Letter from Ian Nagoski


Hi, folks.

It’s been a while. I’m lousy at being in touch.I try to put myself out there on the Social Nutworking, but it only goes so far. Sometimes you have to write a 1999-style mass email. Think of it as an Easter letter.

The big news is that I’m developing, along with two producers at WYPR, Lawrence Lanahan and Bruce Wallace, a radio show called Fonotopia.


The format is me talking and playing 78rpm-era records. Each show is themed—an era, a location or a general concept. We have four episodes finished (I think the fourth, titled “A Short Life of Trouble,” will be posted Friday April 2). We have serious hopes that it will be picked up by our local National Public Radio affiliate and by other radio stations. It’s new terrain.

My imprint, Canary Records (manufactured and distributed by Mississippi Records in Portland, OR) got two records out in the second half of last year, and they did as well as we hoped. There are three more releases currently being mastered and designed. They are:

Marika Papagika – The Further the Flame, The Worse It Burns Me: Greek
Folk Music in New York 1919-28
(that one will be out within the next eight weeks; as you may know, I’ve been working on it steadily for three years now. The notes will be a chapbook – some 4000 words.)

v/a – To What Strange Place: Armenians & Syrians in America, 1912-27

and its companion

v/a – The Luminous Interval: Greeks in America, 1916-32

which together with the Marika disc finally bring together my work on the Ottoman diaspora in the U.S.

And soon to follow, further LPs of rural Balkan performances, Javanese and Sundanese classical music and Indian classical vocal masterpieces are “in the works.” And there are negotiations on some ace Turkish stuff. Just you wait!

As all of this has been happening, I have been neglecting to leave the house for days on end and my social life is rapidly approaching nil. I hope to rectify this by doing some live shows. In that department, I’ll be giving at talk at a Sound Art festival here in Balto in mid-May on the cheery subject of “recordings of vocal music responses to grief.”

And then, in early July I’ll celebrate the release of the Ottoman-American LPs on Canary with a show at 2640.

And I’m hoping to make it out to the SF/Portland/Seattle area in the Summer. If you know anyone who wants to book an enthusiastic music nut at their venue or festival… I’ve already asked a lot, haven’t I?

More good news: Black Mirror is supposed to be coming out of vinyl later this year, says Lance at Dust-to-Digital, and it continues to get nice plugs including this one on BoingBoing.net last week (which resulted in the Papagika video being watched seven thousand times in 24 hours!):

be well.
keep on truckin,

Design Observer on Hiroshima, Photography and Censorship


Hiroshima, photographer unknown, 1945, via International Center of Photography

Ian Nagoski writes:

Earlier this month The Design Observer Group commemorated the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by republishing the following essay by Adam Harrison Levy along with a new collection of photographs of the city following its obliteration by atomic bomb. The photographs are from a collection of 700 images by an unknown photographer that were literally found in the trash in the late ’90s by some guy out walking his dog in the rain. What’s particularly interesting about these images is the U.S.’ suppression of such documentation:

Thirty-one days after the blast, a team of U.S. scientists flew over the city. “There was just one enormous, flat, rust-red scar, and no green or grey” Philip Morrison told The New Yorker in 1946, “because there were no roofs or vegetation left. I was pretty sure then that nothing I was going to see later would give me as much of a jolt.”

The world has very few photographs of what gave Morrison that unforgettable jolt. This is no accident. On September 18, 1945, just over a month after Japan had surrendered, the U.S. Government imposed a strict code of censorship on the newly defeated nation. It read, in part: “nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility.”

The U.S. government was ostensibly wary of the emotions of grief and anger that could be unleashed in Japan as a result of the circulation of images of the destroyed city; it was probably just as concerned to keep the physical effects of its new and terrible weapon a secret. But this suppression of visual evidence served a third purpose: it helped, both in Japan and back home in America, to inhibit any questioning of the decision to use the bomb in the first place.

