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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I see him too seldom these days, but whenever WBFO's Program Director Dave Benders and I get together we swap titles of books that we've read recently that we wish we'd written. I imagine everyone has a list of "They stole my idea" titles; some of the books that neither Dave nor I got around to writing quick enough include Sarah Vowell's "Radio On", "Sonata for Jukebox" and Ashley Kahn's "The House That Trane Built:The Story of Impulse Records". I actually haven't read the last one yet, but I am a big admirer of Kahn's earlier two books on the making of "Kind of Blue" and "A Love Supreme", and I've thought for years that an overlooked way to talk about the history of American music would be to explore the history of the record labels that distributed so much of it. It's been done, of course-- search for "Motown" on amazon and you get 5,503 hits-- but Kahn is almost certainly after a lot of the same answers I'd like to learn about. I mention it because I ran across an interview with him, talking about the book, in which he makes an observation that is similar to something EGA and I chatted about a bit as we traversed the Midwest last Friday. Talking about the experience of an Impulse! album Kahn observes: "Impulse predicted where album packaging was going in general, and understood that the album listening experience was more than just putting vinyl on the turntable -- it also included sitting down with the cover to read the liner notes and look at the photographs.... One of the first photographs in the book is of David Crosby of the Byrds and his brother Ethan sitting on the couch in photographer Jim Marshall's apartment in San Francisco in 1965 -- just as the underground rock scene is beginning -- and the two of them are pictured listening to the music while Coltrane's Ballads album is open on his lap. That photo says one thousand words -- it expresses what our listening experience with Impulse was."

A CD booklet doesn't reproduce that, and mp3s have eradicated the artifact from the experience of music altogether. I feel that loss acutely. I have vivid recollections of my first experience with a lot of the vinyl I own. I can tell you about how I first listened to Patti Smith's "Easter", for example, or where and how I listened to my first Thelonious Monk side. (It was a "Best of" collection that started off with "Mysterioso", with liner notes that compared Monk to, I think, Leonard Cohen. My pal Lee had given it to me, and I was in my dorm room in Livingston Hall the Tuesday before Thanksgiving my sophomore year...) Then there were all the children's albums, "Cinderella" and the like, with slick paged, elaborately illustrated stories in the gatefold that you lay on the floor and gazed at as the record played.

The CD, which was 25 years old last Friday changed that forever, and it seems a pity to me. In a funny way the artifact focused your attention on the music, and prevented it from becoming wallpaper. That's how music should be listened to, attentively, and although my iPod shuts out other sound, the experience of recorded music in the 21st Century is more often than not a component of the multitasking that consumes our daily lives.

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