The Portability of Sound

Music is precious to the ear and the way we hear it has changed so drastically. Technology has served us well in the audio department, especially in the digital age. A huge difference has been made in the way we access our tunes. Remember when you were thrilled to first have portable speakers in your dorm room, office, or in the lab. But things evolved into what we have today. The “miniaturization” of everything has really come in handy. Small stuff can be toted around in bags, pockets, and backpacks, and it doesn’t take up much space. Quality varied in the early days, but now you can have the best of all worlds.

Most people have a playlist and a long array of personal preferences. We keep adding to it, shuffling, mixing, and combining in novel ways. It’s fun, creative, relaxing, and passes idle time. We are our own personal DJ, crafting enjoyment with our particular taste. We get ideas from others, from browsing around, and surfing the net. We have easy download and cheaper expenses to boot. It is a heyday for the consumer, while not for the artist. What on earth would we do without music always in the air? The world would be a quiet, dreary place to be sure.

My dad tells me he had these enormously large speakers that boomed proficiently. It was cool and it was status all the way. Once you set up your system, it was fairly immobile. This was well before the onset of smart phones, iPads, and Bluetooth technology. He didn’t want to lug a lot of stuff around, so sometimes he had to make do without. It was a hit or miss proposition getting all the right gear to fit in all the right places.

Music plays a big role in our lives. When we are little, we latch on to familiar, catchy tunes. They fill our minds even when we are away from them. Memory is aural, too, not just visual as in dreams. We get older and become teens. Then music is practically a cause. We build our play lists and populate our iPods happily. We share with others via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We are all connected by sound. It is ever more portable and an ever-present life companion.

Years ago our college backpacks were full of cassettes and these little mini players with tiny speakers in the earphones. They took just one cassette at a time unlike our home or office devices. (We won’t even mention beta tapes.) They rattled around at the bottom of the bags awaiting a hand to bring them out for inspection. Heaven forbid the tapes should get tangled. It was a major chore to restore them. Sometimes it was just impossible and we had to buy more. You could also make your own mix and exchange them with friends. It was a social pleasure we had long before social media.

We labeled them with pen and ink and sometimes grouped them with rubber bands around them: rock and heavy metal in one bunch, light rock in another, classical in one more, and blues on its own. Later it came down to slick, thin CDs that were oh so modern. You could stack them up and they had cool covers that identified each one. They were printed on the sides so no messy hand lettering was necessary. Now it is all about smart phones, iTunes, iPods, and tablets. Our platforms give us music in many new ways. We carry around music in an easier way, one of the great benefits of the advanced 21st century electronic era. Everyone has their own system, but we still share titles and ideas, plus info on artists and gigs.

As adults, we fondly remember our youth and never forget those favorite lyrics and tunes. They say this becomes the music of your life and that it stays forever with you. Sure, you pay attention to what is new and popular, but the old stuff has a special place in our hearts. We get on in years, and nothing changes. So take heed. Make the most of your salad days and drench yourself in all the wonderful music that is our there for the taking.

Posted under Music

A Song from the Kitchen

In the early part of the twentieth century, when Picasso was shattering the normal concept of pictorial art as an image of nature, composers were playing around with natural sounds to test the waters of the musical avant-garde. Picasso would put bits and pieces of things he found lying around in his paintings (wood, string, cardboard match cover, etc.), and so these innovators would put found sounds (in art it was called “found objects) into their “compositions.” It was all in fun, but soon grew rather serious. It is now all part of recognized music history.

They believed that ordinary sounds from our environment make extraordinary music much like Marcel Duchamp thought an ordinary run-of-the-mill industrial bottle rack made for a great sculpture in 1914. Wow, they were so ahead of their time—so advanced. This all came to mind when I saw a funny YouTube Video about “A Song from the Kitchen.” It was short and sweet, and in a few seconds, told an age-old story about found sound.

An average looking guy gets up from his sofa and announces to the camera with a grin that “I am going to make a song out of my kitchen.” He then proceeds to take his portable sound equipment into the small space. Soon you see and hear all kinds of simple noises that you normally take for granted: the ticking of a clock, the ding from the microwave, the faucet dripping, the act of pulling a rack out of the oven, squishing a plastic bag, scrunching a paper bag, slamming the fridge door and opening it again, a can opener in process, the rattling of bottles, and more. Soon some background drums and percussion instruments are layered against these “normal” sounds, bringing them more and more to the fore and in focus. It is a symphony of nonsense that is nonetheless rather intriguing.

