Site and Sound

Posted by Rob Walker on January 20, 2010
Posted Under: Listening,Music

Here’s an essay I wrote in connection with Rewind Remix Replay: Design, Music & Everyday Experience, an exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, through May 23, 2010. It’s available over there as well, but only as a PDF. So I figured I’d post it here. It’s a bit of an unusual piece for me, and I’m not certain how well I carried it off, but it was fun to write. I welcome feedback…


One Home, Sixteen Objects, and the Things We Listen To Now

Surely the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a pivotal time in the history of listening. But it won’t be because of a new genre that burst on the scene, the way rock, rap, punk, even disco, changed the music we listen to. It will be because of the objects and technologies that changed the way we listen. Such transitions always seem abrupt (especially as they’re treated in the popular press) but unfold more gradually for most real-life listeners.

So as the decade wound down, I decided to conduct an inventory of objects and devices for music-listening in my own home. I’m more of a music fan than a gadget fan, which leads me to embrace music-oriented technology faster than any other sort (I owned an iPod before I owned a cell phone). At the same time, I can be slow to chuck old formats and objects just because something new has appeared; possibly the more dated relics of twentiethcentury listening technology cluttering my home ought to have been discarded by now. But since analog and digital coexist in this particular environment, it’s an opportunity for a useful one-listener object ethnography.

1. The portable AM/FM radio in the kitchen primarily functions as a dust collector. I have no memory of when I bought it or why, but I must have been thinking about some hypothetical emergency situation, since it also (supposedly) received network television audio, at least before such broadcasts switched to digital. When we moved into this house in Savannah, Georgia, in 2006, I tuned the radio to a local college station that plays jazz; I have switched it on perhaps a dozen times.

2. Just off the kitchen is “the spare room,” where we keep our bikes, an assortment of tools and packing supplies, and other random bric-abrac. Notably, the jumble includes an ailing laptop; its hard drive started to sputter nearly two years ago ago, prompting me to buy a replacement. As long as this one still technically worked, I figured I’d leave it connected to our home’s Wi-Fi network, and use it to listen to streaming-music services like Pandora and LastFM. In truth, the machine is often “tuned” to terrestrial radio that happens to be available online. So it’s no knock on that Savannah station, trapped in such a limited object, that it mostly loses out in a competition with every radio station I’ve ever loved. Thanks to this wheezing laptop I can listen, on demand, to favorite DJs like Liza Richardson and Gary Calamar on KCRW in Los Angeles; I can reminisce about our years in New Orleans via that city’s WWOZ; I never have to miss “Give The Drummer Some,” or “Mudd Up!” on WFMU in Jersey City; if I’m in a jazz mood there’s WGBH in Newark, or NPR’s handily archived shows. The limit isn’t options, it’s listening hours in the day.

3. Something else in this undistinguished room: my old, four-component stereo system, and hundreds of CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums. Even owning these physical manifestations of sound enjoyment seems, in 2009, vaguely eccentric. But this was the first time in my adult life (and eight prior houses or apartments) that I didn’t situate this collection of music-objects in the living room as a matter of course. On an object level, the traditional stereo system never really impressed: black boxes with buttons and knobs. The aesthetic message aimed for reassuring technical competence, but what it really communicated was “commodity.” Yes, in the cheap-and-easy mass era that dominated for years after the stereo stopped being exciting enough to call a “hi fi,” you could still find a salesman to badger you into overspending on a supposedly great needle for a record player. But you bought these boxes knowing that when one component gave out, most any replacement would do. Indeed, my antiquated system now includes three brands, bought years apart.  The Pioneer tuner likely dates back to the early 1990s, and more or less works; its great feature, at the time I bought it, was a jack that allowed me (after buying special cables at Radio Shack) to run my television set’s audio through this tuner to my stereo speakers. It seemed pretty high tech at the time.

4. Same goes for the tape deck, also a Pioneer of the same vintage: a dual-cassette model with high-speed dubbing and auto-reverse. The poor old cassette – cheap, plastic, fragile—enjoys none of the romance associated with vinyl culture, but in retrospect it was the clunky and unpredictable nature of this medium that made a mix-tape feel like a labor of love, rather than today’s quick drag-and-drop exercise (or, worse, a playlist generated by an algorithm or a metatag keyword search).

5. The Sony CD player must be more recent, since I remember an earlier one conking out at a time when it still seemed vital to replace it. I still recall the CD era as one whose coming I resisted, often commiserating with a similarly skeptical friend who mocked me when I finally caved: “Oh,” he smirked, “I bet all the New Age discs you buy now will sound so great.”

6. The object that inspired such resistance was, of course, the turntable. The one in my spare room is a Technics, and oddly it is my system’s newest component. As turntables became more widely available in recent years, it was finally practical to replace my prior one, beset with an internal wiring problem. Sales data say records are enjoying a minor resurgence, and I noticed a small selection of albums on a recent visit to Urban Outfitters, of all places. Most chalk this up to renewed appreciation for the vinyl sound. I think it has a lot to do with the pleasure of the device. Post-MP3, the turntable feels like an unlikely apparatus: the fussy business of placing a needle on a big rotating disc that could easily be scratched and ruined. This made playing records a ritual, and often a social one – which is why the thing needed to be in the living room. Thumbing through your records or a friend’s, spotting the spine of something interesting, extracting the vulnerable disc from its sleeve, holding it by the edges as you placed it, maybe cleaning it, waiting for the needle to drop. When that happened, with an audible crackle like a throat gently cleared – everybody stopped, for a beat at least, and listened.

