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The Masthead

“What is a compilation but a collection of similarities and differences?” asks Adam Harper, whose ”Definition Of Sound” essay opens The Compiler, the 22 page special dominating this month’s issue. Indeed difference is the engine driving the two dozen pieces making up our portmanteau feature. Ranging from Dave Mandl’s scrutiny of the “51 tiny masterpieces” of Miniatures collected by former Mott The Hoople keyboards player Morgan Fisher, to Ken Hollings’s valuation of the worth of the Voyager Golden Record, the earthly jukebox compiled by NASA and shot into space in 1977, The Compiler also touches down in South Africa, South East Asia and North America. But regional variations aren’t the only motor forces fuelling the difference engine’s long distance chase after the fast disappearing horizons of new experiences in the instant information age. Compilations can be as much about genre, mood, gender or sexual preference as place.

Regardless, the very act of sucking up the new from one place and spitting it out in another can actually erase the difference factor that attracted the listener’s attention in the first place. In his “Slow Express” essay, Bill Meyer tracks the pulses brought to fever pitch by The Fall’s stopover in New Zealand in the early 1980s, duly documenting Mark E Smith’s impact on the stable of groups linked to Flying Nun, a label perfectly adapted to the slow pace of the southern New Zealand backwater city of Dunedin. Just as the pace of life at Flying Nun accelerated to cope with the eventual worldwide success of its NZ independent music showcase compilation Tuatara, so was its own difference engine broken down and reconstructed according to the more streamlined international model of genredefined independent music.

To ask whether a well-judged compilation can launch a new genre or astutely spread the word of one in the act of coming into being isn’t entirely a chicken and egg question. In his piece “Bugs In The Bassbin”, Phil Freeman describes the ugly bug balls celebrating the new fugs of factory-strength dub rising up from the fringes of industrial and EBM when the likes of Kevin Martin and labels like Mille Plateaux and WordSound slammed the brakes on the beat and upped the stakes of the prevailing post urban riot paranoia of the late 1990s. The music Phil’s talking about has largely disappeared, he laments, expressing gratitude for now apparently hard to come by compilations such as Martin’s Macro Dub Infection for keeping the memory of it alive. Elsewhere, Salomé Voegelin suggests that the very act of making a compilation could be killing the thing the compiler loves. In her essay “Compilation Fever”, which closes The Compiler, she identifies and isolates the modern curatorial disease threatening to stealthily drain the life out of both the art and music worlds. She writes: “The great paradox of compilation fever: labelling and categorising to attain clarity and comprehensibility insidiously frames and prejudices the accident and serendipity of listening to something else.”

But hell, as Emily Bick rightly declares in her “Desperate Straits” piece, everybody has to start somewhere, and her starting point was the Usenet created Gibraltar Encyclopedia Of Progressive Rock. When I was young and stupid, the compilation that did it for me was called Tokyo Mobile Music 1, a surprisingly wide-ranging compilation taking in Okinawan agit folk rocker Shoukichi Kina, Tokyo underground slackers Lizard and the timid electro duo Salon Music among others. But I didn’t have a labelled advance cassette copy of it before I held court in a Tokyo room in 1982 to receive visits from the various musicians it featured for an NME piece about new Japanese music. They politely paraded past, giving their name, rank and serial number to identify which track was theirs. One man stood out: Koichi Makigami, founder of Hikashu. Makigami had little to say that 1982 afternoon. But to demonstrate his performing artist skills for NME’s photographer Peter Anderson, he stiffened up like a board then fell flat on his face. Peter missed it the first time so he did it again. Now as then, falling over gets you accepted in my book. His subsequent music kept making itself felt, especially his 1990s cover of The Jacks’ lugubrious death song, “Marianne”. That track opened up a window that simultaneously looked back to the weirder edges of the 1960s Group Sound boom, and forward to the forever now of the Japanese underground. Chris Bohn


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