Vinyl Fantasy

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.


  1. says

    Kyle, I still have tons of LPs and digitized a lot of them (most recently, Shostakovich’s opera The Nose) and am glad I still have them. Some are, like you said, of higher quality than others. The old Chatham Square and Tomato LPs of Glass’s early music are pristine, even though I must have listened to them more than 100 times each.
    We’re now seeing the same dichotomy in terms of audiophile recordings with audio DVDs. I’m still not sold, however (not easy to develop a MP3; won’t play in a car CD player; any improvement in audio quality is irrelevant if one is listening to the DVD on a computer; etc).
    But I miss the LP in many ways, as much as they were pains in the asses. Many did have noise and scratches. Having to change the side was a hassle at times. But there’s still something to be said by putting on Garrett List’s LP of Your Own Self, and other works of the LP era. warts and all. It reminds me of an earlier and often better time. Sigh…nostalgia.

  2. David Cavlovic says

    I remember DGG pressings from the 70’s. They were terrible compared to what was pressed a decade or so earlier or later. The quality of vinyl was suspect. I actually came across a couple brand new that were broken as if they were shellac! Worse yet, the static was so bad, they were caked in dust the minute you took them out of their inner sleeve.
    By comparison, RCA and Columbia pressings (from Canada, mind you) were clean and clear (for the most part).
    Having been a child of the vinyl era, I too miss the tangibility of the LP. Compulsive collector that I am, I ammassed a collection of over 30, 000 (!) LPs and 45s, covering all genres of music (nay, recorded sound!) and pressed everywhere from Albania to Zimbabwe! Though I actually ‘got rid of them all’ (sold half, and donated the other half to my alma mater, the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto), mostly because moving 200 odd boxes of HEAVY vinyl became a pain (although I will NEVER give up my collection of pre-recorded open reel!), I know full well that repeating the enormous variety that I had with the same on CD will be impossible. Since the CD itself is dying as a format, even though it had great presence, it was only available for about twenty five years, versus vinyl’s almost 60 (or over 60, if you count RCA’s first attempts at 33 1/3 in the ’30’s)years of presence. The amount of repertoire on vinyl will never be duplicated. It was a great era. And the great era of collecting was definitely between the late 1950’s and early 1980’s.
    KG replies: Boy, I hear you on the weight. A box of vinyl is pretty close to rivalling the densest substance known to man: a box of National Geographics.

  3. says

    Believe it or not, you *do* know someone who has put out vinyl somewhat recently – Phil Corner has had a number of lps come out on an Italian label. I”m even playing on one of them, which is how I know about them.

  4. says

    Kyle: We may have met at some point: I was the classical manager of the Princeton Record Exchange for a dozen years, and it seems like most of the writers for ‘Fanfare’ would come in at one time or another and sell the CD’s I, not very surprisingly, saw lukewarm reviews for later in the magazine! (The guy who has my old job, Tom Myernick, and I saw you at Kalvos & Damian’s “Ought-One Festival”, and later still I was a composer-guest on their show.)
    Untold thousands feel the same way about vinyl: up here in Boston Orpheus (on Commonwealth Avenue) is still a center for selling them; and quite a few stores everywhere feel a need to hang on to them, and I still see, with some surprise, young people buying them — whether for nostalgia or for the sound I can’t say.
    There’s still a lot that hasn’t been transferred: one of the musicks I like, albeit guiltily, is operetta, especially when it’s done with some sense of vaudeville: and neither, for example, the Suppe “Boccaccio” with Rita Streich, and a sometimes wild, off-the-wall MRF performance of
    Chabrier’s “Le Roi Malgre Lui” has been not been reissued in any format I can find (yes, I did look through Google).
    I was one of the ‘buyers’ who saw the mysterious Eddie Smith vault in Brooklyn after his death; this was the man who kept issuing opera records illegally. There were ceiling-high stacks of records in boxes without labels, and boxes of labels without records. This is the kind of mania vinyl can drive you to — and I won’t even mention the rich collector who had 100,000 LP’s and rarely seemed to take a bath.
    Vinyl, because it spanned over generations, seemed (and still seems) to be the mark of permanence for a composer — I still would like to have the ‘complete’ CRI catalogue, out of a simple desire to feel as if I had in my possession the complete profile of a particular generation of composers. (Harrison Kerr, anyone?) Of course, it’s not a complete view at all; and the CRI performances were sometimes dire, as were some on the old SPA label (one with, I seem to remember, pretty good pieces of Fredrick Jacobi have probably not been played since).
    It’s possible to get too serious about all this — and one of the bright spots of being a classical manager was seeing the discussions that ‘my section’ would generate in the store — fisticuffs too, sometimes.
    In any case, thanks for the memory reminder.

