Tag Archives: memory

Second Guessing

The drums on R.E.M.’s first album Murmur and its follow-up Reckoning sound completely different. I’ve listened to these albums on and off for twenty years, and I hadn’t paid attention to the drums until recently.

Here’s how it happened: I read J. Niimi’s book about Murmur, a delightful exploration of its recording, lyrics, and meanings. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened. Then I read Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that, among other things, has reminded me how much I haven’t been hearing in the recordings I have. Then I decided to read a bit about how Reckoning was recorded. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened.

And there’s a real difference: Murmur’s drums, recorded in a booth dedicated just to drums, are clean, distinct, a bit tinny–“disco,” according to one source I can’t find any more–and, to my ears, not really worth saying much about. But Reckoning‘s drums are rock-and-roll, strong, and intense. It sounds obvious to me now. I can’t unhear.

But here’s the thing: for years, I’ve always thought of those two records as having the same sound, more than any other R.E.M. records. They were twinsies, with what I’ve always thought of as similar, simple liner notes; similar, simple songs; similar, simple meanings.

How much of that judgment, though, came from my personal history with those two records–my first R.E.M. albums bought on CD, bought at the same time, shelved next to each other, and paired by me (not by them or by the sounds of their drums) as a sort of disc one and two of a double album?

Really, though, it’s more like this: there is indeed a double album effect going on here, but each album is a disc one and me, my body, and my memories are an always-present disc two.

***

Here’s Thomas Rickert: “ambience puts place, language, and body into coadaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (via).

Buoyant: it floats. I float. And I float because I’m enmeshed in something else that is denser than I am.

The spine of Reckoning: “File under water.”

***

I didn’t like R.E.M.’s first two albums all that much, at first. I wasn’t really their intended audience, either: I first heard them ten years after they were released, in 1992, when “Drive” from Automatic for the People (album #8) was on the radio stations I was starting to listen to. This was sixth grade, which I musically associate with Automatic, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Arrested Development’s Three Years. . . . 

Autumn Lockwood told me that R.E.M.’s old stuff was better; she made me a tape of Document (album #5, still something that sounds little like Murmur and Reckoning) plus her favorite two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant (“Superman” and “Swan Swan H”).

I liked it. I slowly decided I should methodically own the whole back-catalog, so I joined and re-joined and re-joined Columbia House and BMG until I had most of their albums on tape and CD.

I remember so much about the look and feel of how that music was packaged: Autumn’s yellow tape sleeve with hand-written song titles; my white Automatic tape; Michael Stipe’s changing face: airbrushed inside Eponymous, wrinkled and wise inside Automatic; my tape of Green so faded from leaving it in cars.

In the context of my rediscovery of this band that everyone else had known for a decade, I always lumped Murmur and Reckoning together as kind of weird sounding, with something distasteful that I couldn’t place. Lifes Rich Pageant somehow sounded right to me, like the R.E.M. I knew singing songs I hadn’t had the privilege to know yet. The first two albums sounded like a different band; they were part of a context I didn’t know anything about (early 80s college rock); they were a swimming pool I had been too young to play in.

But here’s what I wonder: Murmur and Reckoning were my first R.E.M. albums on CD. Was this a band that, for me, was fundamentally tied to the medium of the cassette? Was it wrong, or impossible, for me to enjoy them any other way? And what does it mean that I chose to get their oldest records on the newest recording technologies, like watching a John Wayne movie on Blu-Ray, or watching recordings of old musicals on YouTube, or listening to digital versions of old cylinder recordings?

No, those parallels aren’t right. It was more like taking a river–the entire experience of standing with your feet in a rushing, cold, fresh-smelling river–and shoving the whole thing into a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and then sipping from the bottle, and then saying that the river isn’t your favorite river of all the rivers.

***

Milner’s book describes a visit he had with Dr. John Diamond, a man convinced that listening to digital audio is physiologically hurting us:

He encouraged all of his patients, no matter what issues they were working through, to make music a regular part of their lives–listening to it, and, if possible, playing it themselves. But recently he had noticed that music did not seem to be doing some of them any good. In fact, it appeared to make their ailments worse. . . .

