the community in question. First and foremost, I should address the word “archive” itself: as a classmate rightly pointed out to me, “archive” is weighed down by intertwined notions of an intimidatingly intellectualized institutional repository. My own concerns relate to a more contemporary association: when we click the “archive” button on the now all-too-familiar Gmail interface, do we do so in the sincere intent of unearthing the document later, or do we simply lack the heart to delete it? As Bruno Nettl cautions, “collecting and preserving have sometimes become ends in themselves” (quoted in Vallier 2010:43). Still, there is hope, I think, for our use of the term here: most immediately promising is Andrew Flinn and Mary Stevens’ seemingly straightforward yet absolutely essential definition of “community archives”, “the (often) grassroots activities of creating and collecting, processing and curating, preserving and making accessible collections relating to a particular community” (Flinn and Stevens 2009:5, emphasis mine). Fascinatingly, Flinn and Stevens orient creative practice itself under the umbrella of community archiving; more immediately salient to our purposes is their insistence on accessibility. Paul Conway, in “Preservation in the Digital World” is more direct: “Active use,” he emphasizes, “is the lifeline of… a digital library worth preserving” (quoted in Breaden 2006:52-3). Conway’s language also seems to consciously break from the impenetrable, intimidating stuffiness of the archive proper, referring to digital collections as “loosely connected clusters”. These definitions are a sufficient starting point for the present vision.

Why Archive? The Providence Case

The question, however, may still remain: why archive, and why here?  My personal answers draw upon both systemic and intensely specific concerns. Take, for example, the song “The Seven and Six” from local ensemble Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores’ most recent album Sister Death. My first recording of the piece is dated June 11, 2011, and it had been on the band’s typical setlist for months preceding. The album itself was finally released by Cuneiform Records on September 25, 2012. It is hardly unique to see a recording/release schedule staggered in this manner; on the contrary, in many ways it is typical of the experience of the small-time musicians around whom local communities congeal. The myth of universal home recording capability is a pleasing one, but while such a strategy may be entirely suitable for a garage rock combo, what about a six-piece group with acoustic contrabass and French horn? For the Eyesores and many of their peers, the reality is that recording their work for commercial release is costly and necessarily requires a professional studio. The year, say – or easily longer – after a song or set of songs is written thus becomes a period of scrimping and saving until a studio can be booked. Bands like the Eyesores with the privilege of a record contract must wait longer still, their label electing to sit on the completed album until the time is right to release it. In the meantime, friends and loyal fans at home have seen “The Seven and Six” and its peers performed countless times: they may know every word but still have no way of replaying it outside the context of the next Eyesores show. A live recording provides for the community member a sort of stopgap, a way of maintaining connection to a work-in-progress beyond the physical confines of the club or warehouse. This is not to say these documents substitute for a studio-recorded release; on the contrary, the inevitable applause and other unavoidable incidental sounds of the space and audience irrevocably tie a live recording to the experience of bearing witness. As John Young writes in “Inventing Memory”, “[l]istening back to a sound recording of an event just witnessed… affords the otherwise-impossible opportunity to re-hear something extracted and made seemingly permanent out of the flow of time” (Young 2008:317). This can also serve as a helpful aid to the recording musician, offering an otherwise-unattainable sense of how a song is coming across from the audience’s vantage point. In my experience working with musicians bogged down in the recording cycle, live recordings are received more graciously than ever. As Hall McCann of Two-Headed Dog put it succinctly in response to my February 18 recording of their first-ever show, “[o]therwise I would have no idea what we sound like!” (McCann 2012:Private communication) (The band, who now live thousands of miles apart, have yet to release a recording.) In certain extreme cases, these live recordings can even inform their studio versions: I was humbled last week to hear from my friend Eli V. Manuscript of duo Humanbeast that a recording I took on February 14 has been on constant rotation as the group prepares to record an LP, his life- and musical partner Maralie listening to her own screams from nearly a year ago and mimicking them on preliminary demos. As Eli explained, songs that had been stagnating in recording limbo for months were paradoxically reimbued with their original dynamicism through reference to early documents.

