10,000 Unseen Worlds Exploring the Expanding Universe of an Essential Record Label

One way to think of a music label, discussed in this essay as a microcosm of the proverbial “archive,” is as a constellation of satellites and space debris floating forever in high orbits, far above the atmospheric wisps and damaging planetary gusts that would compromise their structural integrity. Similar to the satellite, a music label attempts an “out-of-timeness” that oscillates in a defiantly abstract space. A music label carves our cherished sounds into material, only to blast the disc out of the orbit of our particular sound-making and beyond the specific high-gravity perceptive clouds that complicate our planetary listening. Boldly, it gathers our discs by the bundle, sweetly whispers to them “get out of here,” and ballistically shoots them beyond terrestrial rituals and signals — beyond even the constant insouciant groaning and droning of our grounded primitive machines, those electrical currents that Tony Conrad referred to as “the one wave that spans our continent […] the largest and most careful melody ever played.” Rather, in orbit, we have a glistening ring of multiplicitous communicative machines, an elliptical line drawn around the planet, rotating out of reach from any particular listening but still always listening.

Arguably our highest cultural achievement, satellites epitomize our attempts toward abstraction — specifically, the abstraction and suspension of linear time into a “permanent” cyclical orbit. Satellites are also wrapped up in our transient and episodic communicative efforts: our internet bandwidth, media ataxia, credit card encryptions, even music streaming, all descending from this crystalline space to the sonic din of the earth below. Floating in an orbit known as the “Clarke Belt,” these satellites experience no atmospheric drag whatsoever and hence are suspended beyond geologic time: a ring of machines that are ultimately suspended above the problematics of precarity within which cultural theorists have historically framed and considered the archive. As writer and artist Trevor Paglen speculates in an essay for In The Holocene, “More than the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or the ancient city of Cathalhoyuk, the ring of abandoned satellites far above the earth’s equator will be human civilization’s longest-lasting artifacts.” This is a vision that our human engineering efforts have long sought, drifting beyond the timescale of collective memory and into the unique space of something that lasts.

Music labels often attempt to mirror this vision of immutability as it relates to preserving the ephemeral nature of particular recordings. In time-based mediums that rely on recordings as our means of distributing, exchanging, preserving, and producing value, we can view labels as institutions that position sound in abstract spaces. The recording is in orbit, rotating above the racket dissonance of the sonic world below and all around us. Specifically, the practice of reissuing recordings on labels — a tactic for preserving the archive — serves the function of triangulating satellites to find new resonating, earthbound communicative points. In short, the music label becomes a defense of the abstract, a place that keeps sound above the ubiquity of sound that is all around us, a position that keeps the memory of a particular sound alive.

Still on Earth, human beings constantly leave traces of sonic evidence that suspended satellites come to “permanently represent.” These traces are sonic garbage, records that, to borrow the title of David Grubbs’s book on Duke University Press, Ruin The Landscape. Here, too, in the landlocked state of terrestrial sound, there is an archive known as the landfill — a conflictual archive with an open framework that actively transforms itself, allowing for the creation of new and surprising relationships between materials. Here, the archive becomes bound and in full understanding of ephemerality. More a productive space of conflict than a space of security, this vision of the music label is subject to the ebbing tides of human consumption patterns and culture. As such, sound becomes an archive in throw — a crumpled ball of paper trapped by gravity and subject to the weather of the earth, soiled, rotting. Consider the French word for time: “temps” — a double translation that also means “weather.” Although above we’ve articulated the music label as an attempt to render sound “out-of-time,” here we simultaneously consider the label as “par temps” — both in time and in weather — being weathered, beaten down, effaced, soaked, worn — that is to say, impermanent but somehow still all around us, swirling like clouds.