It didn’t take him long to figure out that many of his patients were listening to records manufactured from digital masters. Could that be the problem? When he could find them, Diamond substituted analog versions of the same songs or pieces–sometimes even by the same performer–and the music once again proved therapeutic.

(via)

***

I know I want to write about R.E.M. and how my memories affect how I’ve heard their music throughout the years.

So naturally, I go to the section on the canon of memory in my dissertation. The first sentence of that section makes me physically jump back a second, because I think it coincidentally mentions R.E.M., but it turns out I’m just seeing it wrong. The sentence actually reads, “When I hear the word memory, I think of computer memory, in terms of hard drive space and RAM.”

This makes me pause. I wasn’t thinking about a computer’s “memory” when I started this post. But as I write, I’m streaming a 1985 R.E.M. concert from Germany in another browser window, a concert I learned about when I tweeted a quote from an online article about the band:

These days, R.E.M. is wrapped into my digital memory just as much as they were ever wrapped into my body’s memory.

***

20th-century composer John Adams once told an interviewer this:

There is a ten-year-old boy (not a student) who comes over to my house every week or so and plays his music for me. He has a MIDI sequencer at home, and his pieces are all polished and notated with his print software. I don’t discourage him for doing that, but I also point out that there’s no substitute for having plain, awesome musical chops: having a great ear, being able to perform well on an instrument, and having a huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music. Composers should know everything.

(via)

***

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been listening to the early R.E.M. albums over and over, checking out the special editions from the library, streaming various shows, reading the lyrics on various websites.

And in a digital, analog, distant, embodied sort of way, I’ve taught myself to love these records. Really, really love them. Eventually, I know I’ll move on to the next records, paying attention to them all in this new way, with headphones and lyric sheets in front of me. But I’m not ready yet. I want more early R.E.M.

(And in the back of my mind: can you manufacture love? Can you manufacture a river?)

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Things I Could Blog About

There are lots of things I could blog about:

1. Why it feels different when I layer different sounds in Audacity (e.g.) vs. when I layer different sounds using records and tapes and CDs.

2. Why Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric says everything I want to say, but why I still find myself approaching it tentatively, critically, unsure how far I’m willing to walk with him, like an uncle who is taking child-me to see a movie that I really want to see but that feels somehow dangerous, like my mom would be disappointed if she knew I went to see that movie.

Wrigley Field3. Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam! How I re-listened to all the albums in order, decided that Vs. is best but Binaural is the most underrated, wondered how much it was possible to escape my first impressions on listening to Ten in sixth grade, saw them play at Wrigley Field until 2 a.m., read the book and watched the documentary, and all along thought about how music has a history and I have a history and they’re the same and different.

4. How the 2 weeks between the end of spring semester and the beginning of summer session feel like a return to grad school days–sitting at home, reading tough stuff that makes me feel dangerous, writing stuff that doesn’t make me feel dangerous enough–and how that’s kind of good and kind of not.

5. Ideas for teaching introduction to creative writing for the first time this fall.

6. Ideas for teaching the rhetoric of sound and music, maybe in the spring.

7. Why, definitively, Arrested Development is the best comedy ever and Lost is the best drama ever and for the same reasons.

8. How I have too many “I ought to do that” categories in my life right now: exercise, gardening, publishing, blogging, redesigning the blog. But all I feel like doing is watching Arrested Development and listening to Pearl Jam and starting more videogames that I will never finish.

9. #YesAllWomen and the surrounding discussions, which need to be heard over and over.

10. The kinds of conference presentations I like to see.

11. Why lists matter.

12. Why matter matters. (And why that’s not very original of me to say.)

13. All of the tweets I’ve starred (but which I don’t think I can link you to, directly, so you can see how great they are), which, it turns out, are SO GOOD (like this this this this this and that’s just some from this month, folks). And probably all of the bookmarks I’ve bookmarked. And how all of the things are there, tagged and marked by me, waiting for me to enact them and read them and experience them all over again, but which will probably just sit there, metadated (metastasized?), never to be unearthed, except maybe by a biographer 50 years from now but who has the time for that?

