Reading Perfecting Sound Forever has reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago. During one of my many days at the radio station, I decided to multi-task by transferring a few of my records to the station computer, so I could later take the files home and make some .mp3s of them. I had a number of reasons for doing this, but in the end I spent most of the day listening to records while I was working. Not a bad way to spend the day. I transferred the files to my external drive, bussed it home, and set about the task of hunkering down for an evening of editing.
I put on my headphones and started listening to the first file, and to my complete astonishment, I found that I recorded more than I had intended. As I scrolled through the first few seconds before the opening of, “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet”, I noticed that you could actually hear the sounds of me slowly lowering the needle of the record. They were very faint, but any audio nerd would clearly recognize the sounds for what they were. This was beyond just the stylus hitting the record. There was a bit of my voice, the arm moving, me saying, “…okay…,” then click. A moment later, the song started.
It was something of an epiphany, or, at least, the final piece in a puzzle that has been assembling itself over time. The only reason that I hadn’t noticed it sooner was that I am so immersed in the ability to edit audio that I hadn’t really seen the ideology that was invisibly at work. It was almost so clear that I was afraid to say it out loud, and for a while I didn’t. But it was finally just too obvious to not say it anymore: We do not listen to recorded music. We listen to recorded ideas & memories.
The moment that I dropped the needle on that Blues Magoos record was, ultimately, nothing to write home about. I’ve done it hundreds of times before, and will do it again, like millions of other audiophiles across the globe. But as soon as I captured that moment digitally, there was an idea that could be conveyed in that small recording: an audio re-telling of someone dropping a stylus onto a piece of wax. The following idea is the song that was contained within that record. That idea was now forged as a very distinct memory for me, because the idea was re-presented to me, what was a lost moment, an ultimately meaningless moment in the sequences of every day life. Now, it was more complex than the sounds captured in 1s and 0s.
I snipped off this part of the recording, its implications a little bigger than I had time to wrestle with. But this book is beginning to stir that pot again, and add a little spice to the broth.
Consider this: while I cannot argue that most music comes in the form of some sort of artifact (CD, vinyl, cassette, etc.), the music therein cannot be pointed to anymore more materially than one can point to the grooves, tape, or aluminum the music is encoded within. The material that contains a representation of the music constructs, using vibrations, a somewhat realistic sound-image of a musical idea that we then interpret to be the guitars, bass, drums and vocals of The Blues Magoos, in spite of them being no where near where the record is being played. But the sounds we hear do not “exist” except in the form of created vibrations, that are used to execute the ideas that the artists creating these sounds have. The results are “music.” Sound sculptures. Moments that are, and then pass in a time-based way. They do not “exist” in a tangible sense, any more than the ideas behind words exist in a tangible sense.
However, we confuse the symbol for the sign regularly, because music is encoded in tangible artifacts that we buy and trade in the marketplace. While the music can never be tangible, the means to communicate it IS, and this cognitive dissonance causes us to refer to music as if it can be possessed. “I have that,” is a common response when presented with a representation of a song that is also represented in our own material record collections. While the distinction is nuanced, and seems to play little role in everyday discourse, that does not mean that the implication is any less important. You may never discuss the meta-realities behind a Brian Eno record at a party, but they are at work at the party – especially at the party – in ways that cause us to want to buy back into this confusion between symbol and reality ever moreso.
I should stress that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We confuse the symbol for reality all the time, and it is a very human way to deal with things. Movies would be boring if we couldn’t immerse ourselves in the reality they temporarily represent. (This is easily recognizable as the friend you hate to take to the movies with you, because they spend the entire film complaining about how unrealistic the movie is.) So do not think the application of this confusion in the world of recorded sound is meant to deter you from continuing to listen to good music. I just want to make the point that there is something else going on here.
As way of an example: growing up I had a Sir Mix-A-Lot tape that I would listen to often. I brought it with me when I went to visit my Dad, and was playing it for my brothers on a new cassette player. This had a Record feature, that used a built-in Mic. While my Dad was exploring what the machine could do (while my tape was playing), he pressed the record button momentarily. I quickly said, “Dad, that’s record.” He replied, “whoops!” & hit the Stop button. While I listened back to the tape to survey the damage, both my Dad and myself were surprised to find that, not only was the exchange between himself and I captured perfectly on the tape, but it was actually in-time with “Buttermilk Biscuits.” Often, when I hear that song, I keep expecting to hear us pop into the recording at a precise moment, because I continued to listen to that tape for quite some time afterward.
We’ve all had this experience with Mix Tapes, Mix CDs, move soundtracks, etc. Formative moments that were, accidentally or not, captured on tape that become part of the way we hear that song. I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve heard that all start, “Every time I hear that song, I think of [fill-in-the-blank] song, because I used to have a tape where they were back to back.” I find these moments interesting. The expectation is not satisfied, and yet telling the story seems to create the same effect. Those same people seem to smile after they’ve told it, as if they have heard [fill-in-the-blank] song anyway.
At the party, when we’re listening to Brian Eno with our friends, the ideas that are conveyed are so powerful, it can compel us to want to go out and buy the record. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done that, or heard a similar story. What is at work is the Idea & Memory aspect of having heard something. We hear it, we want to clarify it, to re-experience it, to have the same idea conveyed in a quieter locale. So we buy the record. We get to experience music as a side-effect, but what we hear are ideas and memories being formed.
Perhaps this is not big revelation to anyone who is a fan of music. The media itself is so flimsy, that the impressions of each listening experience is forever etched into the media, preserved for each subsequent time we listen to it again. Each listening experience accesses a memory – re-written every time it is accessed – with new dimensions that include every time we’ve dropped the needle, every time we accidentally taped over part of something, and every time it was mixed and remixed with something new.
These memories we listen to are what draw me to recorded sound, I think. Forever nostalgic, but also curious, about the ideas and memories that have been formed before me. Perhaps I’m really looking to see if Nomeansno is right, and that only so many songs can be sung with two lips, two lungs, and one tongue? But I think that recorded sound is as limitless as ideas and memories themselves. It just depends on how much space you want to give to it.