Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sublime Frequencies' Experimental World Music - EMP Conference Highlights Part Four

I'm finally getting around to finishing up my summaries of the amazing Experience Music Project Pop Conference that I attended a few weeks ago in Seattle. The very first presentation that I saw was one that I was probably most excited about since it focused on an indie record label, Sublime Frequencies, that is a favorite of many college radio stations.

In "Experiments with World Music, Vol. 2: The Sublime Frequencies of Cultural Difference," David Novak of Columbia University discussed how the Sublime Frequencies label is presenting a new, more experimental take on world music with its many volumes of found recordings from places like Sumatra, Bali, Burma, Syria, and Vietnam (to name few), which include clips of radio broadcasts, music from cassette tapes purchased at flea markets, and other oddities. Their latest (and 43rd!) release is Bollywood Steel Guitar.

According to the abstract for the presentation:

"...Sublime Frequencies represents world music in a mode that is strikingly experimental, both in its noisy rawness and its obscurantist approach to the documentation of local music and cultural origins...In this paper, I consider debates around Sublime Frequencies appropriation of source materials drawn from regional media, and discuss how listeners experiment with familiar-but-foreign popular musical forms in the curation of distant media sources. I describe how recordings otherwise considered world music are reclassified among underground music fans..."

Novak discussed how Sublime Frequencies represents a second wave of world music which is more underground that what we traditionally think of as "world music." He used the term "ethnographic surrealism" to describe how their take on world is different from, say, Alan Lomax and Smithsonian Folkways' releases.

Novak didn't really discuss this, but I think that this surreal, experimental take on music from around the world may even make it more palatable to college radio DJs. As an example of this, at my station many DJs are scared off by world music, but are eagerly diving in to Sublime Frequencies releases, perhaps for their camp value (especially the 60s/70s/western-inspired rock and pop pieces), randomness (sound collages and radio transmissions), the hipster associations of the label (one of the founders is Sun City Girl Alan Bishop), and the hidden gems on every release.

One point made by Novak was that a characteristic of the Sublime Frequencies releases is that the origin of the music is not well documented and the real musicians are generally not given credit. Artists and biographies are downplayed and he links some of this to the punk and DIY spirit embodied by the label owners.

Toward the end of the presentation we learned that Alan Bishop was in the audience, making for, I'm sure, a very nerve-wracking presentation for Novak! Bishop alluded to the many misconceptions out there in the media about his projects, but acknowledged that he hasn't really worked to correct those misconceptions either...thus adding to the obscurity of the material being discussed.

If you missed my other summaries from the EMP Pop Conference, you can read them here:

EMP Pop Conference Highlights Part One

Strippers, Retro Divas, and Yoko Ono - EMP Conference Highlights Part Two

Music and the War in Iraq - EMP Conference Highlights Part Three

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