14. How I sometimes ask students to please cut their sentence lengths down and use some punctuation for goodness sakes and then–ho ho!–secretly take their own style and write those very kinds of sentences here and elsewhere, with pauses in all the wrong places. Because. (That’s an article recommended by a student, btw.) (That’s right: btw.)

15. June. Because it’s almost June.

16. Why it feels different to layer words into a list on a blog post versus out loud.

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“The Misty-but-Tactile Feeling of a Sense Memory”

Clear Moon album cover

Grabbed from the Pitchfork review page

In a review of Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon album for Pitchfork, Jayson Greene writes this delightful line:

The album’s sound, meanwhile has the misty-but-tactile feeling of a sense memory.

I keep thinking about that line.

A sense memory. The memory of how something felt, smelled, tasted, heard, or looked after the stimulus was gone.

Misty-but-tactile. Sharing qualities of certainty and uncertainty. Unmistakable, but unable to be brought to mind exactly. Sense memories are always augmented by all the similar memories we’ve ever had in the same vein. The thought “I remember how it felt when she put her arm around me” really means “I have memories of all the times she has ever put her arm around me, and I summon all those memories into a single, joined moment when I remember that single time.”

And perhaps most surprising: The album’s sound. An album, never heard before, works on us like sense memories, according to Greene. So the sense of its sounds on our ears is like the sense of other things we’ve heard before. That’s not to say it’s derivative or boring or predictably generic, necessarily. It’s to say that there’s a comfort, as if all the times I’ve ever heard sounds like these are brought together in my emotions when I hear this sound.

But wait. When are sounds not like that?

***

Half an hour ago, debating whether or not I would write this post this morning, Iron & Wine’s “Upward Over the Mountain” came on my music shuffle. Instantly, I felt.

It’s not that I have a long history of listening to this song. I finally bought this I&W album just a few months ago when it was $2.99 to download on Amazon. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, but it’s not like I associate it with years of heartbreak and longing and relationships and late-night drives across the country or anything.

But when those chords started, I felt like I did.

There’s nothing fancy about the chords: Em, C, G, D. It’s one of the most common progressions in all of guitardom. I associate it with Ben Gibbard singing about Jack Kerouac and Smashing Pumpkins singing about whatever they were singing about in “Disarm.”

If I can get musicky for a moment: the chords fall into a i > VI > III > VII pattern, at first glance. But really, it doesn’t feel that way; not many affective lights go off in our brains for III chords, usually. Really, we’re hearing vi > IV > I > V.

So what? It means that even though the emphasis is on the Em, since it begins and ends the song–that lonely chord, the first chord every guitarist learns, the easiest and the darkest, with the low E string ringing for so-so long–we hear the song as if it were in G, the relative major, even though G is in the less in-your-face position of the third chord in the progression. It wouldn’t sound wrong if the song ended on a G chord, but it would change everything. Everything.

So I can’t help but wonder what it is I’m responding to emotionally when I hear “Upward Over the Mountain” begin. Does it have something to do with every other song I’ve loved with that progression? Or is something built into the progression, that gut-wrenching recognition that we’re in a happy major key but simultaneously pushing ourselves over and over back into the minor key surrounding it?

***

“Do you think we’ll ever get past the circle of fifths?” I asked my brother-in-law Matt. We were at a restaurant, and my wife/his sister was in the bathroom.

“What do you mean?” he replied.

“You know,” I said. I was struggling to figure it out myself. “So much music relies on the same chord progressions. And so often it follows the circle of fifths: we go from C to G to D and so on.”

Matt is a musician and occasionally a composer. He knows music theory better than anyone I know. I wondered if he thought the standard progressions were boring, hackneyed, old-school, overdone.

“No,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get past that in popular music.”

“I know! Like, I hear Lady Gaga on the radio and think, Okay, this is seriously catchy stuff. What makes it so catchy? And it’s the flipping chord progressions! The same ones as ever, and yet somehow I don’t get sick of them!”