As a polar point of opposition to the “satellite ring” conception of the label, this line of thinking positions the music label as within the condition of a bargain bin DVD collection. The DVD, a semi-outdated, cockroach-like format still clinging to life, withstands its impending destruction through the sheer ubiquity of its distribution within 2000s capitalism. Despite its relatively recent obsolescence, its value is still uncertain and often assumed. Thus, we see intensely discursive “collections” of film titles strewn about in makeshift grocery store cardboard bins, hidden subway shops, electronics stores, and entertainment cabinets. Coming across as strange chance installations, the value of these collections are still somehow reified and imbued with a mysterious, romantic logic wildly different than the striations of carefully curated record collections or the hyper-nostalgic VHS anthology. Rather, a bargain bin DVD collection is a vision of the archive that keeps impermanence as a value for precisely what it retains — using human memory and life as a distinct timescale — where what is retained becomes defined by a fugitive sense of a shared and fleeting inventory, sample, or montage. Here, we have a smattering of reissued and then-new titles, some still shrink wrapped, contained in the prism hue of cellophane. In the bargain bin, we are barely able to make out highly ornate glyphs and logos — Nick Cage’s National Treasure, Robert Rodrieguz’s Spy Kids, and the always overly represented presence of the The Andy Griffith Show.

This tense dialectic between conceptions of the archive as a ring of satellites in the Clarke Belt and the archive as a bargain bin collection of DVDs forms a discursive situation within which our music listening seems distinctly entangled. It is a collusion between listening and history, a battle fought and celebrated within our fetishistic practices as it pertains to collecting, reissuing, and cataloging — specifically, the condition of music labels.

Enter Unseen Worlds, a record label run by auteur Tommy McCutchon that releases quality editions that “contain multitudes.” In its simplest description, the label releases revolutionary, yet accessible, avant-garde and art music that carefully and playfully oscillate between historical context and sheer musicality, that is to say, within the pseudo-dialectic sketched above. Known for heralding releases from composers such as “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Philip Corner, Elodie Lauten, Carl Stone, Jacqueline Humbert & David Rosenboom, Lubomyr Melnyk, and Girma Yifrashewa, the label has become known for its alluring, odd, and passionately experimental catalogue, with each release subverting artists’ distinctive sound and distinguished histories. These are releases that even with thousands of orbital rotations still, somehow, remain unseen.

In the label’s words, Unseen Worlds is “interested in media that capture a timeless ecstasy of creativity, that seem out of space, alien, yet are deeply resonant and approachable.” For one, Unseen Worlds has formed a deeply idiosyncratic view of avant-garde music that exists “out-of-time” in the sense of its “alien” purview and subversion of commonly understood historical stratifications. On the other hand, the label has an undeniably romantic perspective on the very ephemerality that placed these records out-of-time in the first place. To this end, Unseen Worlds elaborates on the archive as a container of found sound, found history, and favors the re-installation of meteoric historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. In this effort, we see in Unseen Worlds the above conceptions of the archive pulsating between abstraction and ephemerality, pushing the archive simultaneously into the crystalline space of the satellite Clarke Belt and into the bargain bin.

It is Unseen World’s undertaking of the nonhierarchical spatiality of listening that allows abstract efforts to neither float above nor beyond our collective earthbound catastrophe. Here, within the ground loop, Unseen Worlds is positioned firmly in muck, located at the oddest moment of a composer’s oeuvre, forever signaling toward an artist at their most vulnerable, forever disturbing or detourning a common view or understanding of their practice, forever retrieving information in gestures of alternative knowledge or countermemory — forever in the bargain bin. It is this effort to flatten a catalogue within the emphatic space of distinctly human timescales that makes the label special and ultimately timeless.

Tommy McCutchon, currently working as a collections specialist at the Rare Book & Manuscript section of the library at Columbia University, started the label making private bootlegs of old recordings while working a previous job at an audio/visual library in Austin, TX. McCutchon retains this secretive, auteur-like presence in his curation of Unseen Worlds. In his identification as an archivist, McCutchon values long-term relationships with artists; however, his curation of their work doesn’t merely set its eye on asserting a particular or “permanent” understanding of their work. Instead, McCutchon disputes a space of knowledge that can’t be coherently devised, developed, and designed; rather, Unseen Worlds is an archive in which documents and testimonies open up a stage for productive misunderstanding.

