Collecting My Heritage(s) Photo: Claudiu Oancea

Collecting My Heritage(s)

2 days ago10 minutes read

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Claudiu Oancea

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This essay features two main concepts, that of collecting and that of heritage. When I first started building a music collection, I never thought about the implications this might have for the discovery and, implicitly, for the conservation of a music heritage, which could, otherwise, be lost.

The two concepts do not always have to be related to one another, yet, in certain cases, one informs the other in such a way, that they become almost inseparable. But before I address the issue of how music collecting and building a cultural heritage have become entangled phenomena in my personal history, I should attempt to provide some sort of definition for these two concepts, in order to better grasp how their content is formed and how it functions.
As I read about other people’s experiences of listening to vinyl records, I became influenced by their ideas of old records’ “authentic” sound, even though I have become aware in the meantime that authenticity is a very relative term and that each listening experience is unique in itself.
Photo: Claudiu Oancea
Photo: Claudiu Oancea
Music collecting would be, simply put, the act of gathering together music that was recorded and distributed in various formats, either physical (vinyl, CD, 8-track tape, cassette), or digital. It is one of the most common and widely encountered activities in everyday life and it goes beyond the notions of gender, age, social or professional category, and urban versus rural settlement. Music collectors are not defined or restrained by any of these categories, despite the fact that music collecting can be analyzed according to all the categories mentioned above, with interesting results for the history of this endeavour.

For most people, music collecting is a leisure activity, a preoccupation which is undertaken during one’s free time and which has the purpose of using that free time for one’s enjoyment. This aspect brings forth a question about the purpose of one’s professional activity: is there a connection between work and leisure for most people, other than that of leisure used as a time to relax and recharge one’s energy for the time of work? Most people would be content with this explanation alone.

Notwithstanding this, as Robert A. Stebbins points out in his book “Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure” (1992), more and more people go to work nowadays in order to gain the necessary money to fulfill their leisure hobbies. Simply put, work has become more and more instrumental to maintaining one’s hobbies and passions. This indirect report would be only the introductory remark to the “serious” aspects of a leisure activity. The other point is that the activity of music collecting presupposes a series of acts which go beyond the mere features of “enjoyment” or “relaxation”. A collection requires the research for and gathering of information about the items which are collected, as this information is vital for the value of the collection, artistic or financial.

Any music collector will have their own places to go and look for music: flea markets, music stores, other music collectors, websites, etc. These places will become the cultural depositories for these researchers of music. As a collection grows and it encompasses more and more items, the collector will need to come up with a system of classification, with the purpose of putting those items in a certain order. Most collectors use the alphabetical system, which is the most convenient and the simplest method. Others, however, will also arrange their stacks of heavy vinyl records or their digital files according to genres and subgenres, or according to geographical origins of the music in their collection. Even though it is a very personal activity, music collecting can soon take on the responsibilities of an institutional cultural operation, with the same seriousness in approach as that provided by a university library. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the act of music collecting can feature all the aspects of a “serious leisure”, not only due to the importance attributed to it by its purveyors, but also because of the methodological approach which music collectors can develop over time.
I consider this latter aspect to be extremely important: true collections are built over time, as they include more than the physical part, or the catalog of music artifacts which are brought together. A music collection also means the knowledge one accumulates over time about the music in the collection, about the music genres, music histories, and musical life experiences which accompany each finding, or each purchase.

This brings me to another crucial aspect of any music collection, that of the experiences one has lived through, in order to bring those musical artifacts together. Based on my own experience, I would argue that this is the one true Holy Grail of any music collection, or any collection in general: the life experiences and the knowledge you are left with, once you can call your stacked records, or folder of digital files a “collection”. It is this human experience and anthropological experience, gathered straight from the field of research which is most valuable for me, as a person.

When I started collecting music, I was around fifteen years old. I had listened to music for as long as I can remember, but it was during that age, that I became aware of the act in itself: gathering musical artifacts together, putting them in an alphabetical row on a shelf, liking one record and then searching for other records by the same band, or other similar bands, etc. It is only when I look back in time and reflect on these acts, that I realize the “seriousness” of my leisure activity, as this changed over time according to my life experiences, new acquired identities, and views about society and politics in general.

As a Romanian, I grew up, was raised and educated in a system which still bore the marks of the ultra-nationalism from the late 1980s, a mixture of national communist propaganda and right-wing, interwar ideology. This influenced the way in which I listened to and collected music, even though I did not realize this at the time. For instance, whenever I found a foreign rock band I would like, I was eager to find a Romanian equivalent. The comparisons were there for the taking, always followed by explanations for why a certain Romanian band never became world famous. These explanations would always vary from protochronism type assertions of Romanian superiority which was never accepted by “the others”, to comments pointing out the secondary nature of everything recorded in Romania, that had only followed foreign (usually Western) models. As I listened to more and more music, I found numerous tensions between these explanatory attempts, which seemed too simple and too embedded in Romanian cultural tropes.