“Yeah,” he said. “People will never get sick of them. They’ll totally stick around forever.”

He didn’t really say if he thought that was a good thing or not.

***

Marc Hirsh at the Boston Globe calls the Iron & Wine progression the “sensitive female chord progression.” Some worthwhile quotes:

Let’s call this the Sensitive Female Chord Progression, so named because . . . well, because when I first noticed it in 1998 (when I became keenly aware that Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” sounded an awful lot like Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”), it seemed to be the exclusive province of Lilith Fair types baring their souls for all to see. Think Jewel’s “Hands.” Melissa Etheridge’s “Angels Would Fall.” Nina Gordon’s “Tonight and the Rest of My Life.” . . .

Hooters guitarist Eric Bazilian, the songwriter behind “One Of Us,” has a particular interest in it. “I think it’s a comforting chord progression,” he says. “It was iconic with Heart. It became more iconic with Joan [Osborne]. It became even more iconic with Sarah McLachlan. There’s not a lot of testosterone in it, even though [‘One of Us’] was written by a man. But it was written by a man to impress a girl. Think about that.” . . .

. . . when Beyoncé wanted to tug at the heartstrings, she knew exactly which tool to use.

***

This post is clearly getting away from me. There’s more to misty-but-tactile sense memories to talk about that I haven’t touched on: muscle memory (and the Beatles, according to NPR), Roland Barthes on gesture and musical “grain” and memory (as explored in Michael David Szekely’s “Gesture, Pulsion, Grain: Barthes’ Musical Semiology,” which I haven’t read yet), and worlds and worlds of thoughts about touch and taste in addition to sound.

And yet, there’s something familiar about that feeling too: the familiar memory of being so into a piece of writing that it wandered away from where I thought it would go into somewhere else. We come to writing (the most “misty-but-tactile” craft I can imagine) in the same way we come to sounds and chord progressions: connecting the new with the familiar, recursively adding to our memories, reliving our lives.

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Scarcity

I was eleven when I moved from San Diego to Yorktown, Virginia. It must have taken my family’s Aerostar minivan five days to make the trip, a drive I would make today if you gave me one hour of preparation and an absolute promise that I would shirk nary a responsibility. (That’s right: nary.)

An old Walkman

rockheim’s CC-licensed photo “Sony Walkman TPS-L2”

I had a chunky Walkman, a basket full of shared family headphones (most of which required a constantly crooked finger to bend the wires if you wanted sound to come to both ears), and four tapes that were mine and only mine:

  1. Boyz II Men, Cooleyhighharmony
  2. Mariah Carey, MTV Unplugged
  3. Hammer, [some cassette single from the 2 Legit 2 Quit album]
  4. Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” cassette single

Imagine that: five days of these four tapes, heard over and over. By the end, I could sing every note of them–not that I would, there in the van, moodily quiet, hunched away from my three siblings in my own corner with my headphones and Garfield comics. But I knew those sounds. I knew them.

***

Yesterday, I put in Hum’s You’d Prefer an Astronaut album to encourage me to do dishes, the thick guitars lushly tempting me to be responsible even when my wife is out of town.

I’ve always loved this album, but it’s not like it was one of my absolute favorites. I was too busy studying every second of Smashing Pumpkin CDs to really give Hum the attention they deserved, back in 1995.

But listening yesterday, I was surprised to hear that I knew the lyrics and musical turns better than I thought I would. When I listen to albums I’ve gotten in the last few years that I like with about the same level of fervor (“Hey, that’s great! I’ll listen every once in a while!” as opposed to “OMG DROOL”), I find they don’t work the same way on me as Hum did last night. That is, I can’t sing along very well when I listen to The National or School of Seven Bells, but I like having them on. But hearing Hum was really personal and intense and I sang and sang.

***

In that minivan, and listening to CDs in high school, I simply didn’t have as much media as I have today. Then, I listened to all my tapes and CDs, even the ones I didn’t like as much, because I didn’t have as many. And through repeated listenings, I got to know them in better, deeper ways than I could possibly have done without the experience of extended time spent with those sounds.

