A veritable rainstorm of temporal noise pours down between sounds of early 20th century Japan and the audience’s listening ears on the new Sublime Frequencies release Sound Storing Machine: The First 78rpm Records from Japan, 1903-1912. The latest in the label’s ongoing catalogue of surprising archival collections, Sound Storing Machines is remarkable in that its recordings are so old, the music all but fades into the background, almost overwhelmed on most tracks by the physical degradation of the media in question.
The sounds that have endured through over a century of wear, tear, and languishing in archives come from a wide range of styles. Drawn from recordings created by pioneering engineer Fred Gaisberg, each track was once among the first commercial recordings to be made in and for Japan, albeit on behalf of an English label. In making selections for this compilation, producer Robert Millis goes beyond the well-trod ground of presentational and symphonic music and sifts through the shellac for more peripheral traditions. Solo vocals, booming percussion, and keen winds and strings emerge through the static in different permutations, pouring sounds both old and new into global markets for the first time in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Opening the album is “Bairo”, a courtly piece in the gagaku style, first established in the 10th century and here presented in warped majesty. It’s a slow-motion march that leads into the much more sprightly “Senryou Nobori”, a driving piece built on high vocals and the twangy samisen prominent throughout the album. “Chikumagawa” picks up the tempo a little more, the strings non-stop for a whole two minutes. “Kappore” is another voice and samisen track, this one a geisha standard, with a bluesy feeling enhanced by the mediating grit.
“Hokai-bushi Oiwake-bushi” begins with a couple of skips and then flows loosely into a sweet if fuzzy duet between singer and flutes. Melancholy “Matsukaze” is followed by humorous “Rakugo: Ukiy-buro”; “Taishikichou” returns us to gagaku traditions with a steady build only for “Shiokumi Kasatsukashi” to bring us somewhere more lively. Representing noh dramas, “Yokyoku” is based around crooning vocals, while “Sanjusangen-do Kiyori” spotlights the shakuhachi, nimble even in this sonic haze. “Neko Ja” is another geisha song, this one lighter, while the album’s last three tracks are from different theatrical practices.
As the liner notes make clear, Fred Gaisberg was not terribly enthusiastic about the records he made on his trips to Japan, a major motivating factor in Millis’s interest in compiling this potent miniature archive of bootlegs and rarities from the last years of the Meiji era. It’s hard to think of many labels other than Sublime Frequencies well-suited or even willing to publish a collection that takes so much work to put together and to listen to. Even for Sublime Frequencies’ bold curation team, it’s a risk that many a consumer will undoubtedly find unlistenable.
For the right ear, though, this album a worthwhile and extraordinary journey, far beyond the standard vintage collection. There is a bevy here of history and skill, and though Sound Storing Machines barely (and sometimes eerily) captures the edges of what were undoubtedly enrapturing performances, to listen through the noise and imagine what might once have been is a rewarding aural exercise.