20th Century Boy- Notes on Listening and Recording Vinyl Records as an Autobiographical Practice

20th Century Boy. A Sr Priego Lockdown Session. Listen in real time

[I wrote this personal reflection as it came out because otherwise I wouldn’t do it, so it’s in draft form; typos and repetitions and wonky syntax might have remained].

I turned 45 this year during lockdown (yikes!). Working from home and spending most ‘free’ time at home has meant there’s been some space for reflection, including remembrance of times past. For those of us with a taste for material culture expressed through collecting, revisiting our own personal collections and archives unavoidably provokes introspection and recollection. Who are we? Who have we been? Where are we now? How have our former selves, as expressed by our collected stuff, evolved, what remains and how does it seem now from the vantage point of the present? I’d like to share some notes here on listening and recording vinyl records as an autobiographical practice. So yeah, it will look it’s all going a bit Nick Hornby. Escaping the stereotypes is hard.

Even thought I have owned vinyl records since I was a kid, buying my first record with my own pocket money when I was 9 or 10, I have been collecting vinyl records consistently for at least 20 years now, with a few interruptions due to different factors. Like me, my collecting habits have evolved over time, and being in a different moment of my life has also allowed me to fill in some gaps that previously I could not have afforded to.

When people have visited us in the past some have noticed that I don’t have any framed photos of family, but I do have a framed photo of John Peel (a postcard from the photo by Amit Lennon in the National Portrait Gallery). Even though I never got to listen to John Peel live on the radio he’s been a very influential figure in my education (it goes beyond the musical); as a teenager living in Mexico City it quickly became clear that any band that had done one of the to us mythical Peel Sessions was bound to be a band I would like or find interesting. (I’ve noticed that the John Peel Archive has only currently archived 2679 records from 106,000 in Peel’s collection. Imagine that…) Peel’s diverse curatorial work played a role in my sometimes frankly schizophrenic interest in different styles of music from different countries and periods.

Growing up in Mexico before the Web, mobile phones, YouTube, Spotify etc. meant that we got a fragmented, slightly distorted, forever-delayed and decontextualised pop music education. Lack of access to a lot of live and recorded music made us hungry for discovery and information sharing. Our own teenage experience of recorded music was mediated through pirate tapes, the album front covers blurry and darkened by endless black and white photocopying; albums belonging to completely different genres and/or periods side to side on A and B and therefore forever imprinted on our memory as bands that go together, if only just to us.

So this will sound very sad but sometimes I feel like I look at my own record collection like a parent would look at their kids (I don’t have kids). I am proud of what it represents, of the history behind it, of the effort and challenges surpassed to shape it. In a way, a record collection built over time is like an ongoing autobiography, and collecting and organising and reorganising it, cleaning it and preserving it, a type of writing and rewriting said autobiography.

Even though vinyl records have enjoyed a revival, definitely with full force this past decade, with reissues of back catalogues widely available, to some the preference for vinyl records (and recently, also, tapes and CDs) might seem incomprehensible, given that it may appear that most of the musical archive of humanity is freely available online. I will sound ancient in noticing this, but “even DJs” travel now without having to carry anything except their headphones and perhaps a couple of USBs. Hundreds of thousands of electronic files of music populate the Internet, always-already there, played and playable, having been and about to be. I have made an effort to gradually migrate into digital DJing fluency, learning to use DJing software and building a digital music library, but I know that what I really enjoy is collecting and playing music on vinyl.

I enjoy playing my vinyl records and recording tracks from those records into longer sessions because it’s an activity that takes place, like the act of listening, in real time. It’s not the drag-and-drop of playlist making on Spotify- in order to record a track you need to play it. This is not to dis that fantastic affordance. I just point out that it’s possible to make a playlist of digital files without listening to them. With physical media you need to listen to it, as it happens, as it plays. In my DJ sets I have never really focused on designing a journey with seamless mixing where the beginning and end of a track are blurred and where the set becomes one single track in itself. When I have tried it I often fail- it’s fractures where I find flow. In my DJ sets what I seek to draw attention to is precisely each track in its new context, and this means in relation to the tracks before it and after it, in the place and time they are given within a new continuity.