Some ten years ago, I spent a year and a half in the US, where I encountered the culture of record stores and the retromania of vinyl records. Until that moment I had collected mainly cassettes and CDs, since I possessed the technological means for listening to them only. The digital age of MP3s and hundreds of albums/folders stacked in a computer had a relative impact on how I used to discover and listen to music. The flux of information was suddenly too big for my own mental capacity to process them in a reasonable amount of time. Until the age of digital music, the listening experience had always been a special one: I would put the tape or the CD in the music player and, depending on the genre, I would listen to the music repeatedly, while reading the booklet that accompanied the physical album. Listening to a record was like reading a book. With the advent of digital files, this experience changed somewhat; I was too eager to listen to songs or albums I had heard about, that I skipped the former ritual, until noticing that the listening experience had also altered. Things came back to the way they used to be once I started buying vinyl records. At first I didn't even have a record player, but the records were so cheap that I first bought them for the artwork alone. The format of the vinyl record allowed me to have a much better appreciation of the music artwork, especially when displayed on outer and inner gatefold editions. Once I bought the record player, the listening experience also changed: the sound of vinyl was not necessarily better, but it was “warmer” and not affected by the “loudness war” that the CDs had brought along in the 1990s and 2000s. As I read about other people’s experiences of listening to vinyl records, I became influenced by their ideas of old records’ “authentic” sound, even though I have become aware in the meantime that authenticity is a very relative term and that each listening experience is unique in itself.

It was a combination of these two experiences, foreign versus Romanian performers, and the discovery of vinyl records, that led me to the “serious” hobby of collecting Romanian records and music made in Romania. There was not anything nationalistic about this endeavour. I never had any strong opinions about my national identity and the only time I discovered what it means to be a Romanian was when I resided abroad. But even then, it was never about what I thought it meant to be a Romanian, but about other people’s thoughts on the matter. If anything did happen during this period, it was that I became aware of the racism inherent in Romania and about the cultural tensions about nationality that still exist in my home country, as well as in the other European and non-European countries. From this point of view, my life experience proved to be a better and tougher teacher than I could hope for at any university. But I digress. I was talking about my interest in Romanian music and the issue of music originality versus copying and cultural appropriation. At first I did not conceptualize things so far.
Photo: Claudiu Oancea
Photo: Claudiu Oancea
When I started collecting Romanian music, I did so not because I was nostalgic, even though I did have a propensity for “older” styles of music. I was not nationalistic either. I did it because I felt there was something missing in what I knew about a music which had been created in the very place where I was first shaped from a cultural point of view. I knew some musicians from certain music genres. But what else was there to find out about? And as I started looking for names of bands, performers, albums, data, I realized after a while that what I was doing was the best and most rewarding form of research I could get: a sound archaeology which extended to music sounds from other parts of the globe and which had me rethink the way in which I constructed my own knowledge, not only about music, but about culture, cultures, or stereotypes.

For me, collecting music was the best way to go beyond that two-pronged approach that so many of my compatriots have over Romanian culture in general: either something which is completely unoriginal, untalented, secondary, or something which was/is on par with the world’s best, if not better, but suffers from the world’s indifference. Collecting music(s) was the proper means to come to grips with a much more varied musical scene, with its own regional and local dynamics. A scene where terms like “originality” are much more fluid and relative. To put it more simply, an outernational scene with its own sub-scenes. This was the starting point of thinking about music as a heritage, as a cultural possession which is passed from one generation to another. The training ground was that of music which had been made in Romania, with influences from all around the globe.

It was this collecting process which has made me think more thoroughly about heritage and about the relative nature of this term as well. Dictionaries define the term heritage as “features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance.” (The Cambridge Dictionary). This is an aptly worded definition, but I think it leaves out a very important aspect of any heritage: that of the living experience.

A heritage is not just a piece of art or a historical artifact in a museum, it is something that is passed on from an older generation and experienced by a present generation in a live manner. Thus heritage takes on new meanings for newer generations. This was the same with my listening experience of records that were twice as old as I was. I had no idea how people experienced them initially, even though at first I thought I was reliving their own experience. It was not before long, when I realized that my own listening experience was much more personal than I had ever fathomed. And, as I came across more and more records made in Romania, that everybody had forgotten about other than a handful of people, I realized one more thing. Whether we are talking about legendary progressive rock acts from the 1970s, or jazz recordings from the 1950s up to the 1980s, or about avantgarde and contemporary electronic music, or about proto-manele from the 1980s and 1990s, or pop music made by African students in Romania forty or fifty years ago (just to name a few examples), all these music scenes and artifacts I was discovering as a musical heritage were, first and foremost, a personal heritage that I shared with other people. In their own way, they were discovering the same musical artifacts and making their own sense of what they had come across.

But that is only one level of digging up a heritage. The paradox in all this is that while a cultural heritage is to be ultimately experienced on a personal level, it is not only personal. Just like collective memory, heritage is something that is created and shared by a community. Therefore, the means of heritage preservation should be collective, despite the fact that a lot of what we define as heritage is often preserved through personal agency. This is particularly true of music in Romania, which has been largely neglected by officials in general. For the music industry, the Romanian musical heritage seems something of a missed opportunity. This is particularly troublesome in a time marked by cultural retromania (to use Simon Reynolds’ term), when record labels all over the world are busy unearthing musics from by-gone days and faraway lands. It is at this point that I could see the limits of building a personal heritage as a collector.

Even though the personal approach often gives you the impression of freedom, it ultimately proves too frail to withstand the test of time and it loses any sense as a heritage as long as it remains personal. Collecting my personal heritage is just the first level of creating a heritage. The following steps are much more prosaic. They include collective agency, networking, and terms which are very popular nowadays, such as management, marketing, branding. As a functioning alternative, podcasts, blogs, internet based documentaries can also play a very important role in pointing out that there are cultural remnants hanging about. Their stories can bring awareness to an existing heritage and pave the way for labels interested in editing or re-editing the musical artifacts of past times. Until that happens, however, both the endeavour of collecting music and this essay will remain incomplete.

About the Author

Claudiu Oancea

Historian, educated runabout, sometimes more interested about other people's past lives than about one's own life, music aficionado, researcher of other people's histories.

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