            Redfearn’s compositions are tight with little room for improvisation; every sound down to the rhythmic scratch of knife on sharpener that subtly backdrops another Sister Death track is painstakingly positioned – and recreated onstage with astounding fidelity. I realized this the hard way upon returning home from the group’s album release show in September, when I listened back to my recording from the evening only to marvel at its dull sound when placed alongside the brand-new, almost-identical technically studio version. Most Providence performances in my experience, however, draw a sharper distinction with studio takes – in the event, of course, that the latter exist at all. The most dramatic example of this can be seen in the noise music for which Providence has achieved in certain niches no small degree of notoriety: intensely performative and often nearly completely improvised, noise sets represent a forceful argument in favor of documentation in their common lack of reference to any studio recording, past or future. This is not to say that noise musicians do not record their material, but the material they record is rarely reflected explicitly in the material they perform. Lauren Pakradooni, who performs as PAK, goes so far as to play sets using her own released cassettes as raw material, but at the tail end of a chain of effects pedals what emerges is entirely unrecognizable. Even when the product of a self-conscious composition, noise performances can and almost always do sound completely different from one instance to the next. I have two recordings of a piece composed by Scøtt Reber for his Work/Death primary project and performed six days apart in the same space; if Reber himself hadn’t told me both sets were drawn from the same score I would never have been able to associate them. A version of this composition was later recorded for Reber’s Three Songs of Lenin cassette label, again entirely distinct to my ears from the live instantiations. (It is perhaps worth noting that, in a testament to the cross-pollinating nature of the Providence underground, Reber has been known to perform in Successeries, an improvisational trio with Frank Difficult and Matt McLaren of the Eyesores; connections such as these are impossible to avoid in any extended discussion of Providence music’s human players. This tendency towards shifting lineups and one-off collaborations is itself an impetus to record, as often a live performance will mark the single instance two or more musicians play together publicly.)

            Thus far I’ve argued the merits of live recording practice as a document of musical compositions, improvisations and lineups that possess no publicly accessible and repeatable referent. One final consideration relates more deeply to questions of memory and even trauma. Any recording carries traces of the space in which it was conducted – intangible ones, but aural ones as well. While few of us would claim the ability to recognize the unique timbre of any familiar building simply by listening to a recording, neither would many dispute that different spaces have distinct sounds. Indeed, an entire field (soundscape studies) is premised upon the notion that the sound profiles of different places are not only perceptible but are capable of interacting with memory and emotion in complex manners: John Young refers to “the associative and contextual dimensions of sound in natural and man-made environments” which serve as “vehicles for meaning” (Young 2008:316). For those familiar with a locale, even minute stimuli like the metadata in an audio file (i.e. an album title listed as “Live at…”) can stir up vivid associations.

Recording performance, then, necessarily becomes a document of space as well, a condition that, while easily glossed over most of the time, surges to the forefront in the event that a space is lost. “It is to our social spaces,” writes Paul Connerton in his How Societies Remember, “those which we occupy, which we frequently retrace with our steps, where we always have access, which at each moment we are capable of mentally reconstructing, that we must turn our attention, if our memories are to reappear” (Connerton 1989:37, emphasis mine). How is memory to be preserved, then, if access is cut off permanently? It is a common characteristic of underground music communities that unconventional performance, art and even living spaces (frequently repurposed warehouses and other industrial remnants, leased under the auspices of “studio space”) become loci for gathering, the unavoidable side effect of this quasi- or outright illegal activity being the venues’ periodic, near-cyclical shutdown. When, as in Providence almost exactly one year ago, a beloved space’s activities are halted and its residents evicted, documentation becomes among other things a potential coping mechanism for those most directly affected. The 2011 closure of Olneyville’s “Obscure Entertainment District” complex was atypical in that it was not instigated by police activity but rather by the building’s sale, and thus the residents of the four autonomous spaces within it were given just under a month’s notice of eviction, during which activity at the building skyrocketed. These final shows, many played by building residents about to lose their home, were emotionally intense, exemplifying Diana Taylor’s vision of performance as “work[ing] in the transmission of traumatic memory, drawing from and transforming a shared archive and repertoire of cultural images” (Taylor 2003:187). Thus marching band What Cheer? Brigade, crammed into a makeshift kitchen in the “Witch Clvb” space, transformed their traditional closing cover of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” into a triumphant shout-along; thus at the end of a 3 AM set in an unheated warehouse, Scøtt Reber’s iconic muttered “Work/Death. Providence.” signoff became “Work/Death. Witch Clvb.” These recordings of transformations, as well as hours of ambient sound and community chatter from the life of the building, served not only as a memorial trace of a lost gathering place but as a personal coping mechanism on my part. I wasn’t the only one: the response from community members to the final District recordings was staggering, my inbox and telephone inundated with supportive messages and requests for audio. When access is cut off and steps cannot be physically retraced, all that remains of Connerton’s formula for the persistence of memory is to “mentally reconstruct[t]” a social space. If, as Michel de Certeau conceives, “space is a practiced place” (de Certeau 2011:117), through live recordings that practice persists at least as facsimile, and as an imaginative tool for “mental reconstruction”.