  5. says

    You can still get vinyl pressings of your work – but what it looks like you want to go for the whole package: color cover designed by your favorite pop artist, stereo AND mono pressings, “The Inner Sleeve” advertising the latest Al Hirt records and a celebrity endorsement on the back.
    As one of the people behind the Internet Museum of Flexi-Oddity Recordings, I can tell you that there’s vinyl and there’s very wiggly vinyl. There’s also paper. There are stamps and cottage cheese lids. And where are these essential audio media today!?!?
    KG replies: An ad-less, transparent plastic inner sleeve would be nice, and liner notes in a 12-point font, readable by humans over age 40, would be loverly.

  6. says

    What I remember about the last stage in the life of vinyl were discs that were so thin you could bend them into tacos. And, they warped really badly no matter how carefully you handled them. And because we then used expensive styluses and arms that seemed to float on air at feather-light pressure, the warps in the record would throw the arm up in the air only to land at some random point elsewhere. Or, produce a miserable rumble as the arm rode the waves. At KPFA we had to tape pennies on the arms to keep them tracking.
    Sorry. The only nostalgia I associate with vinyl records has to do with the covers and liner notes. That’s what I remember the most fondly. What I hated was the hum and rumble picked up by the arm and amplified thousands of times as someone walked across the room. You nearly had to suspend the turntable in a tub of mercury to eliminate rumble. And the pops and scratches and sticking as the arm reached the last grooves. Invariably, engineers would try to pack as much as they could into each side, and the final grooves on the record, near the center label, would get crushed by the arm due to the extreme angle.
    I went so far as getting a linear tracking turntable, where the stylus is suspended over the record and moves linearly across a radius of the disc, rather than pivoting from a fixed point. This did improve things. But still, the damage had been done.
    Boxes of vinyl records, accumulated since the late 50’s when my Dad gave me a record allowance (1 per month), sit somewhere in the garage.
    I haven’t played a vinyl record in over 10 years. And, I don’t plan to.

  7. Art Jarvinen says

    I still like my Annette Funicello picture disk better than any CD in my collection. The picture’s nice too!

  8. says

    Names and identity are a topic of interest to me. The person or group who claims the right to name you claims the right to own you.
    As far as I am concerned, Native American is only a lexical tactic to attack identity. Dance for the man! Dance for the man! Coloreds / Negroes / Blacks / African Americans can’t establish identity because as soon as they are able to describe themselves, someone comes along and tells them that it has been decided by others that that word is offensive and they need to change to the new word of the day.
    I accept American Indian as a sort of exonym. Certainly not as a tribal word but as the generic class, which is really too wide to be specific in any context. For example, the equivalent for the Eastern Hemisphere would be Afro-Eurasian. I don’t think anyone over there really considers their entire hemisphere to contain only this one, mythical, race. But maybe I will start calling them Afro-Eurasians anyway.
    I use the term aboriginal as a technical term, a synonym for what others mean by American Indian, and am fond both of its implications of origin, as well as its lack of implication that there is only one Indian race and identity.
    The relevant endonym we don’t really use with outsiders normally. Mainly because they’ve never heard it and it wouldn’t mean anything to them, but also because sharing any information about culture always leads to a patronizing exchange, and also tends to leads to expropriation followed by identity theft.
    South of the US, it seems the term Indio is preferred by all and there is no sense of political correctness one way or another.

  9. Michael Wittmann says

    As the resident DJ who posts to these blog posts, I’d like to express my own sorrow at losing turntables. Much as it might horrify the composers out there, we could pitch shift all the time to get the beats to match. Mess with the bpm and you’re good as gold! Do it slowly, over a few minutes, and people’s ears don’t really notice, either. Sort of. Ahem. But the other thing about vinyl was the wonderful ability to drop the needle and test a song in the middle, to cue up the “1/4 turn plus an inch” to get it up to speed, to time the start of songs for the right overlap as crossfades occurred… ah, the memories. Now, I pump my radio shows from my iTunes, and it’s simply not the same. Booooring. There used to be ACTION in them there vinyl pressings.

    Plus, by the end of the vinyl heyday, you had crazy “backwards playing” vinyl (the song began in the middle and played outward) and double-groove vinyl (two songs side by side, the whole width of the 12″) and more. Those wacky Wax Trax guys…

    I miss vinyl, and I love the old vinyl collection that I have, but I have to agree with earlier writers that it’s simply easier to merge my musical life into a single setting these days. The iPod goes everywhere, with far more music than I’d ever thought I’d have available to me. You can’t beat that kind of freedom…