Author: Kuster, Ted

Make a Beautiful Noise
A few years ago I got some software and started converting my old LPs into digital files. I was never a fanatical collector, but I'd accumulated something over a thousand since I'd started college. I was serious enough about it to keep them more or less in alphabetical order, and to keep some of the older and rarer ones in those special plastic bags.

One great thing about working with music that's on LPs is that there's no squeezing time down into microscopic segments and making them go by at the speed of light, like with digital media. You have to listen to every single record in real time, all the way through. You get your nose rubbed in what's on that vinyl, whether you think you have time for it or not.

The experience forced me to look closely at what was in my collection and why. Some of the things I'd picked up in my twenties at the odd garage sale stood the test of time. They'd helped make me who I am today, and I still need them. I even like some of them enough to buy new copies when they bring out those remastered reissues, rube that I am.

Some of them were still the curiosities they'd been when I'd got them. I'd listened a few times, found some odd humor or musical instruction in them, and put them away.

And then there were the other ones. I couldn't explain why I'd ever liked this stuff. The middle-aged burgher in me sat there laughing at the 20-something hipster who'd invested in this pretentious crap, as the 20-something shot him the finger in return.

But there was one thing that struck me more. It was the experience of listening itself. A few years of CDs and Napster had got me used to something that was completely alien when I'd been trafficking in vinyl: dead silence.

Some famous composer is supposed to have said that it's not the notes, it's what's between the notes. Well, my LPs had plenty between the notes.

Remember those old stereos that would drop a new LP on top of the one that just finished, with a big ka-chunk and swish as the records ground against each other? The particles would lodge themselves in the grooves and go to work providing that snap-crackle sound that meant you were listening to something you liked. The more you liked a record, the more of a crackle it had. If you didn't hear the crackle, it was either a new record or one you didn't listen to very much.

My mom had Handel's Messiah in a box set. It would come out at the beginning of the Advent season every year, without fail. The whole stack of four records would go on the record changer, and until Epiphany that was all she wrote. The only time the stack came off was when it it was time to flip it, a couple of times a day. We learned every word and every note of the Messiah.

By the time I was 20, that stack of Messiah records was mostly noise. You had to work to hear those sheep go astray. It sounded great. It was music that mattered.

Last year a friend of mine, the fiddler and ethnomusicologist Lee Birch, got me interested in some old and obscure recordings from down Arizona way that I felt like I had to check out. Usually it's easy to find that kind of thing on the Internet, but this time I Googled and eBayed and found no instance of it on anything but vinyl. So I bought the vinyl. When it came I got out my old turntable and hooked it up while my kids watched, mystified. I showed them the special gloves you wear, and the strobe thing that gets the pitch just right, and all that.

The first sound out of the thing was a crackle and a loud pop, followed by some more crackles, zipper-like sounds and then a steady gravelly roar. Oh, and some music.

(It was a band called Summerdog, by the way. An early newgrass supergroup, some of whose members are still very much around. Possibly not that obscure to some of you guys, but all new to me.)

This was music that had been loved. Someone had listened to this thing repeatedly and closely, probably slowing it down to copy out the banjo part at some points, maybe stacking it on the changer with some other beloved vinyl. Who was I not to love it too? The record went right into my top favorites list, bypassing the usual filters. Someone had pre-tested this stuff for me, and the evidence was all there in that lovely noise between the notes.

Of course, the first thing I did was make a digital copy of it.
Posted:  8/31/2012

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