Broken Records

by on July 9, 2012

Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction
Broken Records

In music, as in everything, the disappearing moment of experience is the firmest reality.” —Benjamin Boretz

I.

I found my record player on a spring afternoon, the day after my apartment was burglarized.

Thenightbefore,I had come home to find my computer missing. Almost nothing else had been taken, except for a pickle-jar filled with loose change.

Once the initial disbelief and anger had passed, I felt an acute anguish at the loss of the computer’s hard drive, which held my prized music collection. Each and every album on there had been carefully curated through years of borrowing, burning, and downloading. I had spent hours, days of my life huddled in front of that computer screen, assembling that collection. And it had vanished without a trace.

The morning after the theft, however, I was unexpectedly serene. I realized that my attachment to that collection was purely sentimental. I could easily replicate it with a few concerted downloading sessions; or with even less effort, I could stream most of the tracks on Grooveshark or Spotify. The music hadn’t really disappeared. What had been taken from me was merely a vehicle, the temporary home of my digital music.

Nevertheless, it was strange to be without my computer that morning. My routine was disrupted. I couldn’t put on a song or read the news. Instead, I sat in silence, looking out my window at the building across the street. The sounds of car horns, radios, and faint birdsong streamed in and out with the breeze. Disconnected from my digitally mediated existence, I left my apartment and drifted into Manhattan, feeling open to whatever the world had to offer. As I passed the window of a record store in the West Village, I glimpsed an old wooden box out of the corner of my eye and halted in my tracks.

The store clerk delivered the kind of sales pitch I thought only happened in movies, and only for used cars: Ah this old girl, she was only used a handful of times by an old couple, who didn’t even like music all that much. They only played it on Saturday afternoons, and only to listen to a certain Tchaikovsky record. He winked, and I pretended to know what he meant. Hell, I’ll take it.

During college, I had discovered my grandfather’s record player tucked away in his old barn in Vermont, along with a box of ancient records. My excitement barely contained, I dragged the old thing into the house and plugged it in. To my surprise, it worked (albeit not very well). These old sounds, which my grandfather had heard and loved, poured into me. I proudly hauled the thing back to my dorm room. Two weeks later, it broke down; I threw it out and forgot all about record players. That spring afternoon, when I brought my newly purchased machine home, these memories came flooding back. I remembered the immediacy of the music, the way it brought the past into the present. That afternoon, it just felt right, like it couldn’t be any other way. I knew then and there that this record player would transfigure the landscape of my life.

In hindsight, the burglary was a singular blessing (though one that came at a regrettably high material cost). How appropriate that my discovery of the ephemeral record should so immediately follow such a stark reminder of the impermanence of possession. The digital rug pulled out from under me, I was able to see what had been there all along: music, plain and simple.

 

II.

As digital technologies like tablets and cloud-based storage move into the mainstream, our perception of the world is undeniably transforming. We now have an infinite digital library of stuff—movies, music, news, books—instantly accessible from a single device. So many of the diverse activities of life have been consolidated. Increasingly, life takes place in front of a screen.

There is a video online in which a one-year-old, a so-called “digital native,” attempts to manipulate the images of a paper magazine with her fingers. She assumes they will respond, like the images on the iPad she knows so well. Her confusion is at once humorous and unsettling. The comic image of the child who points the remote control out his window and finds it doesn’t work has become a reality. It’s no longer a joke, but a poignant fact: a digital interlay exists between humankind and the world.

“Digital natives” will come of age in a world in which information is instantaneously available at virtually any time, in virtually any place. It is undoubtedly liberating. There are more potentially enriching experiences available to more people than ever before. But the myriad benefits of this digital revolution come at a cost, which is clear to anyone who has watched these changes take place. Though the long-term psychological effects of this transformation is hotly contested, our capacity for attention is unquestionably threatened by the now-dominant experiences of digital media. When everything is available at any time, when the next distraction is a finger-swipe away, it is difficult to justify attention on any particular thing.

