Monday, May 30, 2016


Physical media for sound recordings have a long and distinguished history, from 1857's phonautograph (which could record sound as a squiggly line on a piece of paper, but not reproduce any of it), all the way to the utter disappearance of any and all physical manifestations of musical data. My personal favorite is the Danish telegraphone, a device hatched during the final moments of the 19th century, where stainless steel wire was used to magnetically record and play back sound.

Of course, my birth in 1973 meant that I was a bit too late to the party: wire recorders fell from grace a good decade before I showed up. However, thanks to a musically inclined stepfather, I had access to a reel-to-reel tape recorder through which I experimented with sound and music for months on end. I also got to enjoy the occasional 8-track road trip whenever an uncleor an older cousin—took me for a ride in their big, living-room-sized automobiles. But in the end, as Fate would have it, I mainly grew up with cassette tapes and vinyl records.

Cassettes represented the cheap, nigh indestructible bearers of music. They could fit in your back pocket (and even survive in the event of your sitting down without a preliminary extraction) get thrown across the room with little to no consequences for the precious music they harbored, and were the perfect loaning vehicle. (How many of those little musical ships have you sent out into the world, confident that they would return at the end of a long voyage across the musical seas? Yeah, me too.) Cassettes could also be used to record, enablingamong other cultural phenomenathe ascent of the quintessential gesture of love or undying friendship, and the ultimate proclamation of the Self: the mixtape. And, perhaps above all, cassettes were also portable, making possible the hitherto unattainable dream of carrying your musical identity with you. Whether it be through the self-affirming boombox or the more respectful Walkman, music would nevermore leave your sideas long as the batteries didn't die on you.

By comparison, vinyls were older, bulkier, and somewhat more deserving of our care. In their own way, they commanded respect. Asking those arcane discs to work their sonic magic required a specific procedure, almost a ritual. With cassettes, you just popped the deck open, slammed down the next bundle of songs and hit Play. Not so with a record. The artifact needed removal from two sleevesone paper (or plastic), the other cardboardand a gentle cradling all the way to the turntable, where it would rest comfortably on a circular altar. Then the scepter would be brought forth, lowered to the spinning crown of the king, and the initial pops and crackles would signify that we were about to be granted an audience.
Records were more fragile and overall less practical than their caged, magnetic counterparts. And yet people developed a particular attachment to them, perhaps precisely because they looked and felt much less disposable than cassettes. DJs were an exception, but then again DJs were godsand gods were allowed, indeed expected, to manhandle kings in order to fill the world with wonders. To the rest of us, records were something we needed to nurture, for the simple reason that they would not last forever.

And that is what I miss from time to time when I'm using modern contraptions to reproduce sounds from around the world and across time. The destructibility of music. The knowledge that each time I listened to a particular piece of music, my action would leave a mark. The magnetic patterns would fall apart a bit more, or the groove would erode and lose a little of its sharpness. I loved the mystical feeling that the more the music engrained itself into my brain (and soul), the more it disappeared from its physical medium. It was an alchemical process, a wondrous transference through which notes and harmonies and rhythms were bestowed upon me at the quantifiable rate of 33 or 45 rpm.
The first law of thermodynamics expressed in drum fills and power chords.

Digital music comes with its own set of endearing qualities, one of which is its ubiquity. That stuff is beyond portable: wherever you go, you music is already there, waiting for you. There's a sense of exhilaration to this, a feeling that my MP3 of FLAC file is running through that great player in the sky, connecting me to every other music enthusiast in a planet-wide celebration. Something very much alive, throbbing.

So I enjoy and profoundly benefit from music's unstoppable march towards the future. But all those newfangled gizmos belong to Eternity, while I learned to understand and love music through a technology in which I could recognize myself: a physical medium built to decline through use and ultimately vanish.
Maybe that's why I decided to have children, so that I could pass on that passion before my groove finally gave out and my very last magnetic particles went back to the stars.

[The archival life of magnetic tape is generally expected to be 30 years; I am happy to notice that I have exceeded that estimate.]

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