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Posts Tagged ‘records’

Talk About Beauties

September 22, 2014 | by

The lost recordings of a phantom musician.

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Alexis Zoumbas, illustrated by R. Crumb.

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them. Read More »

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“Aestheticized Loot,” and Other News

June 20, 2014 | by

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“Six different artists made these paintings.” Photo via Vulture

  • An excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s next novel, Lila.
  • Discovered: twenty unpublished poems by Neruda.
  • As video games move from amusements to art, game designers should be increasingly concerned with presenting moral dilemmas in their games … Rather than having choices presented ‘as either/or, good/bad binaries with relatively predictable outcomes,’ games should strive to present ‘no clear narrative-or-system-driven indication as to what choice to make.’”
  • The photographer Eilon Paz has released Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, featuring pictures of, yes, record collectors and their daunting collections. Among the specialists: a guy who only collects The White Album; a guy who only collects Sesame Street records; the Guinness World Record holder (no pun intended) for largest collection of colored vinyl.
  • “A large swath of the art being made today is being driven by the market, and specifically by not very sophisticated speculator-collectors who prey on their wealthy friends and their friends’ wealthy friends, getting them to buy the same look-­alike art … It’s colloquially been called Modest Abstraction, Neo-Modernism, M.F.A. Abstraction, and Crapstraction. (The gendered variants are Chickstraction and Dickstraction.) Rhonda Lieberman gets to the point with ‘Art of the One Percent’ and ‘aestheticized loot.’ I like Dropcloth Abstraction, and especially the term coined by the artist-critic Walter Robinson: Zombie Formalism.”
  • Among the World Cup’s rules and regs: sex laws. Some teams are banned from pregame intercourse; others are only barred from certain forms of it. E.g.: “France (you can have sex but not all night), Brazil (you can have sex, but not ‘acrobatic’ sex), Costa Rica (can’t have sex until the second round) and Nigeria (can sleep with wives but not girlfriends).”

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A New Year’s Drive

January 11, 2014 | by

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Photo: Morven, via Wikimedia Commons

My father bought me a Swiss watch when I was seven. The strap was too big and needed adjusting, but when I could finally put it on, I felt a surge of electricity pulse through me, as if I’d just been shackled to time’s wrist. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the ticking of the second hand to sync up with the beat of my heart.

I stopped wearing it and kept it in my pocket, only later finding the proper use for it: timing the forty-fives I bought and listened to in my room, checking the accuracy of the time on the label to the time on my watch. The Beatles’ singles, I found, all listed the correct times. The Rolling Stones’ singles, not so much. They’d often claim their songs were fifteen or twenty seconds shorter than they really were, hoping to get more airplay from DJs, who would often opt for a song they could run right into the news break. For me, it was the first hint that time was negotiable, that with the right connections no one had to pay full price for an hour. That being the case, what was the point of a watch? I haven’t worn one since. Read More »

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Literary Vinyl

February 28, 2013 | by

6a00d83451da9669e2017c37089525970b-400wiThis is a niche we can get behind: so-called literary vinyl, defined by the Times Literary Supplement blog as “spoken word LPs, singles, and those oddly appealing 10-inch discs.” Collector Greg Gatenby is selling off his 1,700-strong collection for $80,000. But for those of us who grew up listening to 78s of A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Bread and Jam for Frances, the memories are, as the credit-card commercials would say, priceless.

 

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Golden Books

February 20, 2013 | by

enhanced-buzz-9081-1361119638-7While we can’t pretend to have actually asked the question, “What if best-selling albums had been books instead?”, we can all agree that the answer, from British designer Christophe Gowans, is brilliant. (We’d suggest The White Album, but, well.)

 

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Saved

January 3, 2013 | by

Ten years ago I was on the highway from Tennessee to Kentucky—can’t even remember the reason for the trip—but I kept the car radio on the AM band, set to “Scan,” because I’d noticed, over several years’ driving around this part of the world, how almost every small town you pass has at least one little church that’s broadcasting a low-wattage radio show, and you often hear fascinatingly crazy preaching on those transmissions and, less frequently, fine singing. That particular Sunday in January it was raining, and I was somewhere north of Memphis, passing depressing roadside storage buildings, when a remarkable live signal came across. The sound at first was like that of a giant wet towel rhythmically slapping on somebody’s back. After a minute I realized it came from hundreds of rain-soaked shoes stomping in unison on a concrete floor. I tried to imagine the inside of the church. It must have been cavernous. Or maybe—more likely—it was a warehouse, where this Pentecostal group had been forced to convene. Slap … slap … midtempo, it filled the car, as the people chanted a single line, “If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo … If He sends me, I’ll GO-oooo,” a three-note melody, simple to the point of crudity, but with a strange elegance. Folks got up and started testifying. A woman thanked God because on Christmas Eve she’d gone to the welfare office to get food stamps, and there’d been something wrong with her forms—a paper she hadn’t known was expired—“but the man give it to me anyway,” she said. “God softened his heart.”

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