Reflections on a Vinyl Record
This winter, having finally replaced my old boombox with a proper music system (new amplifier/receiver and decent speakers, coupled with my 40 year old turntable on which I can play my ancient vinyl LPs,) some random thoughts. I find myself listening to music with renewed intention after years of passive digital indulgence. Over the past two decades I've joyfully embraced each new technological breakthrough, from CDs, to iPods, to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. But it seems to me, considering the attention-deficit-disordered state of most of us these days, that our technologies have played some part in it.
Once upon a time we used to amass vast physical collections of recorded music. The downtown record store was a place of discovery. My friends and I would buy records unheard, based only on the instrumentation, the cover art, or something in the liner notes that seemed to hold promise. The 12-inch format allowed for massive amounts of information to embellish our enjoyment of the music. We knew the names of all of a band's members, who wrote what songs and what qualities each individual contributed to the whole. We studied the instruments. We came to appreciate the sonic differences between an ARP synthesizer and a Moog, or a Mellotron with its mysterious tape loops. This all may seem a bit quaint today when a simple Google search accesses more information, including live videos, than thousands of album liner notes.
The shufflings of the iPod and the streamings of the internet changed the way music was enjoyed for decades, and other things as well. Before the advent of these digital devices, the song orders were set by the artists as if to say, this is how you fully grasp what the music is about. (Of course, song orders were just as often set by the record label for not so lofty reasons.) Double lps, or box sets would often feature side four on the back of side one so that the records could be stacked and played in a particular flow. To play a record was to enter into a mood, which, to me, always seemed like a kind of landscape one journeyed through; a foreign country with its own weather patterns and geographical features. The songs would lead you first to one place, then to another, with the resonance of the first acting as a background to the ever unfolding vista. While painting I would listen to a particular artist and when one record was done, more often than not, I would reach for the next album by the same artist, so reluctant was I to leave that landscape. The downside, which at the time it seemed to be, was that at most you got about 25 minutes of music before you physically had to change the record; or if you had a stackable turntable, 45 minutes. When long-playing cassette tapes appeared we could revel in 45 or 60 minutes of unbroken music. The development of auto-reverse machines expanded that to as much as 120 minutes, or more if you chose the infinite replay mode. But even then, unlike today's passive listening, we made those tapes ourselves, choosing and recording what went on them, and copying out the "track lists by hand. Reel-to-reel tapes remedied these interruptions, allowing us to compile enormous amounts of music to be played in an unbroken way. Entire days might be devoted to imbibing the complete discography of Frank Zappa, in chronological order, with only 3 or 4 interruptions to change the reels. Today we "binge-watch" television series on Netflix. The reel-to-reel tape allowed us to binge-listen.
So, after many decades now of enjoying all of these newer ways of listening, I find myself returning to the old vinyl paradigm with a new appreciation, not only of the warm, analog richness of vinyl recordings - like suddenly discovering the nuances of flavor in well-prepared "slow" food - but also of how it returns me to intentional listening. It does this first by eliminating the third-party mediations of the ipod shuffle, or the impersonal algorithms of the streaming internet. Alone in my studio my record collection and I are a closed system in which I relocate my identity, my history, and my particular relationship with the music and the artistry of the musicians that I found through my own investigations. Choosing this closed system, I admittedly forego the serendipity of new discoveries and linkages with unknown artists that often come to us through the "salads" of Pandora or Spotify. I also sacrifice the possibility of those felicitous re-awakenings to the musical content of familiar recordings that the iPod shuffle makes possible through the random breaking of the set sequencing that we all become accustomed to when playing records, tapes, or CDs. I don't intend to forego these new wonders forever. Different moods demand different ways of listening. But, having lived through and experienced these alternatives, I return to an older order with refreshed appreciation for what it uniquely has to offer.
There is also this, the not insignificant pleasure in the beauty and craftsmanship of these old electronic devices that were crafted to serve the purposes of what used to be called "high fidelity" musical reproduction. My forty year-old Technics turntable remains an enduring work of art. Its precision shapes and lines, the sinuous curve of its metallic tone arm, the neat arrangement and organization of its controls, and the gliding revolutions of its sculpted platter, still hold their own against any modern standard of beauty in design.
For years we have assimilated the ever increasing miniaturization and de-materialization of musical devices. Case-in-point, the iPod or smartphone, which allows one to carry a collection of hundreds of albums on a player the size of a credit card. But some are beginning to understand the cost of this miracle. What makes this "advancement" possible is the sacrificing of the full audio spectrum. Thousands of details are lost through digital sampling which reduces the nearly infinite curves of analog sound waves to a series of steps. Returning to the landscape analogy, it's as if we are wandering through the countryside with our eyes out of focus. The large, general shapes are all there but the details are lost. We've acclimated to this new sonic landscape, valuing novelty and portability over the richness of sensation that we once took for granted in listening to recorded music.
Bringing this wandering thought stream back to what I've called intentional listening, it strikes me as having a curious parallel to how we look at art and images today. Digital technologies, the internet, and the ubiquity of LED screens have made access to images easy, both the making and the viewing of them. Virtually everyone now carries with them a miniature camera. We can collect vast personal catalogs of images on Pinterest or Tumblr to view with ease. With the snap of a smartphone, we are able to turn our lives into Instagram documents as if, in doing so, we impart some solidity to our transient passage on earth. But all of these glowing images, however seductive, can never substitute for the actual heft and material presence of an actual painting, or that of a silver halide photograph intentionally crafted by a sensitive photographer. To take the time to stand, physically, before a great painting, to track our eyes over its manually sculpted surfaces, and to absorb the vibrancy and nuanced ranges of its colors with the miracle that is the human eye, is, today, almost an act of defiance. Much is made today of the disruptiveness of technology. But going to a museum or a gallery is also disruptive. It disrupts the attention-deficit-disordered way we have come to live our lives. To look at real paintings, in real time, demands not just attention but intention. And the rewards for committing this modern day heresy are not unlike those of taking the time to go to a concert with actual musicians playing in real time. Or intentionally choosing a 12-inch vinyl record from a personal collection and listening carefully to it on a really nice sound system.