WHERE THE MUSIC TAKES YOU
When we say that a work product in a particular medium is a “document” of some other thing or event, what is it that we’re really claiming about that object, and what limits, if any, can we place on our experience of it? Is a so-called document somehow separate and apart from a work of dedicated creative invention, or can the two somehow be fused together through a mutually beneficial synergy? Taking a slightly different tack, is it arguable that any binary division between a document and a work of art is a false premise to begin with, and that any such distinctions lack a basis in rational discussion? As a category of filmmaking, for instance, the documentary world runs more or less on a parallel track to the studio system, with smaller budgets and less glamour, but also with just enough occasional dovetailing between the two worlds to allow one side to appear more altruistic and civically responsive, while the other can continue to entertain. Documentaries are not, as a rule, an art form that expects to fill stadiums or break opening weekend records, and it’s generally assumed that artists who choose to work in documentary modes make that commitment with quite a different set of expectations than an aspiring maker of Hollywood blockbusters.
However, we need only rewind the history of the documentary form a little bit to encounter a substantively different historical pattern making itself felt, wherein the drive to document and preserve the artistic output of others is grounded in a fundamentally creative impulse. In the respective cases of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith, there seems to have been a quite similar belief on the part of each man that unless someone intervened in a timely manner, a significant component of what both men considered to be among the most compelling aspects of contemporary civilization would be lost forever. Lomax, of course, is a legend in the annals of modern musicology for having traveled the southern US during the Depression era, making what are loosely termed field recordings of hundreds of folk and blues musicians for the WPA, nearly all of which ended up in the permanent possession of the Library of Congress, for the enjoyment of anybody who cares to listen. In Smith’s case, growing up in the Pacific Northwest afforded him a lasting youthful exposure to Native American culture and a reverence for indigenous cultures that eventually convinced him that the post-WWII recording industry, having long before made the sweeping transition from 78 RPM recordings to 331/3 RPM, which immediately took thousands of older recordings out of circulation because the means for playing them was rendered obsolete, had inadvertently discarded its most important legacy like an unwanted second skin. Smith’s response was to re-record a selection of original recordings from his own personal collection, by re-engineering a selection of 84 of the original recordings and releasing it as a six-album compilation called Anthology of American Folk Music. That neither he nor the label that released the anthology bothered to try and secure licensing rights for any of the music from the artists or their original labels was considered largely inconsequential at the time, although the Smithsonian Institution has since secured rights for every track, in order for Smith’s porto-bootlegging effort to be available for generations of future listeners.
The notion that an artwork originates from some form of ‘pure’ impulse to invent a thing of beauty out of thin air appears to us a shoddy remnant of modernist myths regarding the absoluteness of the unique and the original. For more than a century of art history, the boundless inventiveness of impressionism, expressionism, abstraction, surrealism, conceptualism and minimalism demonstrated truly remarkable fecundity, with multiple spinoffs and revivals ensuring that the well of imagery, iconography and form would be perpetually replenished, until one day suddenly it all dried up. Seemingly overnight, much contemporary art morphed into a game of stylistic shuffleboard, with a reasonably diverse range of tendencies and schools moving in and out of positions of seasonal influence and taste-making, while the elusive, radical goal of actual cultural disruption through art, of a sudden and complete break with existing art protocol, was vanishing on a faraway horizon.
Never Records makes a great deal of logical sense against the background of its founder, New York artist Ted Riederer, who evolved from post-adolescence as a musician, trained as a painter and became a conceptual artist. Ten years ago, with the financial crisis still gripping both the art economy in general and New York City in particular, and with the first two branches of his creativity channeled into periodic music shows and a steady studio practice, Riederer began to ponder how the demise of the retail record business could lead to another species of collective musical experience, replacing the social theater of browsing racks of new and old releases at the old Tower Records on Broadway and West 4th Street, which, by coincidence, became the site of Never Records’ first public manifestation, although not yet in its current format. This early version covered the racks themselves into elaborate concrete poems that one ‘read’ by physically skimming the records, whose covers were altered to change their text into isolated words and phrases arranged sequentially, one poem per rack.
The 2010 Liverpool Biennial was where Riederer finally birthed what’s become the rolling multi-city tour of Never Records as currently understood: a temporary site for recording and cutting 12-inch vinyl recordings, without cost, for whomever is incentivized to make an appointment and show up ready to perform a song or other type of musical composition. Instead of being something you have to travel somewhere to experience, instead Never Records comes to your city, whether it’s New Orleans, Louisiana; Derry, Northern Ireland; Amman, Jordan; or Kansas City, Missouri. Riederer puts out word online and through word of mouth that he welcomes local or visiting musicians and groups to book a recording session with him, the concrete results of which are two 12-inch vinyl records, cut while they wait, one given to the performer(s), while the other goes into the Never Records library (always open for browsing). Not surprisingly, Never Records is also something of a marathon for Riederer personally, with weeks of preparation, long days of rehearsing and recording, and frequent impromptu after-hours musical events, often featuring Never Records alumni who happen to be passing through town — or who have made a special trip to pay tribute to Riederer’s vision of musical camaraderie, and the emphasis it places both on the craftsmanship of music as well as on the possibility that meaningful art can be made whereby the economy of the gift, the shared moment, and the good deed temporarily replaces that of valuable objects being bought and sold in the luxury marketplace. Did I mention that nobody ever pays even a dime to make a Never Record?