A final note concerning my preference for sound seems in order. Much literature on contemporary performance and documentation focuses almost exclusively on video, treating sound as little more than a footnote on the path to the moving image. Yet the spaces in question here are primarily music spaces, and to make a practical point, entry-level cameras simply cannot match the audio quality of a comparably priced dedicated recorder; it strikes me as a poor bargain to sacrifice aural fidelity in return for images that would almost always be limited by the club’s dim lighting. Furthermore, a recorder is much less obtrusive than even the smallest camera and offers far greater flexibility of placement, minimizing the recordist’s interference in the documented events. Similarly, on a psychological level, it is much more common to be “camera-shy” than to be intimidated by audio recording. This is not to say that photography and video do not have their place in documentation and the maintenance of memory – indeed, local noise sets often include a prominent visually performative aspect – but in my own personal context I have found it most valuable to focus exclusively on sound and its singular implications.

Some Essential Qualities of a Community Audio Archive

            I had thought to begin with some more minute technical aspects of the Providence archival question, but the previous section leaves us primed to first elucidate a broader concern. In “Scoring the Work: Documenting Practice and Performance in Variable Media Art”, Corina MacDonald identifies the digital document as the fusion of “container, content and context”; of these, “[c]ontext is the most difficult aspect… to document for posterity” (MacDonald 2009:60-61). In the case of live recordings in an online space, MacDonald’s “container” would be represented by the interface for listening, or perhaps even the audio file itself; the “content” is roughly described in the actual sound. As for “context”, MacDonald explains, it “exists in the cultural and social constructions brought to the work by all participants, as well as the roles and practices involved in instantiating their work” (61). In this definition we begin to encounter the documentary difficulty alluded to previously. The problem as MacDonald sees it is the rooting of context in “tacit knowledge”, “the range of conceptual and sensory information that cannot be expressed in words but that provides the backdrop to our understanding of a thing”: in the case of the digital archive, “the tacit knowledge necessary for preservation consists of the artistic intent, the social and cultural contexts that impart meaning and the practices that are required to re-present the work” (61). I perhaps have a bit more faith than MacDonald in the ability of language to reflect tacit knowledge, but to underestimate the problem of dealing with context would be a grave error. To begin to do so we may easily look to various multimedia ephemera such as gig posters and, if available, photographs from the performance in question, but while useful, these are artifacts of their own, with their own need for contextualization.

It is here that a bit of diligent indexing can work potential wonders: recording sets should be sortable in as many ways as possible – not only by the classic audio interface categories of artist and genre, but by other shared qualities: venue, personnel, the same song over time, anything else that draws out the lines of connection that bind the community together. A promising model for this may be the recently launched digital archive of folklorist Alan Lomax’s Alliance for Cultural Equity, which enables indexing by less common categories including “song title”, “instrument” and “location” as well as such abstract markers as “culture”. Individual artists recorded multiple times should be presented in chronological order, a simple and indeed default gesture that nevertheless begins, entirely absent of language, to spin out a contextual narrative. A tag system or some other hypertext model should easily facilitate the grouping of various recording groups linked by a shared performer: in the example of Scøtt Reber, a click on his name under any Work/Death recording would immediately compile sets by Afrobeat group Double Decker Dance Band, electroacoustic trio Kumo No Kumo, and sludge metal band OVER. Another example typical of the potential for self-guided discovery inherent to the hypertext model might be a feature listing all artists who have shared a Providence bill with the currently selected performer. Through the simple capacity to organize this data in various ways, potentially rich patterns of context immediately emerge: artists’ preferred venues, spiraling collaborations, spurts and slowdowns in activity, periods of noticeable focus on one project over others. What are these patterns if not representations of “tacit knowledge” inscribed for posterity?