Because musical first impressions are so often wrong, aren’t they? The first time I sat down and listened to the Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, reading every lyric along with the music, I thought “Love” was going to be my favorite song. The spacey guitars, the newness of its sounds to me, grabbed my ears. But before long, through repeated listenings, it grew to be one of my least favorite, without the lyrical and structural complexity that went into so many other songs on that album.

So I’ll go out and say it: I’m worried about what I’ll miss as I increasingly have options. As I fill up my harddrive with free tracks from NoiseTrade. As I browsebrowsebrowse on Spotify. As I stream from Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, Vudu. As I download free book after free book to my Kindle.

And as much as I hate it when people say things like this, I’ll even take that next step, from the individual to the social: I’m worried about what will happen in society, too.

***

Once you start thinking about your life’s media scarcity, you quickly begin distrusting your ideas about quality.

Why do I think Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are as good as Empire Strikes Back, while everyone else seems to think Empire is best? Because I had taped-from-TV copies of SW and RotJ at home while growing up, but not ESB. In the context of VHS scarcity, I watched what I had, over and over and over. And what I watched, I loved.

Cover of Tolkien's The Two Towers

From paperbackswap.com

Why do I love the scene in The Two Towers where Frodo and Sam pass the crossroads? Doesn’t it have something to do with the paperback I found on my Dad’s shelf in 6th grade, which I read even without ever having read Fellowship, looking at the cover over and over, which shows them passing that beheaded statue under a vanilla sky?

Why do I love playing Dr. Mario so much? Because it’s such an inherently good game? Because it’s natural to enjoy something you’re good at? Or because my parents, on a whim, bought it for me for a birthday present in 4th grade, which led to hours and hours of playing it, because it was one of just a few games I had?

Why did I read Judy Blume’s Superfudge so many times? Because I identified with the mixed emotions of love and annoyance Peter has about his talkative, bizarre younger brother, something I understood completely? Or because there were only so many books on my shelf, so I just kept on reading them repeatedly?

***

And even though my thoughts about scarcity always begin here, with white American middle-class media consumption, don’t the cultural effects of scarcity go further?

Is it unfeeling and rude to gently compare my version of scarcity with the scarcity of the worldwide poor–that experience so many report of meeting those living in rusted shacks who nevertheless tell stories of joy that exceed the lifeless, media-saturated lives of rich Westerners?

Don’t hear that the wrong way: I don’t want to romanticize the poor or in any way imply that they should stay poor. But I’ve met families living in the garbage villages of Cairo whose daily faith and joy surely seemed to exceed my own. Were those attitudes related to scarcity?

If so, what other attitudes are tied to scarcity, in all its incarnations?

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Computers and Writing and Memory and Meaning

I’d like to write a post summarizing the Computers and Writing conference. But right now, I’d rather live in the world of memory than summary. I want to think through the threads of uncertainty, time, and music that the conference brought to mind, which are so wrapped up in my ideas about memory.

*

14th Street Bridge

Yoichi R. Okamoto, “THE TWO 14TH STREET BRIDGES, LOOKING NORTH FROM VIRGINIA TO THE DISTRICT”

I’m Washington, DC right now, even though I just left a conference in Raleigh and live in Orlando. Yesterday, a friend picked me up in Raleigh and I drove her to DC, where she’s moving.

Both of us used to live in DC, and it’s our favorite city. As the sun set, we crossed the 14th Street bridge and gawked and gaped and said things like, “Hello, crazy drivers zooming around me! Hello tourists with fanny packs! Hello unnecessary circle of flags around the Washington Monument!”

Now, I’m in the old terminal at Reagan National Airport, waiting to fly home. I’ve lived in this space before. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce sitting in the same collection of seats, even though that was six years ago.

I’ve only been in this city for seventeen hours, yet there is a pit of sadness in my belly over leaving.

*

For my musical presentation at the conference, I played a video with my voice talking over some images (and occasional black screens), while I played records live as a musical accompaniment. My motif was the musical prank, the moment where an audience’s expectation for how music will sound is thwarted, complicating the idea that we identify with music and make meaning from it based on how our expectations are met or not met.

