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.
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.