Consider this essay you’re reading right now. If you’re reading online,you might have three or four tabs of your browser open to news sites and blogs, YouTube and Facebook; you might have Spotify open, your favorite playlist accompanying your reading. You might not be truly paying attention to these words as you read them. If you’re reading this in print, then take a moment to contrast your experience with the online one. All you have before you is words on paper. The only place this magazine can take you now is further along. No lateral movements, no pop-ups. Of course, you might also be distracted as you read. Your stop is next on the subway. You really love the song that just came on. But those distractions are exterior to the medium. All you have in your hands is material for reading.

The ways we listen to music have been at the forefront of this reordering of experience. Long before people were comfortable with Kindles, the iPod was a cultural norm. And in the last few years, cloud-based music streaming has completed the abstraction of the listening experience. With music-streaming services like Spotify, anyone can access an exceedingly vast music library anywhere at anytime with the click of a button: music is entirely abstracted from presence in time and space. And due to this total abstraction, the problem of attention has been exacerbated: music increasingly assumes the role of background, an aural accompaniment devoid of meaning, listened to en route, on headphones, in passing.

And yet, as digital music has become ubiquitous, a significant number of people are returning to vinyl records. Sales of records have grown steadily over the past six years, with over 35-percent growth in 2011 alone. Suddenly, vinyl is popping up everywhere. You can get your favorite album in this antiquated format at your local Best Buy. Amazon offers special vinyl shipping envelopes to keep records safe in transit. Sales of vintage-looking record players like Crosley are soaring. It has become common practice for contemporary recording artists to release new albums not only as digital files, but also on vinyl. Records have definitively surged back into our cultural consciousness, even as the music industry crumbles.

It may seem surprising that this growth in record sales has been driven by young people—teenagers and twenty-somethings—a group of people born well after vinyl became obsolete. But from a certain perspective, there is logic to it, which reveals a simple truth about humanity’s uneasy transition to digital. These people, myself included, are not “digital natives.” We have not spent our entire lives with the technologies that are now ubiquitous. Instead, we are intimate witnesses to the seismic shift in media. We have a clear view of past and future, of what is at stake in this unprecedented development. We have celebrated the tremendous gains, the incredible conveniences of digital media and the Internet. We have reveled in the vast expansion of taste and variety in our musical choices, in our information sources. But we also feel a sense of loss, for the musty truth emanating from an old encyclopedia, the earnest attachment to an old photograph, the indelible joy of a new CD purchase. We remember the time before digital, if only as in a dream. And from somewhere beyond this dream, this strange cultural ghost, the vinyl record, calls to us and demands our attention.

Our liminal generation’s embrace of records reveals our discomfort with digital and the experiential world it has wrought. If life is to be lived digitally, it must be true to the need which expresses itself here, in the rediscovery and renewal of an obsolete technology. The return of the record does not signal an embrace of the past, a reactionary opposition to change. Rather, it calls attention to what is vital about our old forms, what we have still to learn from them. It points to a way the transition to digital can be mindful of our roots. We encounter records as a new and fresh experience of media, where we can find what moves us in music, in life. Whereas the digital world seems to already contain everything we might experience, every record holds the promise of something unheard. It requires a kind of attention that interrupts the digital noise and holds us in its sway. The record asserts its power over us, forcing us to slow down, to pay attention to it, to experience it.

 

III.

I won’t soon forget the day when I realized that a record player produces sound without amplification. Believe it or not, if you play a record with your speakers off, you’ll hear a faint, tinny version of the music, emanating directly from the surface of the spinning disc. It sounds like your music is playing somewhere far away, in a microscopic universe where the grooved terrain of the record constitutes an entire world. This is the record’s unmediated sound, brought to life by the contact of two physical objects. Amplification merely brings the sound out of that two-dimensional world and into our own.

