Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just The Artifacts, Ma'am

Early this morning, I saw a four-foot long wisp of lightweight brown plastic, about an eighth of an inch wide, fluttering on the sidewalk. It was something I hadn't seen in so long that it took me a moment to recognize it as a piece of cassette tape.

The would-be archaeologist I once was wanted to examine it for clues about what was on it, how old it was and how it had escaped the boundaries of its plastic housing. The music expert thought it would be fun to hear what was on it. The memoirist thought about her earliest recording, of her reading, in an impossibly squeaky voice, at age two, from a long-lost book. That performance was captured on reel-to-reel, eventually transferred to eight-track, and then disappeared into the mists of time and outdated technology.

I loved making mixtapes, as gifts or as party music, but I didn't like the clunkiness of CD-to-cassette, or even worse, of LP-to-cassette, so iTunes was made for me, and now I have playlists for everything, including waking up, going to sleep, breakfast, running, cleaning house, cocktails, seduction. The latter require considerable care to reflect the passions not only of the seducer but also of the seducee, meaning that, though they can be re-used to some extent, they cannot be recycled simply by renaming (I've tried).

Back in the spring, I wrote a series of posts about the future of music, and discussed physical formats. Just as I got rid of my thousands of LPs and abandoned my cassettes, I've recently been divesting myself of many of my CDs, meaning that my hard drive and iPods are the only visible manifestations of my music, even though I am surrounded by it most of the time.

I don't miss the horrifying moments of realizing that a lovingly mixed cassette tape had wrapped itself around a tape head and was destroying itself, or that an LP had scratched in a critical spot and I would have to get a new copy or always be nearby to lift the tonearm. When I listen to Debussy's String Quartet in F Major, for instance, it's permanently imprinted in my brain with the skip in the second movement that was a feature of the LP I had as a child.

But I do miss the memories that looking at those LP covers and handwritten mixtapes jumpstarted. No matter how cleverly I may name my playlists, seeing a track in iTunes just isn't the same.

(Photo from an amazing designboom page that includes many clever uses for cassettes and their innards, including a dress woven from cassette tape.)

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