J. Blake Gordon
There's a lot of recorded music in the world today. I read somewhere that more records were released in 2001 than during the entire 1960's, and I'm guessing the numbers are even higher now. Each morning, while I eat breakfast, I read online music magazines, looking for news of interesting artists and events. Every day I am stunned by the glut of new records (current and reissued) vying for a listener's attention. The overwhelming abundance of new music, coupled with the gradual merging of stereos and computers, has given the record album a disposability factor that I find disheartening. And the downloading revolution has removed too many of the aesthetically restrictive pleasures of collecting music. But with hundreds of releases crashing through the gates each week, it's hard to identify the records one wants to be hearing, and to give them the exclusive attention they deserve.
Having a new record to play, usually something I've been anticipating, gives me such a thrill, like having a new book to read, a book I'll read for weeks. Then, after my attachment to the songs (or pieces) on a particular record grows into full devotion, and I become convinced of the music's epic singularity, I'm distracted again by all that is still unheard. I want my horizons spread even wider, especially if previous expectations for a record are not met or surpassed (as is sometimes the case). If a new masterpiece has been discovered, I mustn't be uninformed. What if I am missing the greatest thing I'll hear all year? Yet despite my morning attempts to keep up with happenings in the music world, I find that my excitement for novelty and discovery is diminishing. I don't care about knowing as much as I am learning - it's dizzying to think of all there is to hear and appreciate. Maybe I've heard enough. Maybe I should just enjoy the music I already know and love. There's plenty of it, to be sure.
I've been collecting and fetishizing records for as long as I've been able to play them, and many of my happiest hours have been spent in record stores (or later at home, with my new delights). Sometimes I actually dream about shopping for records. I dream of finding (nonexistent) albums by my favorite artists, grabbing them from the racks and staring at them excitedly, possessively. I wake up with the disappointing realization that my dreamed records are not real. I will never have the chance to hear them, or keep them displayed on a shelf with the others. The ordering and displaying of records is an art all its own. I like to maintain a meticulously organized collection. Each title sits exactly where it belongs, according to my personal logic of taste and preference. And when I want to hear something, I'm relieved to find it right in place. Occasionally I'll see poorly kept records in someone's home, and I always want to straighten them up. I want to say, "This simply won't do." But then I'm kind of strange.
I love the tactile elements of a listening experience - pushing a cassette into the deck of a car stereo, fast-forwarding to hear a certain song on a mix, rewinding to hear the song again, then maybe again; removing an LP from its sleeve, centering it upon the turntable and setting the needle down into its black grooves; opening a CD case for the first time, the silent moment before the music begins drifting through the speakers; holding liner notes and lyric sheets, admiring the printed enclosures and gatefolds. It's all very satisfying.
Naturally, I do not own an i-pod, nor do I download music from the internet (aside from a few things unavailable elsewhere). I have no desire to convert my records into digital sound files, and I can't imagine assembling an mp3 playlist on my computer. I don't even listen to the radio, let alone any online broadcasts. A main reason for this is the inferior quality of the signal. Similar to the way that analog recording produces a better sound than digital, for listening purposes, studio tape sounds better than vinyl sounds better than CD's sound better than mp3's. I see no advantage of digitized music over analog besides its formless convenience. I do carry a walkman with me when I take a trip, and sometimes it's a hassle to bring CD's along (given that I refuse to store them in those scratch-ready wallets). So, I recognize the superior portability of mp3 players. But do I need five hundred (or however many) songs packed into one little plastic box? Am I going to listen to them all? And if I'm listening to each song in the context of a long playlist, does it mean as much as if I was listening to a seven-inch single in my living room? I think my senses would dull, and I'd be constantly skipping to hear what's next.
I may just be resistant to the thought of records, tapes and CD's becoming obsolete, because they are the formats with which I've built my collection. Storing music on a computer would seem to me like filling a library with invisible books. I don't want all of my volumes condensed into a shapeless mass. One of the most pleasing characteristics of the recorded disc (or cassette) is its finite capacity. While the advent of CD technology removed the necessity of splitting an album (or single) into two sides, recording artists are still basically limited to eighty minutes per album (double lengths excluded). Eighty minutes even seems excessive, and if I'm going to devote that much time to a listening session, not a second of it should be wasted. At this point, there are too many masterpieces in the world to be discovered and cherished, to be giving attention to indulgent, filler-heavy rubbish. I can think of many fine albums that play straight through in less than a quarter of an hour. Scott Walker's immortal "Scott 4", for example, clocks in at under thirty-three minutes, and it contains more depth and passion than most pop artists' entire recorded output.
Close listening is not a passive activity, nor is it one necessarily rewarded by an endless soundtracking of the day's waking hours. Just because we can listen to music all the time doesn't mean we should. We're already surrounded by it in stores and in restaurants, on television and in movies. Great recorded music can be stripped of its magic when it is not balanced with its own absence and the quiet sounds of atmosphere. Sometimes not hearing any music makes for the best listening. To be filled, a cup must first be emptied. Lately I've been feeling too full. A lot of the new music I hear reminds me of music I've already heard. While I don't want to close myself off to the inspiration that innovative new music gives me, I'm tired of hearing records that sound like derivations of things that came before. And I'm tired of being exposed to so many of them. If a new record doesn't challenge my preconceived notions about what music should sound like, it's really not worth my time. A good record delivers different impressions upon each successive listen, no matter how many times it's been played. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," the poet John Keats wrote. And the best way to listen to a record is to listen to a record.
J. Blake Gordon is a poet and songwriter who lives in Evanston, Illinois with his cat. Blake went to Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, New York, earning a bachelor's degree in English, and The Charles H. prize for Creative Writing, in 1997.
Several of his poems have been featured in literary magazines/journals such as Rockhurst Review, Chase Park, Wavelength, Curbside Review, New Rag Rising, Joey And The Black Boots and The Better Drink.
Blake has been creating and recording songs (at home, mostly with his guitar and his voice) for almost ten years. Blake is also an amateur photographer, preferring to shoot on black and white film, utilizing skills taught to him by the late John Almquist.