To mess around with expectations in the audience, I changed the speed of the records, played them backwards, and played them along with video footage that they were never meant to accompany.

But my expectations weren’t met, either. A piece of fuzz in my needle kept the records from sounding the way I expected. The weight balance of the needle arm was probably misbalanced, leading to more skips than I expected. My arm was shaking more than I expected, so I missed a couple of precise arm placements thad had worked fine when practicing at home.

And just as when an audience is surprised, and thus is led to make meaning from the surprising sounds, I was surprised by what sounded, and I made my own meanings as well.

*

I asked my friend to drive me by my old neighborhood in Washington, DC, the Columbia Heights / Petworth area. Even when I left five years ago I knew the area was gentrifying, that the pedestrians were getting whiter and the stores were getting sleeker, bigger, more national.

But I didn’t expect the difference in the feel of a space that is surrounded by new, tall condos instead of three-story townhouses. What used to be on that corner, I kept asking myself, where that tall, metal building is now? I’ve walked by that spot hundreds of times–how could I have forgotten?

*

Anne Wysocki gave a keynote address introducing her long-term project on the rhetorical canon of memory. She’s designing a beautiful interactive web space that allows users to simulate a walk through the different ways people have engaged with memory over the last 2,500 years. It was lovely and important enough that I thought, I want to be involved in this project. I want to engage with memories from now on. I don’t want to forget.

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

Much of Wysocki’s talk reminded me of a book by musicologist David Burrows called Time and the Warm Body. (At rhetoric/composition conferences of late, I find myself mentioning Burrows once a day, and twice on days I present.) I tweeted the book title to Wysocki as she spoke, just in case she hadn’t come across it. It’s Burrows’s consideration first of how our bodies experience time and the “now,” an experience of time that he situates as the epistemological nature of how we experience music, given our nature as embodied, time-based creatures. Language draws our minds to other spaces and other times, but music draws us to the now.

Wysocki tweeted back, later, an earnestly cheerful reply that she didn’t know the book and was excited to look it up. It made me feel good, and it made me think about all the books the people in the room had read individually and all the books we had read collectively, as a massive library of memory that could never be perfectly tapped.

*

Drinking with Trauman the next day, he mentioned that I have an earnestness about me.

On the drive to DC, I told my friend that I always think of my wife as the earnest one, but that I liked the idea being earnest myself, too.

I want to be earnest. I want to construct things, and engage with memories through my earnestness.

*

At one point during the conference, I jokingly tweeted that the theme of Computers and Writing 2014 should be The Goonies.

Scott Reed rewteeted it with an earnest “THIS –>” preeding my tweet.

I could look up these tweets to make sure I’m quoting them correctly, relying on the exactness of a computer’s memory. But my memory is just fine, in this case, even if it’s not always accurate.

*

I remember where I was when I read another David Burrows book, Sound, Speech, and Music: the waiting room of the Tire Kingdom near my house in Orlando. The coffee was bad, and the 24-hour news network on the loud TV was worse.

I don’t remember what my car was in for that day. But I remember being surprised by Burrows’s prose, his theories of music and speech that included lines about psuedopods of meaning reaching between humans engaging and identifying with each other. And in my surprise, I found meaning. And in my meaning, I created memory.

*

DC's Union Station

Gryffindor, “Main hall of Union Station in Washington D.C.”

Before taking the Metro to the airport this morning, I met an old DC friend in Union Station. At first, I felt turned around: there is construction that blocked off the path I expected to take inside the building. And maybe it shouldn’t matter, but a net a few feet above my head blocked bits of my sight as I glanced up at the pounds and pounds of air between me and the distant windows near the ceiling. Even though I wasn’t walking vertically, the net made me feel even more disoriented.

But the Corner Bakery was still there, and so was the bookstore (though it’s a Barnes and Noble now), and so was the line of people outside waiting for taxis, and so was the neverending construction outside the station.