It has quite an impact however basic the message and appeal. Imagine if you added more things such as an egg beater, a food processor on puree, a hand mixer with its beaters scraping against a bowl, a knife chopping vegetables, the bubbling of a deep fryer. There is no end to what you could produce, without even altering or distorting anything. Throw in the vacuum cleaner, the doorbell, rattling keys, and clinking glasses. It reminded us that we take hearing for granted and miss 90% of what comes into our range of sensory perception.

It would be a great children’s project. I imagine even a baby would respond positively to the imaginative juxtaposition of sounds. You can make it a game to find the different sound sources and then get together in a group to create an order for them, which you can call a composition. You can make up themes and assign titles. If you have any equipment, you can give your piece some background interest.

Otherwise, it is a good exercise in aural awareness. You can focus on first visual shapes, sizes, and textures and placement in the surroundings. Then you can isolate the sound, maybe closing your eyes and trying to match what you hear to the correct item. It could be part of a meditation course or a game of concentration. There may be some applications I have not thought of as yet.

The point is to tune the ears to sound to enhance perception and then to apply what you learn to music. So much music goes in one ear and out the other and when played too often, it practically disappears like a redundant TV commercial. Music needs to come into sharper focus for most of us that take it for granted. We have to learn to hear it like it was the very first time, like each note was new and fresh, as if each instrument had just been invented. In effect, we need to concentrate on the composer’s art and the musician’s skills and what makes them so special.

So take time out of your busy day to view the video on YouTube and to try something like this on your own, alone or with friends and/or family. Anything that awakens the dead senses is welcome. You will expand your ability to appreciate music more fully in the process.

Posted under Music

Crackling Records

record-playerYou know how it is when your old vintage records crackle and pop when played on the old system (that is if you still have one antiquated model). Wherever did it come from? How did it get “in there” to affect the sound? I was in a used music store not long ago, hung with old guitars, a few missing strings, and some odd assorted instruments in cabinets. There was dust everywhere and piles of sheet music. I liked poking around so I began to explore. After a few minutes I caught a phrase of a familiar tune.

I could hear the strains of an old Frank Sinatra song coming from the back room, so I popped my head in. An old man was sitting doing some kind of bookkeeping work, listening intently to every note and word. I watched him for three or four minutes before he looked up. “Hi there,” he offered. “Come on in.” I obliged him and asked what he was listening to.

“Just Frank,” he said with a smile. “Still like the same ol’ songs of my youth.” I laughed. Don’t we all I thought. We listened some more. Soon the record started to crackle… and it progressively grew worse. It sounded like it was recorded with the mic in a wood stove. Now they take these old recordings and digitally remaster them to allow listeners to use their iPods and smart phones. You don’t have to have piles of large cardboard albums lying about catching dust.

“I know it sounds bad in places, but it still magic to my ears. I want to play my old albums, just like in 1955. I had the whole rat pack at one time: all of Dino and Sammy Davis, Jr. A very flamboyant and talented bunch.” He unsheathed a new record and started to play it.

“Listen to this one. I danced with my wife for the first time on our first date back then.” His eyes glazed over, his memory engaged. “I know it crackles now like a fireplace in action, but I don’t care.” I understood. I asked about his wife, now deceased and he lit up as if a blaze from the chimney were in front of him.

“Yeah,” I said, “they get rid of all the distortion with our modern technology. But I know that it is not what the old music is about. He started to reminisce. “My wife was the apple of my eye,” he continued.” We were just kids but we know what we wanted. On the first date, I vowed to myself never to date another girl. On her 16th birthday, I gave her this Sinatra album. It was the one with a big close-up of the guy in his signature hat. In fact, the night I proposed two years later, we were still playing this song.

He spent the next hour describing her grace and beauty and their three wonderful offspring: two girls and a boy. He is a proud grandfather of six. There is a lot of love in that recording, I thought, and a lot of time gone by. But it has been good time, so he says. I know we all have, or will have, music that marks milestones in our lives.

I can think of a few similar, although more updated, occasions. Most music is background for social interaction so it fades into the woodwork. But there are times when it marks a special family outing, anniversary, or holiday. Christmas music always takes me back a couple of decades to tree decorating time and ice skating. Then there is the high school prom and that senior frat party where you met…

Most people select their favorite music for their wedding, and highlight one song for the couple’s dance. Then there is the first foreign music you heard on a trip to Italy. When you here it you see wine glasses filled with deep red liquid that sparkles in the dinner candlelight.

I am sure you have a few personal recollections yourself. Along with photos, and heaven knows they are ubiquitous, music accompanies our lives and spreads our joy in ever widening circles. We share our playlists and exchange recordings. We value each and every special note.

Posted under Music