Carl Stone, Tower Records, Shinjuku, Tokyo, ca. 1991

Representative of this is Unseen World’s stewardship of the work of American composer Carl Stone. Known for his 40 years of pioneering work with the possibilities of digital synthesizers, samplers, and effects, Carl Stone’s practice predicts the variable techniques of contemporary computer music, serving as an uncanny precursor to the majority of today’s computer-driven methods. Before many saw the flexibility of the computer as an instrument, Stone developed his own idiosyncratic take on sonic bricolage to conjure majorly distinct, angular arrangements. Still, despite Stone’s assured place among experimental music’s valued “pioneers,” Unseen World’s documentation and presentation of his work into “epochs” — Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties and Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties, respectively — showcases a consistent emotional core to his work otherwise underemphasized within the computer music field. As is often the case in academic or historical perspectives on electronic music, such as in the usual veneration of his contemporaries Morton Subotnick and James Tenney, or, more technically in the work and textbooks of Curtis Roads, the emotional or cultural impact of sampling and sound manipulation through electronic means is often auxiliary to the music’s technical processes, study, and advancement.

Stone found sanctuary with Unseen Worlds due to a shared romanticism that values re-staging historical information both precisely and with humor. Both the artist and label value subverting an overwhelming amount of dogeared references into expressive, evocative forms. Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties and Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties are incredibly generous offerings of the inherent emotional properties of Stone’s sound given proper space to demonstrate their enduring poignancy. Stone often takes simple source material to unexpected expressive territory, letting repetition unfold in broad, growing strides as a particular understanding or frame of a sound source becomes a multiplicitous, writhing strand of 10,000 harmonic grains of the original.

In “Sukothai,” Stone loops a recognizable sample of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” — already a variation of a fugue by Henry Purcell — into an immense, droning cascade of 1,024 harpsichords errantly billowing into various dissonant variations of the original theme. The harpsichord line is mixed down to a single channel, played back on two channels, mixed down again, and repeated, scaling up into a glorious orchestral fog. In “Sonali” a repeating and acrobatic glass piano arpeggio is subverted by pitched, fragmented chanting vocals and soaring synth pads, predating similarly wily gestures from popular contemporary artists like Giant Claw or Oneohtrix Point Never by decades. At times, Stone’s extensive techniques feel as if he’s zeroing in on the receding horizon of sound, an impossible trajectory following it into oblivion, as Roger Rimbaud notes, “in a similar fashion to the Powers of Ten films by Charles and Ray Eames, where we expand into the edges of the universe and then reduce inward until a single carbon atom remains.”

There is a veritable “bargain bin” quality to Stone’s omnivorous treatment to sampled sound: Benjamin Britten, Harpsichord, Synclavier, rack-mounted digital delay box, Prophet 2002, Yamaha TX816, Buchla 200, Macintosh Computer, Max/MSP, a bottle being blown, a surprise Mozart chorus, Schubert, The Temptations. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s liner notes remark about the fundamentals of Stone’s music, “Stone takes sampling as a way of introducing semantic content that can be played with through recognizability, juxtaposition and surprise,” a statement that fits perfectly within the above analysis of the bargain bin as a kind of fleeting movement through archives. Stone’s evolutionary process of a sound’s trajectory through time is precisely the manipulation of an “archive in throw.” This is heard specifically in “Woo Lae Oak,” composed in 1981, where tape loops of tremolo strings and a bottle being blown like a flute are sustained along a deeply expressive, extended palindromic path, as oscillating tones support a constant breath hovering among the underlying turbulence. Over the course of 23 minutes, the stunning “Mae Yao” takes a simple broken gamelan loop into an exhilarating cinematic swell of timbres and shifting tectonic swathes of sonic texture, as finally the original source — a lone female vocalist — is revealed in the final minutes.

Yet, despite Stone’s gourmandizing treatment of sound and all its sources, his use of technology and his contributions to various innovations in his field are clearly secondary to a broader exploratory relationship to music that exists in the simple enjoyment of finding, wielding, changing, and shaping sound. Rutherford-Jonhnson again mentions that “what is remarkable about this story of fast-moving technical innovation […] is how little effect it had on Stone’s aesthetic — a fact he cheerfully admits.” The bargain bin — a heap of various formats, gems, special features, and deleted scenes — is Stone’s archive, brimming with oddities and glowing with style, charm, and sentiment.