Never Records steers so close at points to the recent vein of art as social practice that it would be easy to mistake the two. The greatest point of difference between them is probably the degree to which spontaneity and the time-based process of making records day after day for a succession of strangers dictate the hour-by-hour reality of what musicians are creating in real time. As the day unfolds, friends might drop by to listen or to hang out, and if it’s after sundown they may have brought beers along with them. Pizza might arrive, or there might be a hastily rehearsed performance. Even on those rare occasions when the music by itself isn’t enthralling as a pure listening experience, there is nearly always that moment in every musical collaborations when a kind of social alchemy is achieved: participants begin radiating the sensation that they’re only part of a larger, communal experience, in which the fundamental element is the sensual joy of listening to music as it’s being created in close proximity, as well as taking part in the mechanical, analog process of capturing that moment on the spot and preserving it on a physical object that can be taken away and played at home. One piece of evidence that the group ritual takes priority over other aspects of Never Records is the fairly unusual fact that Riederer and other longtime observers and participants of Never Records don’t care much what the stylistic genre is in which the musicians create their magic. It’s probably self-explanatory why folk and jazz musicians are naturally drawn to the format, but in the traveling library one finds lots of metal and loosely post-punk rock in the library, too, to to mention plenty of hiphop, blues and spoken word performance, plus a wide smattering of new genre music, from goofy & sentimental to bizarre & experimental, with nobody feeling compelled to comment on, or even notice, the glaring differences in what those genres actually sound like.
Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t part of what pulled Riederer into this experimental format of extended community-based performance, which has evolved into equal parts anthropological investigation, not-for-profit cultural entrepreneurship, and utopian manifesto. Along with the examples of Lomax and Smith cited earlier, other antecedents for Never Records can be found in the Happenings of Allen Kaprow in the 1950s, the love-ins and be-ins of the 1960s, and the broadly based DIY movement that grew out of the downtown punk scene in the 1970s and 1980s. In all of these earlier examples, the art (or music) was almost a by-product of a social experiment based on sharing and trust, in which people of different ages, races and backgrounds came together for predominantly ceremonial purposes. Of course such occasions are ephemeral by their very nature, but as the Never Records experiment continues unfolding in years to come, and as mortal memories of shared events start to recede in the opposite direction, its library will continue to expand, one private triumph after another, manifesting the self-empowerment to make one’s music so that others might enjoy.
DAN CAMERON is a New York-cased curator, writer and former band member.
Never Records is a combination recording studio and record shop, all operating in one building. The sole proprietor, interior decorator, and engineer is New York-based artist Ted Riederer. Inspired by his own redemptive education at a young age inside the walls of a local record store in Rockville, Maryland as well as the field recording projects of Alan Lomax, Riederer devised his unique community art installation in the early part of this century and has been replicating it with regional variations throughout the world since 2010.
Performers from a locale sign up for recording sessions ahead of time, with no auditions necessary. Riederer usually offers three hour sessions, during which he mixes on the fly and cuts vinyl right in front of the artist’s eyes once both are satisfied with a particular take. The recordings are free to the artist, the sessions are open to the public, and you can’t buy anything you see. Ted hasn’t lowered prices by cutting out the middleman. He is the middleman. He is not a vertical operation; he is an elliptical one, a constant feedback loop supplying its own demand. Still, everyone takes something home, even if it’s the barest speck of record shop camaraderie inadvertently inhaled.
Within the walls of the Never Records shop, visitors can view a gallery of photographs and artwork from previous temporary establishments in the US and UK, as well as flip through stacks of vinyl representing the hundreds of solo folk artists, punk bands, storytellers, jazz groups, and noisicians who jumped at the chance for a free recording session. Black wooden bins hold a curated selection of records from the growing collection, but these aren’t for sale or even trade.
The artist or band is allowed to take their own copy home, and another is added to Riederer’s archives, as well as a digital copy. Riederer encourages bands to use the recording any way they want. There are no fees, royalties, or ownership issues.
“I walk them through the cutting process and show them their sound waves on a microscope. I consider this interaction the real performance of Never Records. The alchemy of cutting never fails to put a smile on participants’ faces. The machine is a new one made by these crazy but wonderful dudes in southern Germany. It is called a Vinyl Recorder and while it may not be able to compete with a $50,000 Neumann cabinet lathe, I can get pure, beautiful, hiss free recordings.”
Beyond the technical aspect of recording, his main job is to maintain the right conditions inside the shop for insecurity-free performances. The right conditions go beyond the gear and the Persian rugs covering the floors. The right conditions exist separately from the poster-covered walls or the fact that the distribution chain from studio to factory to anti-commercial outlet runs about twelve feet. The right conditions include Riederer’s ability to quickly ascertain a band’s influences and capabilities and the vast cross-genre knowledge that allows him to alter his recording methods for each artist. The right conditions have everything to do with musicians in eyesight of each other, no one isolated in a booth. Everyone experimenting without worry because the meter isn’t running on dead air, eating up the credit limit.
Never Records has a slogan. It is YOU ARE NOT LISTENING. Riederer explains, “A lot of people say that certain movements just need a voice. But it doesn’t matter if you have a voice if no one is fucking listening! You can have the most articulate voice, but if no one’s listening, it’s like the voice doesn’t matter. You gotta listen. Someone has to listen, and this process I take very seriously."
In a world where bands are judged on 30 second samples and MP3s are collected and traded like baseball cards with no thought to the hard work and personalities behind their creation, Never Records creates a physical reminder of what a virtual platform can never truly duplicate.
- Ryan Sparks, New Orleans 2013