For me, hearing this tiny sound was a miracle, the water turned to wine and downed in one gulp. I felt transported back and forth between these two aural planes,flattened into two dimensions and expanded into three. What was this machine that could bring forth sound so effortlessly, so naturally?

I had to know. Though at first I was afraid to open up my record player, for fear of violating its sanctity, I felt an inexorable need to discover its mechanical secrets. So I built up the courage and removed the platter, the flat part of the player upon which the record sits. To my amazement, I discovered that this machine is nothing more than the platter, which sits atop a spinning rod, which is attached to a rubber band, which is attached to another spinning rod, which is attached to a motor. I switched on the player with the platter removed and watched the first rod spin, moving the rubber band and causing the central rod to rotate at a constant speed. The simplicity was mesmerizing.

I later discovered that this basic mechanism can be adjusted to slightly alter the speed of the platter and therefore the pitch of the sound. The vinyl player, in other words, is itself an instrument, which can be tuned like any other. So when I wanted to accompany Janis Joplin on my keyboard and the recording was a bit flat, I simply tuned the record slightly, and Janis and I could jam together to our heart’s content.

The simplicity of my machine, my instrument, continues to astound me. Here in this small wooden box is the genesis of every kind of sound that can be recorded, from a whisper to a symphony. Listening to it, I find myself in the presence of the great mystery of recorded sound, still as awe-inspiring as when the technology was new.

IV.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, speculates that early rituals of music and rhythm played a crucial role in the birth of human consciousness. He argues that in these early effervescent experiences, man rose to metaphysical heights in concert with others—lost in the moment of ecstasy and found in the memory of a shared experience. And we still sense this primordial source today, in that life-changing concert or album that revealed new ways of being.

In the eons of human history before records, music could only exist as part of these communal events, as a performance inseparable from social significance. “Music” had no meaning beyond the practices surrounding its creation and enjoyment. Whether in the courts of Maximilian II, where the emperor listened raptly to the young Mozart, or in the fields of the Antebellum South where slaves sang their songs of misery and hope, or in Gilded Age halls where people danced like there was no tomorrow, music has held a special place in the life of every culture, as an irrevocable response to life.

Music’s social specificity began to dissolve in 1877, the year Thomas Edison invented a way to record and playback sound: the phonograph. Edison’s machine used a needle to trace a groove on a rotating wax cylinder, reproducing sound waves in physical form. Over the course of the 20th century, new ways of performing this function developed, as the phonograph was displaced by the flat vinyl disc, magnetic tape recordings, and eventually, digital methods. Gradually, recorded music became the predominant social meaning of “music.” As New Yorker critic Alex Ross writes, by the end of the 20th century, music could be deemed “a radically virtual medium, an art without a face.”

Then, in 2001, the iPod arrived, and seemingly overnight occasioned the logical conclusion of recording: the total severance of music from the particularity of performance. Before mp3s, there was at least a hint of an event in the playback of a CD, in one’s car or dorm room. But with the portable mp3 player, nearly every song we might ever want to hear can reside in our pockets, to be called forth with little attention to the act. In recent years, with the advent of streaming music from the cloud—the infinite online storage system—the dream of the iPod is complete: music can now be everywhere all at once, and thus nowhere in particular.

Vinyl, though, still manages to feel tangible and present. Though it may have seemed an absurd argument to the record player’s early critics like John Philip Sousa (who called gramophones “infernal machines”), we can see now that vinyl retains the specificity of time and place that recording was supposed to have destroyed. Immersed as we are in the digital world, we find records infused with ritualistic significances. We find that what we experience is a concrete performance, which takes place for a specific amount of time in a specific space. Everything involved has material presence: choosing a record, extricating it from its packaging, placing it on the player, coaxing the needle to bring forth the music. And the record has a distinct temporal presence: the performance lasts only so long, during which time it demands the listener’s attention. It clears its throat with the first crackle of the needle on its surface, and it politely curtsies when the record is finished, the needle gently lifting from the record.