Photo: Emmanuel Ghent

Unseen Worlds’ reissue of Laurie Spiegel’s 1980 debut album The Expanding Universe is similarly minded in preserving a sincere origin point for human beings’ interactions with electronic musical machines. Like Stone, Spiegel’s work is revolutionary not only in reference to its technical innovations in her field, but also in their clarion manipulation of the technology at hand. The Expanding Universe is quite literally expanded, containing an additional 15 tracks from the same period — a time between 1974 and 1977, when Spiegel composed and realized her works on the GROOVE system developed by Max Mathews and F.R. Moore at Bell Laboratories. Shorter works like the dusty “Appalachian Grove” suite emphasize Spiegel’s cloistered, hushed sound that ebbs from her otherwise extremely transparent compositions. Often, an arpeggiated theme will simply climb and waltz freely in slanted patterns, pushing into extended passages that emphasize the brevity of her machinic articulations. On “Drums” or “Music for Dance,” this is pushed into pulsing, rhythmic episodes that flicker around minor melodies that are often rendered somber, intense.

The originally released compositions “The Expanding Universe” and “Kepler’s Harmony of The Worlds” are longer, stunning examples of Spiegel’s more extended music. The latter composition conjures a chilling buzz that is a computer realization of a composition conceived in the early 17th century by German astronomer Johannes Kepler. It is also the opening piece on “The Sounds of Earth,” otherwise known as the “Golden Record,” a disc that accompanied the Voyager probes across the solar system and beyond in 1977. “Harmony of The Worlds” is quite literally musically based around the orbits of the planets; as Spiegel noted in a conversation with Simon Reynolds, the piece was originally Kepler’s stab at creating the Pythagorean dream of “music of the spheres”: “the celestial music that only God could hear.” The piece contains a mathematical fundamentality that sonifies the physical harmonies in planetary motion, perhaps a more “universal” music than other systems of music constructed by human beings. The intent of including such a piece on the disc would be that extraterrestrial life would possibly be able to better understand this more “mathematical” recording than other recordings (different languages, animal sounds, etc.) included on the interstellar record.

This gesture of abstraction evokes the previous description of the label, or of the archive generally, as satellites in the Clarke Belt, suspended beyond planetary time. In Spiegel and Kepler’s case, this music exists even beyond the systems of human intonation and fabrication; that is to say, it is a non-human music. The effort to abstract and preserve music, to progress them beyond human, even geologic, timescales into an interstellar unknown are parallel to our efforts to preserve not only the “Sounds of Earth,” but also our species generally. Abstraction, then, is a means of defense for our records and an active tactic for giving “timeless” meaning to the otherwise tidal wreckage of human records on earth.

On The Expanding Universe, Spiegel can evoke the non-human cosmos while also crafting luminous miniatures (“A Folk Study”) or uplifting urban sentiments (“East River Dawn”). Spiegel herself likened her work to combining “textures with the emotional richness of intricate counterpoint, harmony, and complex rhythms,” citing John Fahey and J. S. Bach as major influences in the original cover’s notes. Even this loose association between Fahey and Bach exaggerates the tension between abstraction and the fleeting gestures of our “folk” sensibilities, of human beings’ societies and musical traditions. Spiegel’s recordings float in space while she crafts folk studies on computers and synthesizers on Earth, a shining line drawn between her and a golden record drifting toward unseen worlds.

