The tone collector

Ian Nagoski’s The Black Mirror
By SUSANNA BOLLE  |  November 14, 2007

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CURATOR: For Nagoski, the most important part of the Black Mirror project was the hundreds of hours spent listening to 78s.

At 32, Baltimore musician, writer, and record-store owner Ian Nagoski doesn’t fit the stereotype of the obsessive, weather-worn collector of vintage 78s. But like that older generation of shellac enthusiasts, Nagoski is passionate about pre-war records. He began collecting while still a teenager, buying his first 78s for 30 cents apiece at flea markets. Although he was inspired by classic roots and blues reissue LPs, his own collection followed a different tack when he discovered some of the most inspiring finds had labels printed in languages he didn’t understand.

This month, an anthology of Nagoski’s favorite 78s is being released by the Dust to Digital label. Titled Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, it’s a fascinating journey back in time and around the world, with an enigmatic mix of Northumbrian bagpipe music, Javanese gamelan, Greek rebetika, Laotian Buddhist chants, Spanish flamenco, Ukrainian folk songs, German classical music, and more.

The collection is the product of years of sifting through piles of shellac in thrift shops, attics, and markets. But for Nagoski, the pleasure was not in acquisition, or even in the painstaking research. “For me, the most important and interesting piece of the project was the actual time spent alone by the record player,” he explains over the phone from his Baltimore record shop, True Vine. “It’s coming into contact with the records, listening to each one hundreds and hundreds of times, coming to know for sure that this record matters and that this invisible force that I’m coming into contact with, this is beauty.”

One of the most striking points on a collection that’s full of drama is the juxtaposition of the late Swiss pianist and conductor Edwin Fischer’s melancholic rendition of Handel’s Chaconne in G with the wrenchingly beautiful lament “Smyrneiko Minore” performed by the legendary rebetika singer Marika Papagika, who lived much of her life in New York. “The business of social class was a major concern,” says Nagoski when I ask him about the two tracks. “I wanted to fool with the idea of class and classicism. What is classical and what is folk? And what does this mean about nationalism and notions of us and them? And money? Is that Papagika performance a classical performance or a folk performance? And furthermore, is it an American performance or not? Because as far as I’m concerned, Papagika is as American as Sara Carter and Jimmy Rodgers and really ought to be held in the same esteem, whether or not she speaks English.”

Next Friday, November 23, Nagoski will “perform” Black Mirror at Twisted Village in Harvard Square. He’ll play selections from the compilation, as well as other 78s from his collection, and relate stories of how he acquired the records and why he fell in love with them. It will also be an opportunity for him to discuss issues related to recordings and musicmaking. “Things are becoming increasingly illusory and complicated, and I have a moment to describe the other side of the coin, this other world that I’ve seen and that I know the audience cares about, because they’ve come to the show to listen. They will want to see another world as well, because they’re not satisfied with the one we’re in.”

IAN NAGOSKI | Twisted Village, 12B Eliot Street, Cambridge | November 23 at 8 pm | 617.354.6898

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