Unlike in digital music files,the original performance of the music lives in the physical artifact of the record—the waves of sound as they were originally felt are etched on the record’s surface. Each record performs its particular take on the music it holds within its grooves, and this performance is inflected with the history of the object. The little wobble that happens just then in a particular song differentiates this record from all other copies. My copy of Bob Dylan’s 1962 debut album has one place where it skips. The song where the skip occurs, “Highway 51,” is built on a repetitive guitar figure, called a vamp, which mirrors the titular highway’s driving energy. On my record, there is a moment midway through the song, during one of the iterations of the guitar vamp, where the record begins to repeat the same three seconds or so, creating a perfect loop of the moment. The record seems to want to savor this little bit of the song indefinitely.

Every time I listen to the record this happens, and every time it surprises me with this reminder of music’s materiality. I can choose to listen to that vamp, that rolling highway, for as long as I want. Every time I encounter the record I make a different choice.

 

V.

Just like my old computer, my records will someday disappear. It’s inevitable. They will decay and deteriorate, their sounds lost forever. In fact, this is happening all the time. Every time I play a record, it is one step closer to dissolution, its surface deteriorating with each playback. The more I want to listen to a record, the more likely it is that this record will become unplayable.

Let’s say my favorite record breaks, or somehow becomes unplayable. Will I buy another copy? Look up the album on the Internet and stream it? Or will I instead resign myself to its loss, to never again hearing those songs? That I would even consider the last option speaks volumes.

The record’s sheer physical presence demands our attention, but its absence, its silence, also makes a demand. The fading of the moment, the dissolution of the object, has as much to say as the record itself. I listen so intently because I know the music is fleeting, that the performance, like the record itself, must disappear into nothingness.

Media’s digital revolution promises the realization of that ancient human impulse to preserve, to record, to remember. At least theoretically, we have transferred the collective fruits of civilization to electronic formats, and now have a limitless, everlasting storage unit (the servers’ physical existence notwithstanding) for everything we might create or know. This infinite reservoir of cultural memory brings us face to face with the Janus of infinity, the disappearance of it all.

The Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, believes that the digital world’s permanence is but an illusion, that digital storage is not infallible. This conviction drives its mission: to preserve our cultural memory in physical form. Its founder, Brewster Kahle, aims to collect one copy of every single book in existence, in massive vaults scattered throughout the world. If something were to go wrong with our digital storage, the thinking goes, we should have our cultural artifacts stored somewhere else, safely tucked away in Kahle’s ark. Despite its apparent futility, the project and its passionate proponents evoke a fundamental ontological understanding: our inescapable tether to matter—our physical, impermanent nature. As often as we willfully ignore it, we are all made of stuff. And until recently, the things we made and loved, felt and discussed, were also made of stuff. And when the day comes for us to shuffle off our various coils, we will leave behind stuff.

I imagine the ultimate irony might be that when we actually need the archive, we open the vaults to discover their contents have crumbled to dust. The servers down and our backup disintegrated, we are left only with memories, which disappear when we do. The digital archives and the Internet Archive are both testaments to the spirit of civilization. Like the pyramids or the Library of Alexandria, they are an attempt to construct everlasting monuments. But to collect and to appreciate can be conflicting tendencies. The instinct to preserve threatens to bracket experience as something that occurs later, and can lead to the depreciation of the very experiences it seeks to hold fast.

The poet William Meredith wrote, “The worst that can be said of a man is that he did not pay attention.” Truly, it is in the moment of attention where life occurs, where true joy is possible, from which meaning ultimately derives. But against our archival impulses, paying attention is not about holding something fast and preserving it—it’s about standing upright in the flux of experience, being mindful, and letting the moment take its course.

We attend to records with the knowledge that like all things, like life itself, they will pass away into nothingness. Their physical presence calls us to attention; their silence reminds us to let go.