Although I’ve been home from South America for more than two weeks, I’m still trying to get through listening to all the recordings I brought home—well over 50! Admittedly, listening to a recording should not be a chore—and I hope I’m not making it sound like one—but for me it’s imperative that I get through as much as I can process by the end of this week. Next Monday I head to Poland and Estonia, and then on to Norway soon after that, and I will undoubtedly come back with overstuffed suitcases from each of these places. So if I don’t clock in the requisite listening time for my recent acquisitions of Argentine, Chilean, and Uruguayan music in the very near future, I’m really not sure when I will be able to do so.
Since I brought back music covering an extremely broad range of genres, the home playlist has been pretty schizophrenic. Highlights have included Misa Criolla-composer Ariel Ramirez’s 1960s performances of his music (a bizarre amalgam of jazz and quasi-Andean folk music) and a disc of compositions by Diego Legrand (an elder statesman of the avant-garde in Uruguay) featuring a fascinating 1996 piece for multiple flutes. And yesterday, September 11, I finally caught up with Todos Juntos (1972), the last album released by the rock band Los Jaivas (who were sonically almost a Chilean King Crimson but way more popular) prior to the events of another September 11th: September 11, 1973.
While it has been extremely rewarding for me to learn about all of this music, I also had one of the most peculiar listening experiences this weekend as a result of pure personal ignorance. Among the discs I purchased in Santiago was a collection of recordings by a group called Los 4 Ases. There are a couple of tracks from a group called Los Ases Chilenos on a compilation of early Chilean jazz on a LP I treasure from the British historic re-issue label Harlequin. I assumed that this disc was a whole album devoted to them, so I was really thrilled to get it. So much so that when my Santiago-based friend Álvaro Gallegos told me that he thought I would find this recording completely uninteresting, I remained non-plussed even though he is an expert on Chilean music.
Indeed my first impression was that it was merely a relentless series of totally overblown, over-the-top arrangements of sentimental ballads that were written in the United States in the 1950s. Yet much to my surprise and wonder, every track on the CD, despite being listed on the back tray card in Spanish, was sung in completely convincing English to the point that you would never guess that the group did not hail from the USA; some of the tracks even sounded vaguely familiar to me. I was suddenly very intrigued by this recording and looked forward to playing it for lots of people without identifying it to see how many folks I could fool. (This is an activity I periodically amuse myself and others with at dinner parties.) But then at one point they sang briefly in Spanish and sounded completely awkward. How could this be possible? Like most of the popular music recordings I have from that part of the world, there are no booklet notes. In fact, there’s no booklet, just a single sheet with a photo which is blank on the other side. So I started launching some Google queries in order to learn more about this mysterious group.
It turns out that I was the one who was fooled. My collection of the 25 Grandes Exitos of Los 4 Ases was in fact a Chilean pressing of the greatest hits of a male pop quartet from the 1950s called The Four Aces who originally hailed from Pennsylvania. While their recordings sold in the millions only a little more than half a century ago, to me they were terra incognita. And while their recordings were treasured by listeners around the world, including Chile apparently, it was not because of they were South Americans who had an uncanny ability to exactly replicate the inflections of vernacular American English. It was one of the most disturbing listening experiences I have had in a very long time.
Ultimately no matter how hard I try to listen with completely open ears, my mind still gets in the way much of the time. The associations I inevitably bring to what I listen to play a huge role in how I perceive and ultimately assess what I’m hearing despite my attempts to deny that it does. Sometimes when a recording ends very quietly I’m not always aware that it is over, and I keep listening, hearing things like the barely audible yet still audible rumble of the air conditioner, refrigerator, etc. as if they were part of the music. It is artificial to isolate certain sonic elements from others and selectively listen to those as music, even though that is what most of us do, me included, every time we listen to music.
There are many people who are opposed to program notes, believing that whatever you read about something in advance of hearing it will distract you and impact how you perceive the music. I would argue that even without such notes, the mind will create its own contexts and associations; those can be equally distracting and can sometimes even lead you totally astray. Listening to something with the completely wrong associations and, as a result, finding it of interest for the completely wrong reason is a reminder of how truly difficult it is to listen to something on its own terms. And of course creating music on its own terms is even more difficult to do.