Monday, March 24, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
VITA LONGA, TECHNOLOGIA BREVIS
This is a tale beginning with a perspective from my childhood, and I hope you will excuse it as such.
When I was a wee and tiny lad, there were two ways of listening to recorded music on demand, as opposed to listening to what other people had chosen for you on the radio. There were small black vinyl discs called 45s, which most often played pop songs or individual numbers of jazz or rock. And then there were big black vinyl discs called LPs (for Long Playing), which held much more audio information, spun at 33-and-a-third RPMs, and were capable of playing a whole symphony or all the numbers of a musical or a whole set of recordings by pop or rock or jazz artists. You could even have two or three LPs in a boxed set and hear a whole opera or a whole Shakespeare play. Mind you, you did still have to turn records over regularly, sometimes in mid-performance, and you did still have to drop a stylus or needle down onto their grooves, sometimes risking scratching the disc. And – yes – there was always much surface noise on even the best-maintained discs.
Now, as a child, I wasn’t entirely ignorant of the recording systems that had preceded 45s and LPs. For some reason my father had kept an old turntable in a flimsy varnished wooden casing which could play those heavy, thick, brittle, breakable shellac discs known as 78s. Indeed in the house there were a few of these quaint artefacts, and very occasionally we children would put one on the old turntable, but principally to snigger at how faint and bad and hissy its sound quality was – and how corny the music was. (Most of it 1930s or Second World War era, from when our parents were young.)
Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, 45s and LPs had existed from everlasting and would exist until everlasting. They were normality. You could of course supplement them, even in the 1950s, with cumbersome reel-to-reel tape-recorders; or from the late 1960s with little cassette recorders. Gosh, I remember the excitement in the 1960s when my teenaged brother and young teenage I were able to record a comedy programme off the radio on Saturday night and listen to it again on Sunday afternoon!!! Such freedom.
But everybody knew that these tapes were not the way to get the best sound quality, especially for music.
LPs and 45s ruled.
Then one day in the early 1980s, I found myself in a record store and I was amazed to find that all their LPs were being sold for absolutely knock-down prices. I don’t mean remaindered junk. I mean really classy, and new, recordings from the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft and other such reputable firms. It suddenly dawned on me. The proprietor was unloading his stock as these new CD (compact disc) things, which I had merely heard about, were taking over the market. In no time at all, black-disc recordings vanished from the shops - or at any rate from all shops bar those dedicated to eccentric collectors and specialists.
Now CDs ruled, without surface noise or scratching, and with entire symphonies imprinted on one side of the small silver (or rainbow-coloured) disc, so that you didn’t have to turn it over in mid-performance. You could even (as I did) buy a combined system with a turntable that allowed you to play five CDs in succession, so that you could, if you chose, listen to hours of music without interruption. Gosh, you could even programme the turntable so that it presented dozens of pieces of music from different CDs in the order you desired, or you could press a Random button and listen to them in no particular order at all. My combined system also allowed (and allows) me to listen to the radio, play cassettes and even put on old LPs – which of course I hardly ever do now, and then only for a few moments of nostalgia.
It took us some time to discover that CDs too were perishable objects and were not as impervious to damage as they were at first reputed to be. They could be scratched, as you might discover in mid-performance when suddenly you got the awful da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da effect, much worse than the clicking of a scratched old black disc.
For all that, though, CDs were now the new normality of recorded music, destined to last for everlasting. We bought them as easy Christmas and birthday presents and built up our stocks of them in neat towering disc-holders and wondered how we had ever listened to surface-hissing black discs. And we bought Walkmans so that we could stroll around the block listening to Berlioz through the headphones and we knew that this was absolutely it. What new device for sound-recordings could possibly be needed?
Except, of course, that technology, like rust, never sleeps. And along came the age of downloads from the home computer and of i-pods and of flash drives and of other forms of music storage, and of people younger than us implicitly telling us that we were out of touch because we hadn’t got the hang of these things. And CDs became the sign of being middle-aged rather than youthful. The CD section of Borders, where I used to browse for re-pressings of classic jazz and classic symphonic music, closed down. Now new devices, most still alien to me, were on display there.
I am fully aware that lamentations over the decay or loss of an old technology are indeed the sign of incipient Old Fart-dom. But the strange, eventful story I have told here does have a moral of sorts. No technology is permanent. It can always be improved upon – or in some cases changed for purely commercial reasons, but mainly because the market for an older technology has been exhausted. Things may appear to be “normality” to the youthful when they are in fact highly transient.
Looked at from a more mature perspective, I know that the age of the LP and 45 was in fact quite short. They were invented in the late 1940s, did not really become commercially available to most people until the early 1950s, and were being driven from the market by the early 1980s. In other words, they were the dominant form of recorded music for only about 30 years. I stifle the impulse to confess that a part of my mind still thinks of them as “normality” (which would take me into a completely different topic concerning the nature of memory). Instead, I move on to the fact that the dominance of the CD lasted only about 25 years. Wikipedia informs me that the CD format reached its peak of market penetration in 2000, and then sales and production of CDs gradually dropped off worldwide. In other words, the format was already declining less than 20 years after it first became available.
My mature reflection also realizes that earlier formats came and went before any of this happened. The very first sound recordings (in the late 19th century) were on fragile cylinders. That lasted for about a decade or so. Then discs spinning at 78 RPM were invented for wind-up gramophones (or phonographs if you were American). At first they were pressed with grooves on one side only and the other side was blank. That lasted for just a few years. Then they had recorded matter on both sides. But the recording technique was purely mechanical and in fact capable of picking up a very limited range of sound. Electric recording (still on 78s which could hold only a few minutes of recording) was introduced in the mid-1920s, infuriating unprepared listeners who now found that their old gramophones / phonographs had to be replaced as they could not adequately play this new type of recording. Doubtless in about 1925 there were at least some young people amused that their elders could not keep up with the new technology. And when LPs and 45s ruled, there were innovations in multi-directional sound-recording and the big issue was whether you were listening to it in mono or stereo.
The nostalgic side of me thinks at once of all the people who tried to cling to what was passing away. I have heard tales of people, in the 1950s, who had built up really impressive collections of 78s and were unwilling to concede that they had been superseded; and so who for years kept trying to find new needles for their old discs, in order to validate all the money and time they had spent over the years in compiling their collections. Likewise, I know people who still have impressive numbers of videotapes which they never play as they were superseded by DVDs which, in their turn, are now being superseded by other formats. And I think of my own old, unplayed LPs.
Technology is transient, there is no permanence in sound-recording or any other technology and the latest device will soon be the sign of obsolescence.
I do, however, know one obvious thing. The rate of change is now faster than ever. Personally, one of the reasons I am disinclined to latch on to the latest sound-device is not because I am out-of-touch; not because I am not an affluent person and probably couldn’t afford it anyway; not even because I am a technologically-incompetent person who has to be tutored in most new technology by my children; but because I know that in a year or two it will in its turn be superseded. And then I will have the pleasurable Schadenfreude of laughing at the people who rushed to buy it and are now lusting after yet another doo-dad.