Sailing by Ear

absms8_musicI just spent eight weeks working on a screenplay ten hours a day while listening to the same three albums—Popol Vuh: Einsjager und Siebensjager (1974);  The Six Parts Seven: Casually Smashed to Pieces (2007); and the Jerome Morass soundtrack to the 1957 film The Big Country—on infinite repeat. All the tracks were AAC files that I had downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, and I was listening to them through a pair of small, attractive podules that connected to my iMac through its FireWire port. This is, roughly, the setup that I have been using for a long time now, since before there was an iTunes, or an iPod, or a Napster, back when the only MP3s available were those you had ripped yourself. And though I also listen to music in the kitchen, in the car, on airplanes, and while running, given the amount of time that I spend at my desk, and the fact that I listen to music constantly while writing, over the past ten years I have probably listened to more music in the form of MP3s playing through cute little pods placed about three feet from my head than in any other way. So I was surprised, last week, when for no apparent reason, while writing a big Martian air battle scene, I looked up from the iMac’s monitor to one of those cute little FireWire ovoids, as Vuh lead guitarist Daniel Fichelscher attempted unbelievably intricate and beautiful things on the title track of Einsjager, and thought: Dude, what’s with the Fisher Price speakers? 

You might suppose that repetition would have dulled my powers of aural discernment—this must have been the fiftieth or sixtieth time I’d listened to the track over the past two months—but on the contrary it abruptly seemed to have heightened them, to have broken through the dam of convenience, simplicity, and ready access to the music, to have flooded my jaded ear with sudden understanding. I’m no audiophile; I want to say that right off. I have no idea what impedance is, or how to set the levels of an equalizer with any confidence or panache, and I still find infantile amusement in saying the word “woofer.” But it struck me all at once that the sound quality of the music I’d been listening to so heavily, with the indirect attentiveness I give music when I’m writing, was thin, brittle; all sheen and no depth. It was tinny, tiny, and pallid. It sounded like shit, in fact; and not only did it sound like shit, but it had been sounding like shit for years. Shit in the kitchen, playing from a big hard drive attached to an old PowerBook, through a couple of small, flush-mounted wall speakers. Shit, in the minivan and the Prius, patched from an iPod through factory-installed speakers greased over with a scurf of children and their miasmas. Shit, through the endless, vaguely rattling series of earbuds—that nauseating term, with its suggestion of Van Goghesque  mutilations—accompanying me on morning runs and onto airplanes. The digitized music itself  “compressed,” “lossy,” reduced to a state of parity with whatever system I consigned it to. With the possible exception of books, I love music more than I love anything in my life that is not a person or a dog. At one time, I now realized, I had known how to express and indulge and nourish that love: with iron-heavy black records, a fifty-watt amplifier, and a pair of speakers that were themselves pieces of furniture, far too large for any desktop. I hit the space bar, stopping the music, and observed a moment of silence for my own lossy life, and thought about a man whom I had not seen in almost thirty years.

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