Find the whole essay, along with a slideshow of these photos at The Design Observer Group. (via Conscientious)

A Journey Round My Skull: Two Years and Counting

Tadanori Yokoo, koshimaki-osen, detail

A Journey Round My Skull, one of our favorite blogs covering “forgotten literature” and graphic design, recently turned two. Curator Will Schofield is revisiting selections from one of his archival posts about renown Japanese designer Tadanori Yokoo to mark the occasion, saying “One of the best things about viewing art online for me is the ability to stare at details for as long as I want to, and sometimes to blow up those details.” Click here and go stare as long as you like …

Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange on DVD


“…a labyrinthine, Kafka-esque halfworld of chambers and baroque, macabre characters, all connected by a central staircase.”

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of L’Ange, it managed to stay off my Cinema of the Weird radar for decades. The emergence on DVD of Patrick Bokanowkski’s extraordinary feature film should go some way towards raising its profile among those who know that cinema as an artform doesn’t begin or end with Hollywood. Anyone excited by the early work of David Lynch, or the hermetic visions of the Brothers Quay, needs to see this.

Available via mail order (PayPal accepted) from British Animation Awards who also have an additional disc for sale, Bokanowski: Short Films/Courts metrages.

“A 2001 produced under the same conditions as Eraserhead”—Cahiers du Cinema

“A prolonged, dense and visually visceral experience of the kind that is rare in cinema today. Difficult to define and locate, its strangeness is quite unique. That its elements are not constructed in a traditional way should not be a barrier to those who wish to cross the bridge to what Jean-Luc Godard proposed as the real story of the cinema—real in the sense of being made of images and sounds rather than texts and illustrations.”— Keith Griffiths, film producer

“Magisterial images seething in the amber of transcendent soundscapes. Drink in these films through eyes and ears.”—The Brothers Quay

Ian Nagoski surveys the immigrant music stores of Baltimore


Gilbert Akanno, president and CEO of Olympic International Food Market (photography by Rarah)

From the April 1, 2009 Baltimore City Paper:

Notes From Home
A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore
by Ian Nagoski

Ask the man on the street how many music stores there are in Baltimore, and he may be able to name a few of the bigger places–Sound Garden, for example. A minority of passionate music-hunters might name funkier holes-in-the-wall selling mostly used stuff. But the truth is that there are dozens of places with new sounds on offer. The trick is that most of the music isn’t in English. The majority of these places locally are targeted to immigrant groups, people whose music is utterly underrepresented in the U.S. media, or even on the web.

The need for music from the motherland is something that has been consistent among each wave of immigrants to the United States for as long as the country has existed. The Prussian, Slavic, Anglo, and Scandinavian newcomers of the 18th and 19th centuries carried their songs with them in their memories and performed them for one another, often keeping traditions alive in the New World long after they’d faded away in their native lands. The African diaspora has retained essential aspects of the music of the lost homeland. And, as we all know, the styles commingled and transmogrified into “American” music–jazz, gospel, blues, country, rock, hip-hop.

The process of holding on to the songs of the Old World changed when recording came along in the first decades of the 20th century. Starting in the 1910s and ’20s, records were marketed to all of the major immigrant groups: German, Irish, Italian, Bulgarian, Serb, Pole, Arab, Jew, Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Philippine, you name it, the record companies were already going after a share of their earnings by selling immigrants something irresistible–a song from home. For a variety of reasons, including the restructuring of the record business caused by the Depression, the advent of radio, the intermarriage of ethnic groups, and the desire to become capital-A American, by the mid-20th century much of that wave’s imported music remained niche “ethnic” material, kept alive in enclaves or simply abandoned by the immigrants’ descendants.

Over the past 50 years, waves of immigrants from Asia, South and Central America, and Africa have traveled a path to cultural citizenship cleared by earlier immigrants consisting of long hours of work, demands from the predominant culture to adapt linguistically, and marginal representation in the main cultural venues. Latinos may produce hip-hop (Beatnuts) and Armenians may play rock (System of a Down), but they conform to the existing standards of the style, otherwise they remain marginal and “ethnic.” Mainstream America might patronize a Vietnamese restaurant for a taste of the exotic, but no American radio station plays Vietnamese music.

There’s really no reason it should be this way, though. Among every cultural subgroup in the United States, there are beloved sad songs; there are amazing peacock-like displays of virtuosity; there are nostalgic stories about the Old Days; there are special songs for important days of the year or moments in life. These are consistencies among us all, despite any differences in language or sound. Why should it be hard to ask the next guy, “What is this song? What does it say? Who is this singing?” The answers could lead to interesting places–maybe to your new favorite music.

