Ian Nagoski Credit: Courtesy the artist

Every record tells a story, but some stories are better known than others. Ian Nagoski likes to tell the ones you haven’t heard before. This Baltimore-based writer, lecturer, researcher, and producer is also proprietor of Canary Records, a label specializing in collections sourced from antique 78 RPM discs of music in non-English languages. Some of Nagoski’s compilations have been issued on LP via a partnership between Canary and Mississippi Records; others have come out on CDs released by Dust-to-Digital, Important, and Tompkins Square.

Nagoski has devoted particular attention to the recordings of the Ottoman-American diaspora. Genocide and population exchange turned thousands of people into refugees, and after they left Anatolia, the Balkans, and Greece in order to settle in the U.S., they assuaged their homesickness with recordings in their mother tongues. The 2011 three-CD set To What Strange Place, which collects songs recorded between 1916 and 1929, challenges the very idea of what constitutes American music. Two of its three CDs were sourced from recordings made in the U.S. by immigrant Turks, Greeks, and Kurds, many of whom lived within blocks of one another  in New York City and sometimes played together. What makes their music any less American than the English folk songs sung by Appalachian hill folk (or the French tunes sung by Acadians) that you can find on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music?
Speaking by Skype from his apartment in Baltimore, Nagoski explains that learning about this music, which he first heard when customers brought old 78s to him while he worked as a record-store clerk, had a profound effect on him. “To have discovered that there was this rich seam of Middle Eastern culture that existed in the United States and was quite well-documented by old records was fascinating and infuriating, because I felt profoundly undereducated. I felt as though I didn’t know what America was made of. Learning about these records, I got this understanding of how the U.S. and the Near East has been intertwined.” He’s currently working on a follow-up three-LP set called Don’t Let Me Be Lost to You, which will survey Near Eastern-American music made in New York City during the 1940s and ’50s. On Thursday and Friday at the University of Chicago, Nagoski will give free afternoon talks, open to the public, about the earliest sound recordings of the Ottoman-American diaspora in Chicago and New York. Thursday’s event is at Pick Hall at 4:30 PM, and Friday’s is at the Franke Institute for the Humanities at 2:15 PM. 

These presentations, Nagoski explains, will follow a format that’s as indebted to record-listening parties and stand-up comedy as it is to academic lectures. “This all started from years and years of sitting around with buddies and a case of beer, just listening to records and telling stories about what we’re listening to,” he says. “Eventually that became something that I would do in public with 20 people in a room, and I would play the records and tell stories about them.” Nowadays the records he plays and the stories he tells sketch out a narrative arc that imparts just the kind of information he was dismayed to not know when people first started putting old Greek 78s on his store counter.
Nagoski will also speak at Elastic Arts this Wednesday evening about Ecstatic & Wingless: Bird-Imitation 0n Four Continents, ca. 1910-44, a project that Canary so far has only been able to release digitally. In the early days of commercial sound recording, no one knew what would sell, so the darnedest things would end up on records—things like people imitating birds. The sides on Ecstatic & Wingless include straightforward calls, vaudeville-style hokum, and a surface-noise-wreathed recording of warbles and buzzes by the International Roller Canary Breeders Association that sounds like early electroacoustic music. Sally Ann McIntyre, a New Zealand-based archivist, academic, and sound artist who’s used such recordings in her work, suggests that they represent the “endpoint of a long relation to sound that paired humans and birds, and focused on both birds and humans as kinds of ‘recording mechanisms’—a relation which has now been buried by recording technologies.”

It’s not lost on Nagoski that these are also, at least from a 21st-century standpoint, really nutty records—but the mere fact that they exist raises questions worth asking. “My interest in music is partially to do with wondering what its source and origins is about. How does it work, what does it mean, where does it come from, and how does it translate in people’s lives cross-culturally?” he says. “What are the foundations of anything that we would call communication, but particularly musical communication? So encountering a practice of humans imitating animals and getting some pleasure out of that, and of something being communicated in that process, seemed to me to be a very important and interesting avenue into asking those fundamental questions of musical communication. And it’s fun and it’s crazy.”