I’m not sure how I felt so comforted and discomforted at the same time, helped along by the con/destruction around me, and my confirmed and demolished memories.

*

Jody Shipka presented on the process of archiving and remediating found texts as a way to remember and honor the people who created them. She has amassed an astounding collection of old photos, home movies, and slides from various yard sales and such.

The clips she showed were comforting and discomforting, constructing and destructing (as some of the film she showed literally burned to pieces just after she digitized it). I tried to tweet during the talk but eventually had to stop, pulled to the now that Shipka drew to my attention with a beauty I didn’t expect. It was one of those wonderful presentations with ultra-small audiences that makes me feel I witnessed something rare.

During the question and answer period, we talked about what it means when bodies encounter retro, analog media. Keith Dorwick (whose presentation just before Shipka’s was also evocative and tremendous) said, “And I hope Kyle doesn’t mind my saying this, but it was a powerful moment during the question and answer of his presentation when he told us that his hand was shaking while he cued the records. There’s an inevitable indeterminacy that comes from the interaction between any physical media and a human body.”

I responded that there was something lovely and important–and indeed, unexpected–in the physicality of the analog, the touch of a record.

I also said, “Yesterday, I apologized to a friend about how many pops and crackles there were in the records, but so many people have told me how much they loved hearing those pops.”

Shipka replied earnestly. “Why did you apologize?”

I thought for a moment, said, “I think it’s because of this: I love vinyl, but I know there are people who love vinyl with a seriousness that I don’t have. They know how to wash it, and they have all the right brushes, and they hold it right, and all that. For me, it’s a much simpler preoccupation. Like, I like to buy ninety-nine cents records from the thrift store, to listen to them, not to preserve them or be an audiophile or something. I love them, but as an enthusiast, not a collector.”

Dorwick said, “There are people who say that listening to CDs is too sterile an environment. There are people who say that when you listen to a recording that is too perfect, you’re not hearing it right. We need the pops and crackle to hear it as a lived experience, as something that’s really there.”

*

The quotations above aren’t exact. I remembered them that way.

*

While waiting in the airport terminal a few minutes ago, a demolition project began outside. I watched out the window as a small, golf-cart-ish thing rammed into the concrete exterior wall of the terminal and shook with anger as it (I assume?) drilled cracks into the area marked for destruction. It looked like a small animal who was positive that it could knock over a skyscraper, if only it rammed and shook it hard enough.

But the quality of the sound had none of the cute, unassuming nature of the vehicle’s appearance. It was like a giant with metal teeth was chewing concrete for breakfast, like a jackhammer underground was coming at a square of sidewalk from below and I happened to be standing on it, like a memory being forcibly removed from my head instead of being allowed to fade into smells and images and sounds in the gentle way they’re supposed to go.

I moved to the other side of the circular terminal, but even there, it seemed just as loud. I couldn’t escape from it, regardless of how hard I tried, unless I wanted to leave security and come back in later. I looked up at the circular, 60s-ish ceiling of the old terminal and tried to focus on what I was seeing instead of what I was hearing.

*

David Burrows, in Sound, Space, and Music, writes, “Noise is a concept rooted in the domain of sound rather than sight, because the promiscuity with which sound addresses itself to appropriate and inappropriate receptors alike means that we must so often hear things we do not want to hear, whereas we can look the other way, or close our eyes, when we see something unpleasant or superfluous. Our auditory defenselessness casts us often in the role of victim, our privacy invaded by someone else’s stereo or car horn” (24-25).

*

I’m on the plane now, finishing this post in the loud, fuel-tinged air of the next-to-last seat in the cabin, so unlike the space in Union Station I wandered through so recently.

I’m hoping for a good glimpse of the National Mall as I leave, even as I know I can hardly bear it. It’s that pain you get when you have braces and you bite down on your aching teeth, and it’s good and hard at the same time.

Leaving the conference was cleaner, if more awkward. There were so many people I wanted to properly say goodbye to, who have begun to matter to both my professional and personal lives. But instead, I waved at the people I saw, hugged a couple, and slipped out the back door of the Syme Hall basement.

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