P"n ew Year's Eve. The living room of my IVJ crazy old house n southeast Ann ll Arbor. Mare Taras, longtime friend EbBMI and partner in noisy poetics, sits on the rug hugging his knees, staring at the stand-up victrola which dorninates its corner of the room. Wulfie is winding the thing up, turning the nickel-plated crank with great zeal and looking very much like Popeye the Sailor Man. The record which we're about to hear is a nearly mint Columbia recording of Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, the way she sounded circa 1 924. As the needie enters the opening grooves of the platter, there is afaint hiss. Then the piano and trombone begin to wander through our room. For a few bars there'sawonderfulexpectancyandweknow that a great spirit is touching down for about three minutes in order to impart an earthly blessing. Bessie Smith begins to sing. Her voice is alarmingly close, immediate. There's no electricity involved in this gramophonic experience; the music comes up off the record through the needie, darts through the tone arm and belts out from the bosom of the "talking machine," striking us in our faces like a gust of warm, moist air. It's a sensation which does not occur in quite the same way when we play the compactdiscreissue, which sounds flat bycomparison.Tonight the music is alive, you feel it in the floorboards. Bessie is there in the room with us, waving a masón jar full of gin in the air and singing about her own life: "l'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' round..." Mare is bowled over. His eyes widen the way they do if there's something exceptionally wondert ui going on. He's having an experience not many Americansare able to share very often, or ever at all. He's grooving on the technology of some 70 years ago. And it's a moment he'll have in his heart for years to come. This century has quite a story to teil. Sound recording formats have been evolving along with styles, attitudes and markets. At first there were phonograph cylinders, about the size and shape of an eclair, with the grooves running round the outside of the thing. Then came the lateral dinner-plateweight records which whiiied at a breathtaking 78 revolutions per minute. Somebody alsodevised a system whereby sound was recorded on a spóol of wire. l'm not sure how this worked, but it never caught on because the wire would come off the spool and get snarled. (Recently they did discover some rare Charlie Parker wire recordings which have been reissued on CD with some impossible pnce tag attached.) 33s and 45s appeared in the 1 950s, and coexisted with 78s for awhile. Hi Fi mutated into Stereo, and for the overzealous there was Quad. During the mid-seventies the microgroove record was introduced. This inane innovation meant that the records were very thin and flexible, (using less valuble petroleum), and the grooves were cut so lightly into the vinyl surface that even the most careful handling would produce nasty se ratches. The quality of the vinyl itself got so inferior that often the record sounded lousy on first playing. Around this time the recording industry people were whining and wailing that home cassette recording was killing their business. After years of dishonest opportunism, during which they treated artists like shit and the paying public like a pack of imbéciles, the music moguls were panicking óver theirprofit margins. How timely, then, when in 1 982 the compact disc made the trans-Pacific crossing from far Japan. Here was a technological advancement which could be marketed with all the greed our businessmen could muster, which is considerable. Twelve years later the CD is still absurdly overpriced. CDs still come in flimsy "jewel boxes" which always crack and will break with a crash if you drop them. CDs skip wonderfully; a digital skip is a magnificent improvement on the analog rotating record skip. I hear CDs skipping in cafes and restaurants, and even over the airwaves on ultra hitech equipment used by big professional radio stations. I adore digital skips and record them whenever possible, for this is a bigger and better flaw. An improved mistake. It was strange to watch people sell off all their records and piss away a fortune on CDs. Unflinchingly, these consumers did exactly what the industry wanted them to do. In fact all the major labels soon ceased making vinyl records altogether. They didn't need to do this. The public could have been given a chance to compare formats, but it was important that the businessmen take decisive steps in order to maximize their profits. They do not care if America understands itsown musical traditions.Asfar as the industry is concemed, America exists as a savings account with no culture attached. Jazz represents risky investments. Rock is a label to be applied to anything which might move on the youth market. A few decades of this unsavory state of things has resulted in the deterioration of our nation's cultural integrity. Too many Americans settle for a dangerously narrow spectrum of habitual listening, and are content so long as they've got the flashiest technology available on which to listen to the same shit over and over again. And now there's talk of switching formats: digital audio tape is the next bright idea, and more are sure to follow. But this is not progress. None of this is progress, really. Defective video laser discs are simply another overpriced commodity not worth pursuing. Automobile alarms going off at all hours of the day and night up and down the streets, that's not progress. These are gimmicks gone wild and we pride ourselves on them. l'm easilytraumatized by machines. Typewriters used to be fairly simple and benign entities which required new ribbons once in awhile. New improved typewriters include stunted little toy brains which beep at you if you try and type a word it doesn't have in its ghastly little vocabulary. Then if you have a really high tech typewriter you can lose control of the keyboard when a power surge disrupts the circuitry, and typing a "w" activates the "h" key. Or if the wires really get crossed the typewriter will exact a terrible revenge and begin typing by itself, using every key in its arsenal like a machine gun. Honestly, these things have happened to me. Writing this column every month, and working as a writer in the '90s, l've come to use computers with comparative ease. But here too there are horrors which I invariably encounter. Once I ran an essay on García Lorca through a scanner, and upon proofreading discovered that the wily machine had transformed the word "dream" into "death." Nobodyseemedtounderstand whythisbothered me so deeply, and my rantings on the subject were seen as the protestations of a man who refuses to change with the world around him. But change is beautiful. I love change. Every moming I rise up and find things a bit different and that's lovely. The trouble is this: We are caught up in acycle of artificial changes which often make things worse. Read what composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote in 1933. He lamented: "...the misguided spirit of industry, which does not allow inventions to mature until they are perfect from an artistic point of view, but provides inventors with moneyonlyforverydubious purposes - what they are to produce is not an instrument serving art, but something which can be massproduced and thrown cheaply onto the . ket and which can be brought out at least once a year in a new fashionable version that makes the eariier ones valueless, until the whole world loses interest. That is a sad and hope-destroying phenomenon."
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