Philip Corner in London, October 2016 (Photo: Joanna Pocock)

Unseen Worlds’s releases of American intermedia artist and composer Philip Corner — Satie Slowly in 2014 and his new collection Extreemizms in 2018 — are impressive documents representing a kind of reconciliation between the abstraction and chaos of the archive. A founding participant of Fluxus, Corner’s simultaneous rigor and sense of humor matches Unseen Worlds’s approach naturally, heard in Satie Slowly as Corner’s infatuation with Satie’s “secret genius […] who masked with humility a profoundly innovative thorough-going critique of the limitations and pretensions of our High Culture.” On Satie Slowly, Corner simply pays tribute to the composer by playing his compositions a bit slower than usual, an act of veneration, focus, and emphasis that critiques the “expressivity” of how his compositions are often played. Such a gesture implies not only a set of ardent aesthetic values for “how Satie should be played,” but also a sense of relative abandon with regards to performing an archive, showcasing a Fluxus technique for how transversal archival materials are rendered in media res as a way of doing, as a process that unfurls the work itself. For Corner, to play Satie is to play him slowly.

Similarly, in the liner notes for Extreemizms, a collection of Corner’s early ensemble works paired with recent works, violinist Silvia Tarozzi and cellist Deborah Walker remark that “on the one hand [Corner] allows you to experiment with the parameters and underlying concepts of his music while at the same time you have to be really serious about playing by the rules.” This simple consideration from the performer’s perspective emphasizes much of what the problematics of the archive entails. The archive, in this case, Satie or as Corner’s own compositions, are fields of consideration in which materials are positioned and unfurled through time, in throw, oscillating somewhere between the signal from a human or machine and its blurred reception between bodies on earth.

Corner’s Extreemizms exaggerates the kind of hyperbolized rendering of sound that happens implicitly within the various dynamics of composition. In his notes on “wHoly Trinitye,” Corner, likely concerned with how extremely pronounced distinctions between noise and silence become in any musical articulation, expresses how a “Heraclitian insight informs my works, even from the beginning.” He furthers,” if [Heraclitus] had not been contradicted by Plato [it] woudv spared us 26 cnturies of regresiv pilosofy [sic].” Heraclitus, himself hyperbolized as the pre-socratic philosopher that emphasized “fire” or “change” as the basic substance of the universe, is a prime avatar for Corner and Fluxus as a whole.

The classic Heraclitean model is described as a unity of “opposites;” specifically, he used the model of a bow-and-arrow as an example for how harmony consists of opposing tension, how the tension of a string against wood would come to define the function of the bow. In this way, Heraclitus is a model in which only extremes are permitted, as Corner notes, extremes of “register, of duration, of intensity — applied to the dimension of form.” As a patron saint for Extreemizsms, Heraclitus reduces form to a cosmic simplicity, where opposing forces evoke a “middle way” that is a function of extremes interacting. This is further evoked by Corner as a representation of a “wHoly Trinitye,” heard in Corner’s music as perfect, imperfect, and dissonant harmonies able to manifested into infinite multiforms.

Corner’s approach and his reconciliation of opposing forces in sound recall the faux dialectic of our above consideration of the archive: as satellite, as bargain bin. Between the poles of constant change and immutable permanence, how does passing time ever give way to timelessness? Where does the archive sit in a world of constant change? In the expanses of space? Or in a pile of used DVDs? Perhaps between these extremes, or Extreemizms, the archive is a cascade of events and various times,10,000 Unseen Worlds, each of which are potentially an intersection of further multiple points, unfurling as a ground loop, as a current, again, the one that Tony Conrad referred to as “the largest and most careful melody ever played.” In this current, how many unheard sounds, unseen worlds exist?

In taking Corner’s “wHoly Trinity” as a model for a Heraclitean “middle way” of form, there exists something else that emerges in the tense interaction between abstraction and ephemerality, one that the production of recordings, and specifically the project of music labels, seems distinctly concerned with. As a music label, Unseen Worlds is a stellar example for how a doomed vision of timelessness provokes us to be drawn to the subtle forms at risk of drifting away. Gracefully, the label mediates trajectories within our fleeting experiences with music and celebrates the studious and careful preservation efforts that attempt to hold music close, to prevent it from fading. Within the expanses of space, within the bargain bin, Unseen Worlds is drawn to a resonant and drifting music. Motivated to capture in recordings our hallucinations of this fading sound and to form an archive despite the music’s transient form, Unseen Worlds commemorates a music out of time and out of space, unseen, always beyond our capacity to hear it but always within reach.

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