Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Discursive and Embodied Jazz in Days Gone By

In the beginning was the Word....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us--John 1:1, 14.

One wag has said that sentimentality is caring about something more than God. If true, that would be idolatry, an offense to God, reason, and even to oneself, since one was designed for better things. Thus, it is best avoided. Nonetheless, one may savor--or even pine over--the goodness of things now rare or extinct. We should applaud the past as well as hissing it when necessary.

That brings me to Stan Kenton's 1959 album, "Standards in Silhouette," which I just acquired for a welcome low price. As I was listening to these mellifluous melodies and sonorous solos, placed into Kenton's unique orchestral voicings, I was also reading--and there was much of great interest to read on the back cover as well as on both sides of the album jacket. An introductory essay explained the mood of the album as "blue." Each piece of music was thoughtfully described in a short paragraph. There was a black and white photograph, but it did not dominate the back cover. Prominent was the claim that this recording was "full dimensional stereo," which was only then breaking on to the scene. In fact, the very concept of stereophonic music and something of its technology was explained on one side of the album jacket. I marveled at the clarity and seriousness of the prose. It was assumed that the buyer of this record was interested in how stereophonic differed from monaural sound representation. One was also instructed that a special "cartridge" was needed to play stereophonic albums. A monaural cartridge (and needle) would not do; in fact, it could damage a stereophonic album. However, a stereophonic cartridge and needle would not damage a monaural record.

Now, this may seem like ancient and rather boring musical and technological history, but consider how discursive and embodied it all is. Albums took up space and offered room for words, if desired. The words and music complemented each other. The words (both about the technology and the nature of the music itself) introduced and augmented the music. If one listened intently and read the descriptions (of the music ) and explanations (of the technology), one's sensorium would be taken up with the event a rich and multidimensional manner. You would be taken up and taken in.

Fast forward (to use an outmoded technological expression based on tape recordings) fifty years and consider the means by which most now usually listen to recorded music. Subtract both the embodied and discursive quality. First, the CD, which was smaller, taking up less space, having no album jacket, and using technologies more opaque than groves and needles. Second, consider music put on digital files on iPods and so on. "There is no there there," as was once said about Oakland. The music's medium is now disembodied completely. Sound is produced, but not housed in any form that is graspable, visible, or tangible. One downloads music, not entire albums necessarily. Then one creates one's own play lists, instead of listening to the ordering of music as conceived and recorded by the artist.

What has happened? Well, more than I can write here. But consider miniaturization (a large- scale trend applicable to most technological change) and dematerialization. CD were smaller than albums. The iPod is smaller than a CD and holds oceans of data (if the metaphor is apt). Sounds is still presented through a technology, but the medium itself has radically altered from what I described in the second paragraph is this essay. This, I aver, affects the experience of music qua music. The idea of a "concept album" (such as "Standards in Silhouette) is nearly lost, given the dematerialization which allows for rearrangement of musical units. And whereas one might carry around an album and let friends read the essays on the back cover and dust jacket, no such thing is possible with an iPod. Some CDs come with booklets that may contain significant essays. This is often true with vintage jazz records by the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I often read fine essays by Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddens, Francis Davis, and others. Yet even here, the feel, the materiality of the record album is diminished, even if not lost entirely. And, of course, if you bracket the problem of pops, albums sound better than CD and CDs sound better than iPods.

Given this phenomenology and ontology of the jazz record album (that's what I was discussing, to use pompous philosophical language), I pine for this kind of embodiment and discursiveness (or textuality). But if one haunts the right stores and retains the necessary technologies (my 1973 Pioneer turntable and tube amplifier), these discrete sublimities may still offer their (dated and delicious) charms.

Now, who wants to have a record party?


  1. Yes Doug, I imagine there are many people of our generation, myself included, who feel a bit of melancholic nostalgia for the good old days of LP vinyl records and the album covers that provided so much pleasure as part of the visceral experience of that now primitive technology. Somewhere around the house I still have a few survivors that somehow escaped the house fire that consumed my record collection years ago. They survived by virtue of being elsewhere than in the house which, in accord with chemical and physical nature, became "less organized".

    You bet, I'd be up for a "record party"!!!

  2. How about taking it one step further...anybody have a reel to reel player? My father has hundreds of hours of tapes in the barn from years ago...live recordings from the greats of big band jazz...and no way to play them! Suggestions anyone?

  3. Steve:

    Thank you for posting again. I am very sorry about that fire! I kept a few of my large record collection (which you may remember). Last summer, I visited Anchorage and reclaimed a few my mother still had! That included "2001: A Space Odessy" soundtrack and a Beatles album.

  4. This post reads like a piece of music as is often the case with your prose. How I enjoy it. Yet, would not some philosopher have had the same qualms about the record vis-a-vis the real band or orchestra? I understand your point though. When my iPod touch doesn't display the cover art of the the album I'm playing the experience is less satisfying and it feels as though the music isn't really there.

  5. Lisa,

    EBAY, but be careful!!!

    Doug mentions in his post that he is using 'antique' electronic gear. Several years ago I determined that I would like to get a sound system having not had a Hi-Fi system for a number of years. The house fire that consumed my record collection also converted my system (Pioneer 727 receiver, turntable, etc...) from hardware into memories. I had left my system and records with my younger brother when I moved back to Alaska in 1978. His rented house burned down sometime in the mid 80's, so all that went up in smoke of mine was the gear I had left with him. At any rate, when I went out shopping I discovered, to my disappointment, that the high quality audio gear of the 70's had been followed by sucessive generations of the "black plague" audio gear. Not just my opinion, as I was eventually to discover. The sales people were somewhat amazed that anybody would be looking for a stereo, of which very few were available, in a "surround sound" age. After much deliberation I decided that I didn't really want to buy the gear that was currently available and that I seemed to be getting along well enough without having a Hi-Fi system. Several more years passed and I eventually found myself connected to the cyber-world via the internet. About four years ago I started poking around the net to see what I could learn about stereo systems. One thing led to another and I eventually bought a Pioneer 727 receiver on EBay for about 50 dollars. It is in exellent condition and I really enjoy having it.

    So, you might consider doing a bit of investigative work and I bet you could come up with a high quality and fuctional reel to reel unit at a reasonable price. Good Luck!

  6. Thanks Steve,
    I did contact a musician friend and he is checking with the studios in the area whether they can handle old tape. So, I'll just wait. I am more interested in preserving them by burning them onto CD's...I'm afraid the tapes are so old that further playing them will finish them off.

    I also want to hear a childhood favorite in the recordings; the jazz version of "The Three Little Pigs"! Where when the big bad wolf says "little pig, little pig let me come in" and the pig says "not by the hair on my chinny chin chin," and the wolf responds, "well, bless my soul, It's Dizzy!" Um, yeah...I wish I could remember the whole thing.