Listening to the music of our neighbors is how many of our greatest cultural achievements have been made. Immigrants do it all the time, and if the descendants of immigrants did it half as much, the country would be richer for it. One place to start is immigrants’ shops.


It's Time to Party: Transmodern in B-more and FMA Benefit in B'klyn

Two big events on the East Coast this weekend. In Baltimore, its the Transmodern Festival all weekend long with a gaggle of some of the best tweaker-performers around (Dan Deacon maybe the best-known of them). Here’s a nice chat with the festival’s organizers from the Baltimore City Paper.

In Brooklyn on Saturday night, there’s the Launch Party for WFMU’s FreeMusicArchive.org , a site that will soon be eating many of your evenings in solitude by providing you with tons of free and totally legal downloads by great musicians who you really want to listen to. Before that happens, you can get out and among other people one last time and hear live music by Sightings, Pink Skull, John Dwyer’s new band, Excepter and DJ Brian Turner. Here are deets.

We will expect to see smiling, drunken photos of you at one of these events on Flickr Monday morning.

Lionel Ziprin Talks Smith-Abulafia Recordings

from Ian Nagoski:

The story of Harry Smith‘s mid-50s recordings of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, a Kabbalist involved with word-permutations, made between the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music and the beginng of work on the Mirror Animations and Heaven and Earth Magic has been told and retold, but it’s nice to see these newly-posted clips, filmed a dozen years ago of Abulafia’s grandson, poet Lionel Ziprin explaining the story of an extraordinary recording, which the larger world has yet to hear. It’ll happen eventually. Maybe we’ll get a decent reissue of Smith’s Kiowa peyote song recordings, too…

Baltimore Underground Hippie Paper Imagery, pt 1

From Ian Nagoski:

Here’s the first of a gaggle of posts we’ll be doing of images from newsprint hippie publications from Baltimore, 1968-71.

These are from Harry, which to quote Joe Vaccarino’s Baltimore Sounds: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Baltimore Area Pop Musicians, Bands & Recordings 1950-1980, “was founded in 1969 by Michael Carliner… After a rocky start, when the original staff revolted and walked out on the eve of the first issue’s press run, Harry became the choice alternative free [sic] paper of the Baltimore political and musical communities. Early contributors included Art Levine, P.J. O’Rourke, Tom D’Antoni, Alan Rose and Jack Heyrman. Harry survived many raids, takeovers and other traumatic events to provide alternative and community news at the height of the Vietnam, hippie, yippie era.”

Ahmed Fathi in D.C. for Free Fri. March 13

Yemeni oudist and singer Ahmed Fathi is playing the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for FREE at 6PM this Friday Mach 13 as part of the Center’s Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World series, running for another week.

If this improvisation in someone’s living room is anything to go by, the concert should be a hot one.

Theresa Columbus' Twinkling Transmodern Manifestos

Baltimore’s 6th Annual Transmodern Festival promises “four days of avant performance, installation, sound, film, mayhem, ecstacy and radical culture” from April 2-5, and you can believe it. Some of this year’s performers includ Dan Deacon, Jenny Graf (of Metalux & Harrius), veteran songster Liz Downing, performance poet Lauren Bender, filmmaker Anne McGuire’s musical duo with Wobbly and bonvivant Rahne Alexander. Hot stuff indeed.

For anyone without plane fare to Baltimore to catch the proceedings, do yourself a solid and check out these amazing texts by unclassifiable performer Theresa Columbus (and their accompanying intro by Catherine Pancake). Here are a couple teaser excerpts to whet your clicking finger:

“Do the things, seek the people, that give you the drive. Give togetherness ridiculous amounts of time and planning, also encourage each other to work like crazy. Align with forces of change and optimism.”

“Joy in politics, I can’t state it overtly, but we know who needs to be heard more, intuitively. Help those people be heard more and improve their communication; the good work needs to be heard and it is a sin to not hear the good work that is unmade when it just needs the slightest push and desire. We need to fill our ears and eyes with it, so we need to see that it exists.”

“It’s not tacky to be a feminist! It can be the most sexy, fun luscious thing in the world. Being on tour and eating breakfast in a diner… yum. Feed each other, pour for each other, juice each other up.”