'Why the Mountains Are Black' aims to show music as a 'tool for survival'

Los Angeles Times Critic at Large

In summer 2014, four writers and one record collector were sitting in a room in Faber, Va. The record collector, an adept and passionate scholar, was Chris King. He had been playing 78s from his collection, which he keeps in plain brown sleeves that are not marked. They are organized by genre and region, and King not only knows which record is where, despite the lack of markings, but what the matrix number on the label is before he pulls it out of the sleeve.

On that July night, after a generous amount of bourbon and American blues, he played a song called "Kalamatianos." The performers are listed as K. Bournelis, F. Tsilikos and Christos Kantilas, and the English translation of the title is "Dance of Kalamata." It was originally issued in a 78 rpm format on CO-DG-195 with a control matrix of W.G.-308 and was recorded in Athens in 1932. The musicians were Greek, from the Peloponnese.

King sat back in his chair, behind his Technics turntable, acting as both radio DJ and preacher. He was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and tortoise-shell glasses. He put the needle down on the record and then laid several fragments of toothpicks on top of the headshell, to push the needle slightly deeper into the grooves and withdraw as much information as possible.

The song we heard is now the first track on "Why the Mountains Are Black," a new compilation of Greek village music produced by King and released by Jack White's label, Third Man Records.

What he played made two of us sit up straight. It was a crackly old record, and it sounded entirely un-Western, but something was familiar. One of the people in the room with me was the novelist Hari Kunzru. At the same time, we looked at each other and said, "Is that a 303?"

That's the model number of a rudimentary bass synthesizer and sequencer made by Roland. We were, in fact, hearing a frame drum and the woodwind sound of two zournas being played in 1932, so, no, it wasn't. But we weren't entirely off. It wasn't just how steady and metronomic the timekeeping was — the keening, instrumental song was pushing us into a state we already knew, for other reasons.

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For the record, 12:47 p.m. Jan. 29: An earlier version of this post referred to the Roland 303 as a drum machine.

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Trance-like tune

"I remember that Chris, in his usual mysterious way, dropped the needle onto a record without telling us what it was," Kunzru wrote to me later. "I remember we were hit by a hiss of static, then a drum pattern and two lines played on some kind of reed instrument, one playing a drone, the other playing complex runs and trills that had a hard, squeaky edge — they sounded almost overdriven.

"As the trance-like tune went on, the reeds sounded ever more like the kind of insane squelchy noises that people get from the Roland 303 bassline, the foundation of so much acid and techno music. It was all drum and treble, but despite the absence of bass, it had the same exciting, edge-of-insanity quality that makes big 303 tunes go over on a dance floor. Play it next to Josh Wink's 'Higher State of Consciousness' and you can clearly hear that those Greek folkies were heading into the same headspace as nineties ravers."

We weren't projecting that much onto the music, it turns out. All of the music on "Why the Mountains Are Black" was recorded in and around Greece and has no relationship to what we think of as popular music. This was — and still is — music with a function, a tool to produce a result, much like modern dance music. (King wouldn't likely listen to modern dance music, it should be noted.)

Recently, King expounded on this idea, via email. "Most of the pieces contained in the collection served a purpose — to put people into a therapeutic trance, to heal via music. Most of these pieces are also intended for dancing. That conjunction of intention is no accident. Do we even consider 'function' when we think about the phenomenon of music? Perhaps contemporary music lacks most of this particular intentionality, therefore when it is heard, it sounds alien, foreign, perhaps incoherent?"

I should stop here and say that King has no active beef with contemporary music. It is more of a passive rejection; he simply doesn't engage with it. King's wife, Charmagne, wanted to take him and their daughter, Riley, to Istanbul, Turkey, in 2009 for a concert. The musician was Leonard Cohen. This is King's entire statement about Cohen: "I had neither heard his music, nor had I heard of him."

A record collector's quest

One of the other writers in the room, who had secured our access to King's inner sanctum, was Amanda Petrusich. Her book, "Do Not Sell at Any Price," is about collectors like King, whose quest for shellac and vinyl has little to do with objects or money (they spend far more than they take in, typically) and everything to do with a spiritual investigation. "Do Not Sell at Any Price" is the best book about record collecting because, even though it focuses on collectors of 78s and fans of older music, it captures the yearning that deep collectors of any genre have.

"In the course of my work, I've spent a whole lot of time with musicians and engineers and curators and writers and critics and scholars and collectors of all stripes," Petrusich wrote to me. "There's something particular to the way that Chris King hears sound. I think he hears better, hears more, than the average person. But I also think he's someone whose heart and mind is open to music in a way that would shut down a less courageous figure. He is a person who wants all of a thing. He wants to inhabit a song, he wants it to possess him, he wants to find a way to lessen whatever distance might exist between him and art."

King's engagement with the music he collects is rooted in sadness and celebration. In the extensive liner notes to "Why the Mountains Are Black," there is a phrase floating at the bottom of one page, sort of a line break and an epigram gone rogue, in boldface and all in caps: "EVERYTHING IS LOSS."

In conversation, King described the music on "Why the Mountains Are Black" in a way that confirms Petrusich's take: "I don't think anyone who hasn't suffered in life would have any understanding of this music." Entertainment is not high on the list of things King is after. He is even more emphatic in the notes (which are not optional; King explicitly wants people to read as they take in the music): "The central purpose of many of the sides collected here is not to be understood as simple entertainment but rather as profoundly existential — the function of music among the countryside dwelling Greeks was both to ameliorate an often short, hard and somewhat isolated life but also to protect against what the anthropologist and psychologist couple, Richard and Eva Blum, characterized as the 'Dangerous Hour': the times of crisis, danger, uncertainty, pain, longing and death that faced rural Greeks for millennia."

Though King has no truck with contemporary songs, this is a function that music has never stopped serving. It gives me great joy that people can buy this collection and read King's writing, which is close to his speaking voice. His ability to be articulate in the moment is startling and makes clear that he is as much a historian and philosopher of music as he is a fan, a word that seems meek when sitting next to King as he is immersed in hearing a recording.

These songs are going to sound off to someone acclimated to the deep swing and bass frequencies of American music — it's not an instant sell. But stay with it and the intensity of the music soon emerges. There is plenty of suffering now that was being well addressed 80 years ago in Greece.

Although his take on the current moment is grim, King's words typify his faith in the music that he has gone and found and given to us. "We can begin by observing one fundamental principle found in abundant clarity within these old 78s reproduced herein: that music, before it became a commodity of entertainment, before it became an expression of abstract thought and well before it was adopted as a badge of exclusivity and hipsterism, was an essential tool for survival, as natural and as necessary as any object crafted for hunting or technique for creating fire. If that is our starting point then our situation is dire and depressing: that most music as we have nowadays is a pale derivation, a whimper of what it once was."

But thanks to King, we still have this music.

sfj@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Seeing music as a vital tool - The producer of `Why the Mountains Are Black' takes an existential view of it." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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