It’s the middle of the night – prime blogging time when insomnia strikes – and I’m sitting here thinking about vinyl. I’ve been, as I’ve related, transferring dozens of vinyl records onto CDs and MP3s. I started out doing it for teaching purposes, but have run into more creative reasons. A couple of performers have recently expressed an interest in my returning to writing music based on American Indian sources (I know, Native American, but it just never sounds clear), and since the bulk of my Native American recordings are on vinyl, I need to transfer them if I’m ever realistically going to work closely with them again. I had veered away from borrowing on Hopi, Zuni, Sioux, and San Juan music in the last eight years, but I find that repertoire as inspiring again now as when I first started out. The melodies are elegant, and the rhythmic sense is so deliciously non-European.
But back to vinyl. It’s remarkable what a wide range of apparent media the word covers. I worked at Laury’s Records in Desplaines, Illinois, in 1979-80, and remember that it was at about that time that record companies started advertising “audiophile” recordings on “virgin vinyl,” for only a few dollars more. In an interesting coincidence, at that same time, non-“audiophile” records started being made out of what one would have to call, by analogy, “aging syphilitic whore vinyl.” Thus they created a powerful incentive to start shelling out $18 to hear records of the quality that you used to get as a matter of course, instead of the $12 you’d pay for “normal” records which now sounded like garbage can lids. I put on my late ’70s Deutsche Grammophon recording of Henze’s Sixth Symphony, pristinely undisturbed since I last listened to it for, oh, maybe the third time circa 1980 – and it pops and scratches and bristles like I had gleefully run back and forth over it with a snowmobile. You might as well try to listen to a bowl of oatmeal. Go back a few years into the early ’70s, though, and the vinyl improves tremendously in stability. I bet between 1965 and 1985 I could date a record within a couple of years by the scratchiness of its surface.
And yet, with some trepidation I pulled out my old American Indian records made in the ’60s and early ’70s, which had been listened to relentlessly for transcription purposes, and manufactured by cheap little labels like Canyon Records and Indian House: perfect. Side after side without a single scratch and hardly ever a pop. Even the historic old Frances Densmore ethno recordings, made in the 1920s on portable cylinder equipment and issued by the Library of Congress in the early 50s, sound far better than that Henze symphony. There may be some anthropological explanation I’m unaware of, such as that the Indians used every part of the vinyl and didn’t throw away the hooves or something, but it does remind you of what a sturdy, near-perfect medium vinyl used to be, before the industry deliberately trashed it in order to force us to pay for something with a larger profit margin.
Still, I’m a child of the record. I’ve never had my music on a vinyl record, but I spent my youth dreaming about it, and I can’t relinquish the dream. No little square, plastic, ephemeral-looking CD case with my name on the front will ever thrill me the way a record of my music could, with 12″x12″ cover art and copious, readable liner notes on the back to peruse in the record store. It’s a quixotic urge, but I know there are still vinyl records being bought up by young audiophiles – and it would fulfill a dream of my life to someday see my name on the front of a beautiful, readable, playable 12-inch record. I only hope that, if it ever happens, the vinyl hasn’t been around the block too many times.
I have to reflect that vinyl is a metaphor for the life I grew up wanting, and which no longer exists. I wanted to hold in my hands a record with my name on it, and I probably never will. I might have wanted Time magazine, or perhaps the Village Voice, to discuss my music, but Time hasn’t written about new composers in many years, and no longer does the Village Voice. I perhaps thought orchestras would play my music, but the new music orchestras play now is dreadful, and the process one of constant compromise, based more on youth and looks than musical quality. I rather fancied that C.F. Peters or Presser or Schirmer might pubish my music; now I would quite sensibly turn down any such offer, since “publishers” no longer do anything but take your royalties, tie up your rights, and make your music difficult to find. I thought my musical ideas might be discussed, but no one discusses ideas in new music anymore. I can’t envy anyone, for there is no one of my generation, or even a decade or so older, who’s achieved the life I had in mind. No one I know has put out a vinyl record since the ’80s, nor had any other kind of success I used to dream about. The post-Reagan corporate stranglehold put an end to that kind of cultural life, or perhaps it was only a dream of the 1960s, an optical illusion. Not very flexible by nature, I set my heart on a life that, if it ever existed, was starting to disappear by the time I was a record-store clerk, and if it no longer exists, financially secure obscurity will do as well as anything else currently offered.