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You are what you collect

With . . . I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces, Steven Roden finds meaning and solace in old records and older photos

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You probably know someone who's accumulated, as poet and Ubuweb founder Kenneth Goldsmith admitted in the Wire's May issue, more music on his hard drives than he'll listen to in ten lifetimes. Chances are that even if you don't spend your nights like Goldsmith, downloading still more albums that you'll never hear, your digital music collection has gotten out of hand: according to recent data published by the makers of the Music WithMe app, its users' average iTunes library has 5,409 songs, of which only 1,214 ever get played.

But other collectors of music bypass the unbearable plenitude of the digital realm in order to seek out the genuinely scarce objects of an earlier age—78-rpm records. Enough of them feel compelled to formally release their finds that people who still pay for music could blow their monthly budget on compilations sourced from one man's library of 78s—Unheard Ofs & Forgotten Abouts comes entirely from Frank Fairfield's collection, Excavated Shellac: Strings from Jonathan Ward's, and Black Mirror from Ian Nagoski's.

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Dust-to-Digital Records, which released the latter two discs, specializes in lavish collections of vintage music. The label has just released . . . I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces: Music in Vernacular Photographs 1880-1955, an audiovisual extravaganza that does more than publicize the prizes of a private library: it explores and celebrates the intimate relationship between the collector and his beloved stuff. The collection in question belongs to sound and visual artist Steven Roden of Pasadena, California, an inveterate flea-market patron who hunts 78s and old photographs. I Listen to the Wind is a two-CD set packaged with a 184-page hardback book, which contains 150 of Roden's found photographs, all of which are anonymous—he has no idea who's in them, or in most cases even when they were taken. There are a handful of brief accompanying texts, some by Roden but most borrowed from other thinkers—poets William Wordsworth and Rainer Maria Rilke, filmmaker Stan Brakhage, film historian Philippe-Alain Michaud, and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, among others. The 51 tracks of music include blues, Hawaiian guitar instrumentals, sound effects, cowboy laments, folk anthems, and kitschy pop tunes. Five are anonymous home recordings—cut directly into acetate blanks using machines sold by Knight and Recordio.

The collecting impulse lends itself to categorization, whether chronological or more traditionally taxonomical, but it's not easily constrained by such frameworks. Some of the texts in I Listen to the Wind date from the 1700s, others to the present day. The pictures appear to date mostly from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the music was recorded between 1925 and 1955. Likewise the landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, originally released by Folkways in 1952, juxtaposed music from the dawn of electrical recording in the late 1920s with song synopses that read like newspaper banner headlines from the mid-19th century and illustrations lifted from a book by 17th-century mystic and polymath Robert Fludd.

Like Roden, the Anthology's compiler, Harry Smith, didn't just amass 78s; he also collected Ukrainian painted Easter eggs, Seminole Indian textiles, and paper airplanes (his trove of which he donated to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum). But Roden has done more than combine two collections in I Listen to the Wind—he's made the set about the experience and personal meaning of collecting.

Roden builds his case mostly with the explanatory texts. Benjamin establishes the revivifying bond between object and acquirer: "The acquisition of an old book is its rebirth." Rilke asserts that the connection you can establish with what he calls "inconsiderable things"—stuff that is humble but beloved—is fulfilling "in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance." Roden himself writes, "The best collections and the most visionary collectors bring objects together that do not necessarily seem comfortable with each other at first glance, yet upon deeper inspection these seemingly disparate parts reveal a consistency of thought rather than a consistency of form. Such cases have the potential to reveal the complex inner workings of the gatherer."

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