I was inspired to think about the records we have by an article in the Globe and Mail written by a young woman from British Colombia. She and her husband have found time during lockdown to sort through and listen to their parents’ collections of vinyl. She was mourning the loss of her teenage collection which her mother apparently got rid of in a garage sale. It made me look at my relationship with records and music.
It was my prized possession. I bought it in the early sixties, when I moved into a rented apartment with my two-and-a-half-year-old son. A small suitcase opened to a record player, with a built-in speaker. I had very few records to play on it, mainly classical music, and a few folk and children’s songs. The needle resembled a nail, and there was a slight hiss, but I was in seventh heaven. Music played an important role in my life, but I did not have the means to indulge in a better setup. It seems so strange today, when everyone is able to access whatever music they like via YouTube, or other platforms, and can listen through earphones in total isolation. True, there are also those who share or blare their “music” all over the neighborhood, and do not consider others or care if they dislike it. I also like to share my music, but even if I tried to turn it to the loudest setting, the sound barely reached past the living room in my small apartment. My boyfriend loved classical music as well, and was delighted that I had a record player. Mozart was his favorite, and I think he gave me my first Mozart flute concerto record, after we heard Jean-Pierre Rampal in a live concert. My record collection started growing, almost at the same rate as the book collection, since one of our favorite pastimes was browsing in bookstores and record stores. I meant browsing not buying, since spare money was scarce. However, when we moved in together after we got married, he bought me a present – an Acoustic Research turntable, a Sherwood amplifier, and one AR4X speaker. We put on a lovely Joan Baez record to try out the new system, and I thought “How strange, I never heard her sing so beautifully high. Perhaps the new system is so much better than my little suitcase, that I never heard her real voice.” But no, it was the turntable which was turning at 60 Hz instead of 50 Hz! When we adjusted it, she reverted to her lovely deep voice.
Our financial salutation improved gradually, so after a year, for my husband’s birthday I bought him the second AR4X speaker. Now we had a truly magnificent system compared to the one before. There was stereo sound. We could hear the music just as well as in a concert hall. Well, almost, but we rarely went out now. Our family grew, and the children loved listening again and again to the same records, and singing along. One of their favorites was Burl Ives with his animal songs. It was played so many times, that there was a scratch in it, but it is no longer available. So, when we wanted to introduce our grandchildren to the songs, we transferred the record to the computer and used a program that cleans up pops and clicks and scratches, and produced a disc from it. Can you imagine, I just opened You Tube and wrote Burl Ives Animal Songs, and lo and behold there they were, so I am writing with the songs playing in the background. No more need for the records. Sad and marvelous at the same time. I guess all the other favorites can be found as well, like Free to Be You and Me, Theodore Bikel, and Clouds by Joni Mitchell. I can still go to our record collection and find all of the old friends. The covers are somewhat dulled from handling, but the records are still there, and when you play them there is a slight hiss from the past sneaking into the melody.
With time and much use, we needed a new needle for our record player. We went to our friend Steve Glickman who had a high-end music store. We wanted the best needle, and after about 3 hours we came home with a brand-new system. A Denon record player with a moving coil head, a Denon amplifier and tuner, and 2 Harbeth speakers which were designed for the BBC and sounded divine, especially for chamber music, which we both love. By now we had managed to amass an enormous amount of records. We developed a habit of visiting The Madrigal (the good classical record store) on Friday afternoon, and purchasing a record, and sometimes indulging ourselves and getting two records. But we never missed Sam the Record Man in Toronto, especially on Boxing Day. That was an experience. Sadly, Sam is no longer there, even though the trend for vinyl records has returned, and many young people are actually becoming record collectors and it is trendy to own vintage equipment. This proves that if you wait long enough your “junk” becomes in vogue again.
Back at the house, a few weeks after we installed the new system, the children were sleeping, my husband was out, and I stretched out on the carpet in the dark, with good Sharpe earphones and a new record of Haydn’s Cello concerto in C with Jacqueline du Pré. It was magical, and I was totally engrossed in the music, so did not hear when my husband came in. He was looking all over for me and thought that I had left the children alone and gone out, when he suddenly heard me sing with the music. He discovered me lying there totally oblivious to the world. The total involvement with the music and the relaxation effect it brings is one of the resilience strategies that I developed for myself and still use in difficult situations. The stress of the pandemic this past year was much easier to withstand with periods of peaceful listening to music. In fact, one of the first things I do, when I wake up in the morning, is turn on the radio to classical music, and lay quietly in bed for another hour listening to music. Only then do I start my day’s activities. In fact, I find it hard to concentrate on other things while listening to a piece of music which moves me. This is what is happening now, since I am listening to the cello concerto while I am trying to write. True, I can multitask, but I think I will have to stop till the music finishes, and gather my thoughts. Another thing: no matter how good the computer speakers are, they can’t compete with the good speakers on our stereo system. Nevertheless, the ear can adapt, in the same way we adapt to adverse conditions and make the best out of any situation.
Technology kept progressing, and instead of vinyl records the craze became tapes. We went back to Glickman and purchased a tape recorder and player. We got into the habit of taping new records the first time we played them, and playing the tape instead. All our records from that era are in pristine condition; we even have some that are still unopened. Years have a habit of going forward, and technology has a habit of changing. Tapes are no longer available, and the machines to play them on are getting scarce. CDs replaced tapes, and could be played on the computer and on CD players, so we now have a collection of discs. They are digital, and it is easy to go directly to a particular song or area you want to access. You can record onto them from your computer, and do not need other equipment. Except, if you want to transfer your records on to discs, you need to play them into something that will convert then to digital format. Hurray, another piece of equipment to purchase! I find that many men enjoy collecting devices. Mine especially likes electronic devices. So now we own a small gadget that takes the input from the record player and converts it to digital format. It sends this to the computer, and a sophisticated program picks it up and goes through to clean all the pops and other noise. The process is tedious, since a human being has to sit there and make sure that bits of the music are not thrown out, and that when the pops are removed there will still be a seamless connection between the pieces of music. When all this is done, you can “burn” a disk, and …. Oh no, the new computers no longer have a place to insert discs! Everything is now on a flash drive, so you can use the old discs as mobiles to decorate your patio or sunroom. They catch the sun beautifully when they move in the wind, and create colorful patterns on the walls. They become Holy Junk ingredients for lovely art projects.
I am certainly not against technology; I appreciate the innovations and the ability to communicate by video with people far and near. The travel restrictions and social distancing of the past year would have been much worse, in fact intolerable, without Zoom, Skype, email, and the like. My sanity and my ability to function in my profession and my daily life depend more and more on the internet. But I hope that we can still accommodate and incorporate into our daily life older technologies. Some things are still as good as they were when we bought them over 30 years ago. The Harbeth speakers are still as good as the day we bought them. The record player is resting in the cabinet we built for it with the records in the shelf below it. Our amplifier and tuner are newly purchased from just before the Corona era, and are now connected to a TV which is connected to the speakers, and via WiFi to the computer, so that we can listen to streaming and recorded music in good quality. But when all else fails, thank goodness we still have our vast collection of vinyl records. I am sure that one of these days soon we will even open some of the brand-new records we have, and put them on the record player. I will sit in my rocking chair and my husband in his recliner and listen with pleasure to the full sound that can come only from well cared-for records and a good system.