7. What’s in my living room now is an Altec Lansing InMotion Portable Audio System for iPod. It’s about 18 inches long, and roughly tubular. A slot in the middle accepts an iPod, and there are a couple of buttons on top, but apart from that it’s essentially a speaker. I bought it online two or three years ago, and I remember the day it arrived, because my wife got a package at the same time. Hers contained a Singer sewing machine from the 1960s: a gorgeous thing, built to last, timeless. The Altec Lansing device was styled to match the dominant iPod look of the moment, and may as well have had an aesthetic expiration date stenciled on the side. The on/off button is already glitchy. Still, when I plug in an iPod jammed with my (algorithm-and-metatag) playlists that spool out endlessly, albeit without comment from visitors, the thing produces fantastic sound. (And I didn’t have to buy any extra cables to run the TV’s audio through it.)

8. On a shelf in the downstairs bathroom, there’s a plastic box about the size of a cigarette pack, called a Buddha Machine. There is music in it: nine ambient loops created by the experimental music duo FM3, digitally encoded on a chip. It has a single on/off dial that also controls its volume; turn it on and one of the loops repeats endlessly, through a tinny little speaker. Push the object’s single button to toggle to a different loop. The Buddha Machine is less a music player than a comment on objects that play music. Often called an anti-iPod for the almost absurd lack of choice it offers, it also references the transistor radio. Unremarkable now, the portable soundscape that those pocket-sized listening-objects offered must have been startling in its time: the music you want to hear, and that everyone around you must. Think of Humbert Humbert laying eyes on Lolita in the film version of Nabokov’s tale, in her bikini and heart-shaped sunglasses, with  (literally) her theme oozing from her transistor, her insolence harmonizes with her brazen sex appeal.

9. In the last ten years, for all the chatter of “sharing” and “connecting” with fellow music fans online, actual listening-device breakthroughs seem more oriented to the personal than the public. Upstairs, my office is a lonely space, deliberately arranged for solitude, and the place where my most important music object lives. It is of course my laptop. The laptop embodies blurring boundaries between work and play, a portable office and a portable entertainment center, bound together in a tool that offers total freedom, and yet is total albatross. Wherever I take it, I bring 13,000 songs in iTunes, religiously tagged and catalogued, sliced into playlists and “Smart Playlists” through fiendishly clever deployment (if I do say so myself) of Boolean logic. Unlike the rows of albums downstairs whose spines were once scrutinized by friends, my digital library is studied by no one, really, but me.

10. Beside the laptop, perched in its charger dock, is an 80-gigabyte iPod Classic, the size of a lone cassette. If I am not listening to music from the external speakers plugged into the laptop, I’m usually listening to it from this, using iconic white earbuds, Bose noise-canceling headphones or that InMotion device in the living room.

11. Less predictably, my office also contains a second turntable, an Ion USB Turntable. Those albums in the spare room occasionally find their way up here, to be converted into digital files with Audacity software. Visually, the turntable invokes an earlier listening era; practically, it functions as an aid in leaving that era, finally, behind. One of the most remarkable transformations in listening technology is the replacement of objects by nonobjects: material media made unnecessary and impractical by the immaterial medium of the MP3 and its digital-format kin. In concert with my laptop, this new object’s purpose is the obliteration of old objects.

12. Off on a bookshelf, fully charged, completely functional, but seldom used, is my original iPod, the first-generation version, with the actual spinning wheel. I kept it as pristine as possible, precisely because I knew it would be one of those things that gets more fascinating to look at every year. Twice as thick as a contemporary iPod, and capable of holding just 5 gigs of data, it seems more dated than a turntable.

13. There’s another iPod in the bedroom: It belongs to my wife.

14. Her laptop holds the music she listens to when I’m not bullying her with my own sonic tastes. Here is more evidence of the individual focus of the 21st-century listening object. Surely every couple has always had at least some divergence in listening desires, but that’s why commingling record collections is a little ritual of commitment. And obviously, separate stereo systems would have been bizarre. So couldn’t my wife and I share a single device? I guess. But it seems pointless, when it’s so easy to have an iTunes of one’s own.

15. Past the bedroom is my wife’s studio. There’s another iPod docking station here. The nameplate says XtremeMac, and it is basically a black box with a few buttons, sleek-lined per post-iPod style mandates, but interestingly reminiscent of the anonymous stereo components downstairs. Curiously, it also functions as a radio, and sometimes even gets used that way. The FM frequency is displayed in LED numbers, like clock radios from 25 years ago. The sound is mediocre.

16. Finally, also in my wife’s studio, and easily overlooked, is an old, disused boombox. What a powerful icon of (cassette-era) aural culture these once were!  Amplifying the portable soundscape notion that began with the transistor, mixing it with the personal-sound track notion of the iPod’s spiritual ancestor, the Walkman, the boombox carried the soundtrack of whoever carried the object, and wherever they carried it, broadcasting to an often unwilling audience. These were audacious objects. And now they are practically forgotten—a reminder, I suppose, that music-machine innovation can be fleeting. Each, probably, is as vulnerable to being undermined and transformed from cutting-edge to dowdy by the new thing as any trendy genre or pop song. And the hits, as that old radio DJ cliché has it, keep coming.

* *

From the Internet Catalogue Rewind Remix Replay: Design, Music & Everyday Experience (Scottsdale, AZ: Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art), 2009, in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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