A practical point now presents itself. The vast majority of this data is easily attainable, but the integration of that data into an online audio platform is by itself insufficient. Any downloadable content (and it is my opinion that all streamable materials should be downloadable as well except in the case of the artist’s objection) must be ready to function at as high as possible a contextual capacity even upon removal from the literal context of the archival space. Much of archivist Ian Craig Breaden’s 2006 criteria for a successful sound archive, as enumerated in “Sound Practices: On-Line Audio Exhibits and the Cultural Heritage Archive” seems dated even just six years later, but his early insistence on the maximal use of MP3 metadata in the dissemination of online audio remains essential – and still far too often unheeded. ID3 tags possess an impressive capacity for actualizing context: archival audio files should be tagged in the appropriate fields by artist, year, venue, date, song titles when available, and the copious space made available in the multipurpose “comments” and “lyrics” fields should be used for data without a devoted field of its own, such as personnel, or any general notes deemed relevant. In “The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States”, the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress reminds us of the need to bear in mind “how recordings might be used in the future”; director of Smithsonian Folkways Dan Sheehy echoes this in quoted testimony, arguing it is the duty of documentarians to “frontload the whole documentation process” (NRPB 2010:62) before essential context disappears from memory.

In all this talk, however, of linguistically neutral data and metadata, I would be remiss were I to avoid the thorny issue of mediation. In “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives”, Tom Nesmith identifies a longstanding tendency in the archivist to efface her or his presence as essential mediator of the public record, yet “most of what makes a record intelligible lies outside its physical borders in its context of interpretation. Archivists, who do much to shape this context, therefore share in authoring the record” (Nesmith 2002:32). This ambiguous role and the power dynamic it serves to obfuscate must be addressed head-on if they are not to become problematic; for this reason among others, it is essential that any community-oriented recording archive be community-sourced as well. From a purely practical standpoint, there are only so many concerts I can personally attend, so many sets I can record. The recordings I do take are thus inherently filtered through my own managerial priorities, the predilections I possess for certain genres or artists within a diverse musical community – in short, by what I feel is most deserving of documentation, which cannot and should not be said to represent anyone else’s thoughts on the same, let alone those of the community at large. A potential model for an open-submission recording archive is the Free Music Archive: hosted by New York freeform radio station WFMU, the FMA opens its servers to “curators” who are empowered to upload whatever content they find most deserving of attention as long as they own the rights to it or secure the permission of the rightsholder. Another, marginally less egalitarian model that has played an important role in the Providence underground for some years now is that of lotsofnoise.com, an open-submission concert listing site casually moderated by one individual, local musician Ryan Lesser.

I have no presumptions that the establishment of a community-sourced archive will inspire an explosion of amateur recordists in the sometimes uncomfortably-small Providence scene, but even the possibility of just one or two more warrants a protocol for contribution. A strong focus on public access to actual curatorial activity as well as listenership would also assist in partnership outreach to organizations with preexisting audio archives not currently in any sort of active use, such as youth classical music education nonprofit Community MusicWorks and downtown arts space AS220, both of whom have for years been painstakingly documenting performances that remain in no way accessible to the public. Certain musicians, too, have had their periods of documentary impulse: Reber has invited me to dig through his boxes of Minidisc-sourced CDrs of early-2000s Providence concerts, and Warwick, RI performer Larry Marshall has been recording sets to cassette for years. Collaboration with these preexisting troves would both enrich any archive and begin to address the problem of mediation.

