Where a Tower of CDs Used to Stand…

In our house there is an ongoing battle between the one who likes to keep things and the one who likes to give things away. As we continue to take things into our home–despite a philosophical position against the taking of new things into our home–we must reassess the objects that we have already acquired: do they have value, and more importantly, do they have value for us? The second mop is easily dispensed of, as is the broken plate and the no-longer warm winter coat. But what to do with the CDs?

We recently returned from a two-week road trip to the American south that saw us visiting friends not seen since our last visit in 2009. Since this time, we have produced one documentary, and two CDs: the first, a fully-realized album, the second, a collection of as-yet-unreleased recordings that were nevertheless burned onto little plastic discs for the purpose of friendly dissemination. But as we made our way, stopping here and there for drinks, dinners and sleeps, and dropping off said discs as thank yous and here’s-what-we’ve-been-up-tos, we noticed that there were very few disc players, be they audio or video, gracing the entertainment zones of our friends’ homes. Sure, there remains an ability to play a DVD in a computer, or a CD in a car stereo, but for the most part, our friends–with the exception of those who remain loyal to vinyl records–seem to have untethered themselves from their dependency on these once coveted objects.

I have never been much of an audiophile, lacking the ear to truly distinguish between that which sounds fine and that which sounds better. Or so I thought. On this same trip, I was browsing in a record store–we do have a collection of LPs and a turntable, though my innate laziness means I am more likely to load up my iTunes–when the shopkeeper put on a recording of “Punhat de Prata” by Alceu Valença, one of my favourites from the Brazil 70 compilation that came out a few years ago. But this was a different, unfamiliar version of the song: richer in tone and more diverse in instrumentation. Or, once again, so I thought. However, when I approached the counter to ask about its origin, I realized that it was simply a vinyl pressing of the same compilation. I was shocked, having heard the song literally dozens of times before and never imagining that what I was hearing was only a portion of what the song was actually about. This was indeed a revelation. I was reminded of this experience a few days later, while driving from Nashville to Memphis.

Though I liked the White Stripes as much as the next person–during their heyday, I was often compared to Meg White for reasons that made sense to me only in so much as we both had long brown hair and pale skin, and were often seen sitting behind a drum kit–I was never really a fan of Jack White. But all that changed after listening to Marc Maron’s interview with White on the almost-always excellent WTF, (I say almost because Maron seemed a little intimidated by White, and so the conversation lacked the easy rhythm that is characteristic of Maron’s interview style). That said, what I discovered during their conversation is that in addition to his obvious musical talents, White is also a funny, interesting and intelligent guy–the kind of guy you might like to have over for a beer or two. And though I had heard the pro-analog argument many times before, his articulation of the distinction was the first that really made sense to me.

In essence, what I took from White’s explanation is that the difference between analog and digital recording can be understood as analogous to differences in painting styles. Whereas analog recording coats the tape’s surface with a continuous band of sound–much like conventional brushstrokes cover a canvas–digital recording drops bits (or bytes?) of information onto the track. And so, as it is with pointillism, no matter how much information is deposited, or how densely it lays, there remains a blankness, a silence, an absence of information. And it is in this absence, no matter how fleeting or unnoticeable to the ear, that the loss of whatever you want to call it (warmth/richness/feeling) occurs.

Now, when I dream of the future, I envision the past: two wood-encased speakers, an old green carpet and brown sofa, a record player on a low coffee table, and a wall of LP-laden shelves. This is the living room that I see when I think of the late 80s, of the time when my friends and I started to move out of our childhood homes, bringing with us the rugs and furniture and lamps that our parents no longer wanted, and in many cases, the record players that our parents no longer used. Sometimes the couches were green or gold, and the carpets shaggy and brown, but what remained consistent was the primary function of these rooms: to talk, hang out, drink wine and listen to music. These were the locations of my musical education, where I heard Hunky Dory for the first time, and Fear of Music.

I could go on and on, waxing nostalgic about the past on a beautiful sunny day when I should really be down at the lake. So instead, I will return to the present.

For now, the CD tower is gone, but the CDs remain, tucked into boxes and hidden away from Coco and her insatiable appetite for hard plastic. How long they stick around is hard to predict. That they are insurable objects has always amused me because they are so obviously without value, yet this fact must play a role in our decision to keep them. That they remain cherished in what they represent–the 90s, our 20s, the early years of our life together–is also a factor, as is our fear that our computers will crash and the sound tracks of our present lives will disappear into the ether. Yet they are simply objects, and flimsy ones at that; the music exists elsewhere and everywhere, the memories it unlocks safe as long as we are young. At some point down the road I will look back and wonder when it was that we gave away the CDs, but the LPs will escape this fate; having escaped it once already, they can rest confident that their place in our home is secure.

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