Embrace the Chaos
Kids today wouldn’t understand why we’d willingly listen to music laced with imperfections. The pops, the crackles, the static hiss when needle meets vinyl. Digital music is brushed free of all imperfection. Nothing but perfectly reproduced digital audio downloaded right to your iTunes library. The digital music revolution has done great things for remastering and other technical wizardry of which I’m probably grateful, but not particularly aware. But therein lies the greatest flaw in all those perfectly aligned zeros and ones: benign and unholy imperfection. Consider your favorite writers, authors that reach a balance between logical progression and unpredictable improvisation. The greatest novels, like the greatest jazz compositions follow logical and regular musical patterns that frame illogical solo improvisation. Consider the music of Coleman Hawkins or the inimitable Thelonious Monk. Consider Colson Whitehead. His novel Sag Harbor was, at its heart, a standard coming-of-age story, but the details of hisprotagonist’s experience leapt off the page in vibrant three-dimensional color and shape because life, like the protagonist’s experience, doesn’t rise steadily until reaching an ultimate and resolving denouement. Life is chaos, a series of regular routines flanking wild seat-of-your-pants improvisation. Digital music, while it satisfies our innate (but very contemporary) desire to be better, faster, newer — it contradicts the imperfection that makes us human. Vinyl records, in all their humility, awkwardness and frailty echo our own wanting souls. They are our siblings from another mother (or in this analogy another Thomas Edison). The response to a phonograph is visceral, primal perhaps, whereas we recognize with a certain about of sonic intellectualism why digital media sounds “better.” It sounds better because it sounds cleaner. It sounds better because it is more convenient and travels in the brains of thumbnail-sized iPods and doesn’t consume rooms with milk crates. It sounds better because it can be played in Dolby Digital 7.2 surround systems at excessively loud volumes without much distortion. But when you get right down to comparing the sound of vinyl against the sound of a compact disc (forget compressed audio) which sounds more real? That more accurately recalls a time and a place at a subconscious level? Which medium reproduces the sound that echoes life, that sometimes gets interrupted by a hairline imperfection, that skips and repeats and needs regular maintenance and attention? Without that maintenance and attention we slip into sporadic bouts of anxiety, depression and first world malaise. I do not mean to denigrate digital media entirely; I only aim to point out that progress isn’t always a full step forward. More often than not progress proves to be a lateral sashay. There’s a place in our collections for both because we carry out our first world modern lives in two worlds. In the so-called real world we are increasingly forced to be more timely, more exact, more beautiful than is our nature. We also need our media scrubbed clean and portable. People need alarm clocks loud enough to emit sonic boom (yes, this really exists because Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me told me so) just to get out of bed in the morning because our tendencies are toward sleeping in, being late, missing that 8:00am conference call. Our tendencies are toward imperfection. We float through this world projecting, feigning perfection; it is only at home, with our turntables and sweatpants that we can be honest with ourselves and embrace the chaos.