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Arts & Life

New York Artist Captures Words And Music Of The 2020 Pandemic Year, Including Works From Kansas City

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Shannon O'Shea
Kansas City nurse and musician Jenna Rae has a song on Never Records' "Apocalypse Anthems."

New York artist Ted Riederer uses his label Never Records to archive what's happening in various moments in history. He'll release "Apocalypse Anthems" on Feb. 14.

Ted Riederer seizes moments in history by recording songs, poems, and other bits of sound through his label Never Records. Typically, he creates a popup studio and issues open invitations for free recording sessions.

In 2016, at the height of the Middle East refugee crisis, he set up shop in Amman, Jordan, and invited people to record their songs, poems, and thoughts. In 2018, Riederer spent two months in Kansas City during the citywide Open Spaces art exhibition. He understands now that he created an audio snapshot of a Kansas City free from any notion of a pandemic.

When he lost his job in New York City in 2020, his wife encouraged him to archive the pandemic year in a similar way. The result is “Apocalypse Anthems.”

“I want you to testify what your life is like," he wrote to people he’d recorded over the past 10 years. “It’s almost like I’m activating a bat phone network,” Riederer says.

In more normal times, part of the project is the personal interaction of sitting with someone who’s recording and then cutting a vinyl record, which Riederer hands over as a keepsake.

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Bob Krasner
Ted Riederer makes recordings that capture moments in time. His new "Apocalypse Anthems" is an audio snapshot of 2020.

“Apocalypse Anthems” required participants to send Riederer their own audio from afar. He quickly received 54 recordings from all corners of the globe. Riederer quips that shipping all that vinyl is going to be expensive.

The 2020 recordings include experimental drone music, country music, Irish folk, hip hop, poetry, pop, rock, and spoken word pieces—all relating experiences and feelings about the pandemic and social and political unrest.

He heard from an “organic farmer in Northern Ireland who has no personal stake in U.S. politics, aside from globalism and things like that, and he references this sense of relief when the election happened, and I thought that was really fascinating,” Riederer says.

A post-punk shaman in Ecuador recorded a ritualistic song in a sweat lodge. A woman in Poughkeepsie, New York, sang about her new need to shop for groceries at a dollar store.

Ten artists from the Kansas City area participated, including Kelly Hunt, Jenna Rae, and Jermaine Thompson.

Rae is a nurse who doubles—triples—as a musician and record producer at her Lost Cowgirl Records in Stull, Kansas. She and partner Martin Farrell contributed a song called “Paging Dr. Jesus.”

Rae sings: “I see my Jesus: bagging my food at the grocery store, they didn’t sign up to fight this war, but they show up anyway; and in the hands of mask makers, keeping our people protected, from becoming infected, working hard every day.”

Riederer knows he’s not the only one assembling a year-in-review type of project. But he says he’s coming at it “from an artistic standpoint, less as a documentarian. I’m more interested in the fellowship of us coming together to make something collectively.”

He thinks of what’s been lost, like the ability to gather in a theater or concert hall, and means for “Apocalypse Anthems” to be “a way of facilitating or fomenting that fellowship through art.”

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Kelly Hunt
Kelly Hunt contributed this photo to Never Records as one of her 2020 experiences.

The song contributed by Hunt is a wish to be with someone. She sings that if she were a bird, she’d fly to her beloved 25 miles away. It’s a story of longing that would feel relevant regardless of what’s happening in the world, but during the pandemic, those 25 miles seem especially impossible to traverse.

“Kelly Hunt just put a cell phone down and sang this beautiful song, and I think because she had a private audience of one, herself, and her cell phone, it has a really beautiful quality,” Riederer says.

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Jermaine Thompson
Jermaine Thompson is a Kansas City poet and teacher who contributed a poem to "Apocalypse Anthems."

Thompson’s voice on the track he contributed for “Apocalypse Anthems” took Riederer back to a roomful of people in 2018, the last time he’d worked with Thompson. “It’s like a psycho-acoustic teleportation back to that room,” he says.

Thompson’s poem suggests that part of living is being swept along by circumstances and that healing from where we find ourselves may even be involuntary, and in a way, out of our control.

Riederer says, “It’s about finding ourselves in this situation and how we act surprised that this is where we are politically and socially, but it was coming. So, almost a reckoning.”

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Never Records is an art project more than it is a record label. Riederer doesn’t profit from it. Some albums are financed through grants or donations, but “Apocalypse Anthems” is self-financed. He’s had offers of backing from commercial companies for various projects, but he doesn’t take them.

“Art is my way of seeing, hearing, experiencing things that I would never do normally… People put their faith and trust in me that I’m going to handle their recordings responsibly, and I’m dedicated to that,” says Riederer, who makes some income selling sculptures and paintings.

He’s also dedicated to the idea of songs as part of who someone is, part of someone’s larger story. So he eschews platforms like Spotify and iTunes that turn art into items on a list. Riederer will make “Apocalypse Anthems” available on his website, along with contributor pages, on Feb. 14.

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