I guess it’s obvious to say that the digital playlists of today are not equivalent to the playlists made on tape before the Web (say from songs recorded from the radio, which added another layer of challenge, or from one’s own collection). With digital playlists most of the times listeners already know what’s in them via a track listing, and tracks can be skipped instantly, without having to rewind of fast forward tracks in real time. Drag and drop goes in hand with pick and choose- we don’t like being subjected to the ‘tyranny of the syntagm’ (I think the phrase is by Barthes) of time-based media, we want what we like when we want it, and we want to skip what we don’t like or think will not like. We hurry from one thing to the other, and feel we have no time to sit down and be ‘passive’, in this case listening to something for a whole hour of our lives.

Digital Rights Management in today’s Web has made it very difficult to share any previoulsy-published music without it getting identified- no equivalent to playing a white label, or including a nameless track in a tape compilation. I am interested in a type of record playing and record/music listening where we don’t necessarily know what we will be listening to next, where there’s some level of anticipation or prediction, where there can be disappointment or discovery. My recording of tracks of vinyl in real time is like reading a print book out loud, ideally to someone else, without using Ctrl+F on a screen when we read online, or when we comment on a tweeted news article without having even read the linked article. What’s at stake is the very temporal nature of recorded music and of the act of listening. Mindfulness teaches us to refocus on what we take for granted (for example our own breath); in so doing it teaches us to take the time to notice what we don’t. I believe recorded music as physical phenomena (in this case in the form of vinyl records) can help us to actively take the time to listen and pay attention to what normally we may be too busy or too stressed out to pay attention to.

So I have been thinking about my past, and the role that music and record collecting has played in my life. Playing and recording tracks from records in my collection, in real time, has been a kind of mindful practice, allowing memories to play out as time passes and the track advances, including other signals/signatures of the records’ material presence, such as clicks, hums and noises, the records’ covers and inner sleeves, their weight, their condition, sometimes yes, even their smell. The audio recordings of these sessions cannot possibly communicate the complete sensory experience, but do sometimes capture the material nature of the sound sources, and in some limited way do document and/or bear witness to the time passed recording them, because the time of the recording equals the time of all the tracks played, as the recording is done in one go and without interruptions or post-editing.

Thinking about this issue of the “pastness” of my record collection and the “presentness” of the playback and corresponding practice of listening and recording I thought surely others must have thought about it as well. I found Melle Jan Kromhout’sHearing pastness and presence: the myth of perfect fidelity and the temporality of recorded sound” (2020) very interesting, as it expresses better than I could some of my intuitions. For example, Kromhout writes in the article’s abstract:

…recorded sound and music simultaneously marks pastness and presence. Pastness in the sense that sound recordings resonate with the transience, temporal irreversibility and finitude of all physical phenomena; and presence in the sense that they also produce the experience of the constant flow of time through the here and now.

This is indeed the experience I do have recording items from my collection in sequence in one single go, and the experience I wish I could share with others. I know I have frequent listeners of my sessions and I am really grateful. It requires a particular kind of listener, which implies a particular kind of circumstances to practice a particular kind of listening, one I am not sure is that common any more. We seem to live in a time not only of attention deficit but of impatience, and the type of listening experience I seek to share is one where music is allowed to flow in time, in the here and now, while evoking the “temporal irreversibility and finitude” of recorded music as physical phenomena, but also of our own lives and our experiences of it.

I have been recording sessions for a while now, but I had had this idea of doing a purposefully autobiographical series of sessions, completely improvised, with about an hour of audio running time and vinyl records as my constraints. This would mean playing some tracks from records that would no longer be considered “cool” or that would seem out of place. But whose life is ever perfectly curated, and who hasn’t been formed as well by guilty pleasures and musics imposed on us? I still think it can seem a bit naff and slightly pathetic, if not embarrassing, but whatever, life is short, and thought why not start with one and see where that takes us.

I thought this first episode would be more diverse in terms of periods, genres, styles, mood and tempo, but one track led to another, and I just allowed myself to let the session be whatever it wanted to be. Hopefully there will be other episodes and the result will be surely different. My creative brief was a bit gloomy, of the type “what tracks/albums would you like others to remember you by when you are gone?”, and after doing this one I realised I will definitely need to do several, as this one barely touches the surface of who I have been and who I am, in my life, in its pastness and presentness, but at least it’s a humble start.

As an experiment (it might get taken down) I have archived the session below, but it’s also available via mixcloud.


Melle Jan Kromhout (2020) Hearing pastness and presence: the myth of perfect fidelity and the temporality of recorded sound, Sound Studies, 6:1, 29-44, DOI: 10.1080/20551940.2020.1713524

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