Looking through boxes of old stuff can lead to some unusual discoveries. I almost always find myself flipping through boxes of old sheet music when I happen upon them -- how else would I learn about turn-of-the-previous-century Canadian geography and child singing stars? This time around we've got some great 1960s kitsch. I took home this free copy of Let's Play the Yamaha Electone purely for the cover graphic (above); I didn't even notice the title. After being in the way in my living room for several weeks, I finally picked up the book and had a proper look-through.
Musically, it's unexceptional. "Merrily We Roll Along," "Oh! Susanna," "Brahms' Cradle Song," and other bland tunes. It's the full page pictures that grab your attention. First up, leaving an open spot next to your Yamaha Electone to park your glimmering tea service:
Maybe our stylish mother just finished serving a round before performing her rendition of "Red River Valley"?
Not so with our next tableau. This family is so engaged by the instrument they don't need floor-to-ceiling wood panelling or a even horizon:
Then again, the maniacal look on the father's face perhaps suggests an insanity induced by his featureless surroundings.
What's interesting about both of these photos is that they have very little to do with music and music-making. It seems here that the Electone, as a home organ, is being treated much like any other piece of furniture in the household while also acting as a centre for "family fun." Upright pianos in the 19th century were bought and sold for partly similar reasons: they were an item a middle-class family would own to establish their respectability and to provide a form of simple, wholesome entertainment for the family and visitors alike. Since Let's Play... is a beginner's book, the publishers have probably rightly assumed that no sales pitch on the wondrous benefits of Electone is necessary -- because if you're buying a beginner's book, you've already been sold on the instrument itself. However, these photos are still a bit curious as images of their type are not normally found in instructional books, and their inclusion here gives the impression that the book is still doing the work of an advertising campaign. Was Yamaha determined to drive home the Electone's messaging of family togetherness and upward mobility by all available means? Perhaps they spent enough money on these photos and wanted to get further use out of them, or they just needed filler for a couple more pages of the book.
There are a few images that also serve an instructional purpose, such as demonstrating proper playing posture whilst wearing a formal suit:
Correct foot placement is equally important:
While the fad for electronic home organs faded during 70s and was all but dead by the 80s, the Electone apparently managed to reinvent itself enough to survive changing times -- at least, that's what the fragmentary Wikipedia article says. But the real key to its staying power might have been the instrument's greater popularity in Asia than it had had the West. In fact, the Electone is so popular that there used to be a Yamaha-sponsored festival for the instrument. Yamaha eventually pulled their support, but it's subsequently been revived, a junior festival has been established, and there have been calls to revive festivals in other regions. As some are hoping, maybe it'll make a worldwide come-back soon?
I saw Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's installation Opera for a Small Room recently. How to summarise it? To quote from the artists' website: "There are twenty-four antique loudspeakers out of which come songs, sounds, arias, and occasional pop tunes. There are almost two thousand records stacked around the room and eight record players, which turn on and off robotically syncing with the soundtrack. The sound of someone moving and sorting albums is heard. The audience cannot enter the room. To see and hear his world, they have to look through windows, holes in the walls, and cracks in the doorways and watch his shadow move around the room. "
The "he" here is R. Dennehy, an inhabitant of the small town of Salmon Arm, B.C., who is (was?) a real person, but the story told about him in Opera is a fictional one concocted by the artists. Dennehy's real link to the work is through his former record collection: Cardiff and Miller found the 100 or so discs at a second hand store in Salmon Arm and bought the lot of them. The collection is made up of opera recordings with an emphasis on the great tenors.
There's lots of interesting stuff about Opera: of the 20 minute performance, the first part is made up of layered and alternating excerpts of commercially released albums -- arias, country tunes, crooner music -- which are interspersed by ambient environmental sounds and the invisible narrator singing, talking, and shifting about the room. Moving into the latter half, the music becomes more originally composed (by Miller) as well as increasingly dramatic and rock-oriented. The synchronised lighting adds to this showiness.
I can't say with certainty if any or all of the opera excerpts heard are from the records in Dennehy's collection -- I hope at least some of them are, because that would make the installation that much cooler. The contrast of a remote setting with either the high-brow record collection of Dennehy's creation or the eclectic texture assembled by Miller and Cardiff is also intriguing and maybe points to some kind of Canadian experience: as the artists have said, in Opera they wanted to explore "the extreme cultural juxtaposition between opera and the smallwestern town in which R. Dennehy lived." Almost immediately upon seeing the installation (and before I knew anything about it) I was reminded of a visit to a friend up in Wawa, Ontario. Her home, a retro-fitted log cabin that had once been a miner's lodging, was stacked with LPs and other music-related items from bygone eras. Yes, Cardiff and Miller have said they don't make consciously Canadian art and, yes, there are small towns the world over, but do rural Canadians compulsively stockpile their music records like winter preserves, more so than rural folk in other places?
Questions of Canadian identity and rural lifestyle aside, what's also - more? - interesting is the relationship of Dennehy's collection to this subsequent artistic use. In the archival world, there's a distinction made between groupings of documents that arise "organically" out of an individual or organisation conducting its daily affairs and those groupings put together quite deliberately and consciously by someone or some institution going around collecting materials related to a particular subject, individual, etc. The former are called fonds and the latter are collections. Dennehy's collection, then, very much fits with the archival conception of the term -- he's gone about gathering together vinyl of opera, creating links between previously discrete objects through his own active interest in them. As far as he knew, he was the only one who cared about his collection as a cohesive whole, an entity unto itself. When he donated it to the second-hand store, he tacitly permitted breaking the bonds between the records -- a bond which was held together only by him -- because at the second hand store the records were available to be bought separately, to be re-ordered into someone's else collection, to take part in a new whole. In effect, the records were returned to the status in which he had found them -- as individual commodities of commercial recordings. It was only by chance that Cardiff and Miller came along to salvage and enshrine it as the "R. Dennehy collection" by not only basing their installation on this group of records but also by acknowledging it for what it was -- a deliberate act of assemblage by a particular individual.