Artist Series: Vinyl Melancholy

by Amanda C. R. Clark

As I move through different seasons of my life I find that different things delight the senses and tease the brain.  These days a cat’s paws move effortlessly across the wood floor while the mantle clock ticks rhythmically. Breezes pass silently outside my urban arched windows and within our small abode you might hear the crackly sound of a vinyl record turning lazily on the turntable. In these recent months I have delighted in listening to the depth and raw quality of records that date from the mid-twentieth century. People who know about such things tell me that vinyl records provide a greater range of sound, but if they in fact do I’m not sure I perceive it.  What I revel in is the ritual of the listening.

Crouching on the floor my fingers sift through the slender record sleeves, judging the selection on a mix of graphics, composer’s name, performers’ names, and attempting to let this information wash over me and then meld into a direction tailored for an ephemeral mood. Delicately the record is loosed and slipped from the sleeve and gingerly framed by my flat palms. I lay it gently on the turntable, relishing this methodical, deliberate process that heightens the anticipation of the music that will soon fill the room. I move the arm and let it hover over the record in a suspended moment in tension with imminent possibilities. The needle touches down releasing the first faint crackles and pops to reverberate out of the speakers.  Then, the music. To my twenty-first-century ears these may sound tinny or pale, but soon my ears adjust to this new set of expectations and I allow myself to fall under the spell. The record spins as my cats watch hypnotically, enjoying the whole, bizarre process.

Why does this bring joy?  Is it some harkening for a past?  Perhaps. Poignantly aware that the past is a foreign country and that the passage of time creates a reverse mirage of romanticism, these reasons fail to persuade. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.  Here the media—the outmoded form of vinyl on turntable—allows me to step out of the relentless grind of my daily life. The record will finish playing one side in a remarkably short period of time and beg me to return to flip it over or replace the record with a new one. It calls me away from whatever has absorbed me since the needle made contact, whether that be making dinner, reading a book, or in all honestly, scanning Facebook for an unattainable pleasure—what is it I am looking for? News?  Inspiration? Or more likely, comparisons to my own life, seeking the “better” in others that I secretly wish for myself, and then coming away feeling vacuous and empty, dissatisfied and lonely. I return to the turntable, an intimate object that needs me, and I it. Together, we make music. I find a new record and repeat the pattern. The crackle and then the notes emanate. For a fleeting moment, at the sound of those first few moments, all is right in the world. And then I return to my tasks and soon my perceptive and present ears stop hearing the lingering notes, but somewhere in my subconscious I continue to hear and hold onto the dream and promise of a past that has intercepted my present. My world becomes a little more simple, a little more tangible in those moments. I am present to something in the immediate moment that is tactile and impermanent. This nourishes me.

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.

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