Saturday, March 14, 2009

THE INNER SLEEVE: Electronic Panorama
The Wire, March 2009

by Simon Reynolds

It's tempting to pick a favorite record sleeve based on what a group or genre represents to me. For instance, I could point to the two grubby-looking photocopied paper inserts enfolding a 7 inch that is Scritti Politti's 2nd Peel Session EP. The first sheet carries the group's standard wodge of typewritten data about recording costs (demystify the means of production, to help others do-it-themselves), while the second is pages 179-180 of an imaginary book, Scritto's Republic, containing a lucid exposition of what were then (1979) pretty fresh and pretty mindblowing (to sixteen year old me) ideas about the relationship between language, power and the construction of self.

Equally, I might brandish an early '90s rave sleeve such as DJ Trax's 1 Man I DJ or 2 Bad Mice's Waremouse/Bombscare Remixes, both Moving Shadow EPs. Here, the goofy montaged snapshots of the teenagers responsible for the tunes exude a charming amateurishness that suits the made-in-two-minutes spirit of Ardkore.

With both Scritti and Moving Shadow, the sounds are fabulous and the movements--postpunk and rave--mean the world to me; made me, in a sense. But these sleeves aren't really things of beauty: graphic designers would frown, while I don't exactly gaze at them in aesthetic rapture. So I feel beholden to pick something that's both lovely-looking and personally meaningful.

Which brings me to the series of albums released in the 1960s by Philips under the imprint "Prospective 21eme Siecle," which featured musique concrete and electroacoustic luminaries such as Francois Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani. All the albums are clad in futuristic-looking metallic gloss sleeves with abstract patterns. I picked up my first one (Pierre Henry's Voile d'Orphee I et II, Oxford jumble sale, 1983) unaware that it belonged to a series. To me, it was an eye-catching one-off, competitively priced at just one quid. I vaguely knew who Henry was, the fact that he was important, but my attraction was literally superficial, like a magpie greedily swooping down for a glittering foil wrapper. Which is pretty much what the cover is. (No one seems to know who the series designer was). I confess that at the time I only listened to the record once or twice. The sleeve, however, adorned the walls of my various digs for years (and as a result is BluTak-blemished on its back side).

It wasn't until 2003 when record-fiend/ blogger/Wire contributor/musician (and good friend) Matthew Ingram a.k.a. Woebot wrote a post about "The Silver Records" that the penny dropped. The hunt was on. I've now got thirteen from the series (only 22 to go). But which to nominate here? The obvious choice would be the initiating LP, Voile d'Orphee. But as sleeves I prefer Henry's Variations Pour Une Porte et un Soupir and Xenakis's Persephassa. Yet in those cases the music inside the packaging doesn't appeal as much.

Perhaps the solution is to nominate one I've not got but most covet: that collector's holy grail, Electronic Panorama, a box of four platters each dedicated to music from a different city (Paris, Tokyo, Utrecht, Warsaw). This beaut turns up on Ebay and Gemm regularly, priced way out of my league. One day, maybe…

As a smashing-looking artifact and an assemblage of astonishing sounds, Electronic Panorama stands in for the entire Prospective series. It also says something to me about the pathos of collecting, its fetishism and folly. (See, I "have" all of Panorama's sonic contents, they're not hard to find on the web---why then do I crave the music's husk, gorgeous as it is?). Panorama speaks to impulses petty and lofty, childish and superhuman. On the one hand, the seriality of collector desire, the sadsack compulsion to get the complete set (coins, cards, stamps, or in this case, a label catalogue, even though the music can never be all gold--and there's definitely some duds in the Prospective series). On the other hand, Prospective 21eme Siecle embodies with supreme stylishness the awe-inspiring ambition of that post-WW2 drive to open up a new frontier for music. In some ways, the black-and-white sobriety of the back covers--portraits shots of the suit-wearing, bespectacled composers and sleevenotes about complex methodology and grand themes--resonates with me as much as the shiny-shiny fronts.

Consider that evocative imprint name. A French friend informs me that "prospective" is a philosophical term to describe the study of possible futures. It fuses "perspective" and "prospection" (as in a prospector exploring a new territory, searching for gold, or indeed silver). Here we are now, some way into the actual 21eme si├Ęcle, and there's an "after the gold rush" feel. And I wonder, will we ever again witness anything with that same Eureka!-like spirit of discovery and quest?

Another Woebot post on the Silver Records

Ed Maurer's Discography of Prospective 21eme Siecle series

1 comment:

Ian said...

I've sworn off LP collecting generally, except/unless in the cases of reasonably affordable albums that aren't likely to see reissue--can't justify a large enough dwelling for all my music on vinyl. But damned if I don't think I'd go a little stupid if I saw one of these records at a theoretically "attainable" but imprudent price. They're just so perfect.