Conclusion: Mainstream Audio Platforms and Paths Forward?

            In the above pages I have attempted to demonstrate the need for a community-targeted, community-sourced archive of live audio recordings from the Providence underground music scene, as well as proposed a few parameters for the eventual implementation of such an archive. The appropriate site for such implementation, however, remains somewhat unclear. In recent years, multiple online platforms have emerged for the management and hosting of streaming and downloadable audio, the most prominent being Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Unfortunately, both services contain drawbacks substantial enough that it is difficult to imagine an effective and open archive hosted on either. Bandcamp offers online metadata editing and one-click album downloads, as well as the capacity to receive donations for freely available material; however, each host has a limited number of free downloads to give out, after which listeners are forced to pay – at the same time essentially forcing curators to charge for their content. While it would take time for a fledgling archive to become visible enough to break the free download ceiling, it seems inherently against the archival spirit to charge community members for its materials. As for Soundcloud, its social aspect foregrounding the ability for registered users to comment on tracks is laudable, and a recent site redesign allows the grouping of tracks into elegantly unified “sets” that can be easily approached either as continuous mixes or individual tracks – seemingly tailor-made for live recording playback. Again, though, free downloads are heavily limited, as is the amount of space a free-account user can occupy: a meager two hours. In fact, the only “premium” package that would support the current size of just my own archival material is priced at €500 per year.

            There does, however, exist a platform conceived specifically for archival concerns: the previously mentioned Free Music Archive. Perhaps the most immediately useful feature of the FMA is the “curator” account, which allows the convenient linkage of as many individual artist pages as necessary, though unlike the decent tag systems on both Bandcamp and Soundcloud the FMA interface lends itself quite poorly to hypertextual jumps. Still, while the site and its playback interface haven’t been visually updated in some time and are beginning to show their age, there are crucially no upload or download limits, and full albums are always accompanied by a convenient one-click .ZIP link. In purely pragmatic terms, the Free Music Archive is the only one of the examined platforms viable for long-term archival work. In the light of my earlier discussion of the contextualizing power of hypertext, the inability to navigate by tag in the FMA seems on the surface a substantial drawback compared to the other platforms; perhaps, then, the solution is half inside and half outside of the platform, using external embed capabilities to deposit streamable audio in a third-party, perhaps even self-designed frame capable of a much more dynamic style of indexing, navigating and above all, contextualizing.

            While I remain dissatisfied with the FMA as a primary platform, largely on account of its navigational limitations, it remains the most promising option for audio hosting short of designing a platform from scratch, an undertaking well beyond my technical and financial means. A ground-up model could in theory be realized with the support of grants, and the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts has a surprising history of supporting projects related to the Providence underground; still, the FMA option has the distinct advantage of being quickly and relatively easily actionable. Whatever the ultimate platform, I intend to make this project a central focus in the coming year; I hope to be able to collaborate with Providence musicians to finalize and implement a community repository for their work, and for the memory it helps to sustain.

 

Works cited:

Breaden, Ian Craig. 2006. “Sound Practices: On-Line Audio Exhibits and the Cultural Heritage Archive.” The American Archivist 69(1): 33-59.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Flinn, Andrew and Mary Stevens. 2009. “Telling our own story: independent and community archives in the UK, challenging and subverting the mainstream.” In Jeannette A. Bastian and Ben Alexander (eds.), Community archives: the shaping of memory. London: Facet Publishing.

 

MacDonald, Corina. 2009. “Scoring the Work: Documenting Practice and Performance in Variable Media Art.” Leonardo 42(1): 59-63.

National Recording Preservation Board. 2010. The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age. Washington: Library of Congress.

Nesmith, Tom. 2002. “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives.” The American Archivist 65(1): 24-41.

 

Nettl, Bruno. 1983. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

Vallier, John. 2010. “Sound Archiving Close to Home: Why Community Partnerships Matter.” Notes (Second Series) 67(1): 39-49.

 

Young, John. 2008. “Inventing Memory: Documentary and Imagination in Acousmatic Music.” In Mine Doğantan-Dack (ed.), Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections. 314-332. London: Middlesex University Press.