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Untouchable

What a collector loses (and gains) in the age of music downloading

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / December 13, 2009

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Piles of CDs surround me. I have been feeding them into my computer to suck the music out of them. And then I pack them away.

My Mac does not discriminate. Dufay or du Pré, Eno or Ellington, the computer digests them each with the same chipper whir, and check marks appear on my screen next to each MP3 file I have just created. I think I am supposed to feel accomplished.

But this has been an exercise both exciting and melancholy. My own CD collection once commanded a proud stretch of home-office wall space, but it has become a casualty of urban living with a growing family and I have been slowly transferring it into an iTunes library on my hard drive.

Of course, the conveniences of this approach are vast and, several years into the digital music revolution, still astonishing to me. A few keystrokes pull up exactly what I’m looking for. A couple clicks and 10 majestic symphonies of Gustav Mahler pour onto my cellphone, ready to be summoned while I’m stopped at a red light or sitting on the train. The novelty has not worn off.

But as I haul boxes of discs down to a basement room - at a time when CD stores have all but vanished from the local landscape and musical downloading has reached a tipping point in our society at large - I’ve been thinking not only about the virtues of high-tech listening but also about what’s been lost in our headlong sprint into the digital future. This is not a Luddite’s lament, or a cri de coeur about the significantly reduced audio quality of those compressed MP3 files. I love having more music at arm’s reach than ever before, I love taking it with me wherever I go. But I do find myself wondering why, exactly, collecting music now means so much less.

On the shelf
To begin with, there is nothing left to hold in our hands. Recordings have of course always been physical objects, ever since the first known recording device, a phonautograph, was created in France in the mid-1800s. Its inventor did not design it to play back a song - he could not conceive of such a thing - but merely to visualize the music as lines on paper. Before we could dream of reproducing sound, we simply wanted to hold it.

And still do. A recording documents the presence of musicians who are no longer there, but the thing itself can stand in for them, can mediate our relationship to the music we are hearing. We like to turn it over, gaze at the cover art, devour its liner notes, and arrange it on a shelf in a way that gives it meaning in the context of the other albums we own.

The history of recordings is, among many other things, the history of the object itself shrinking, and its distinctive aura along with it. The very first cylinder recordings could not be copied, so an artist had to perform the same piece again and again for each recording. But what you possessed on the other end was, in some sense, a direct proxy. It had attended this live performance for you.

It wasn’t long before records became mass-produced; acoustic recordings yielded to electrical, and the technology marched onward. Different collectors today will tell you with great conviction the point at which everything went to pot. They seldom agree on the actual date, but you can be sure it was a long time ago.

I once knew a passionate collector of 78s, the short-playing shellac records that were manufactured through the end of World War II. The sound he produced from these records was astounding, and I realized while standing in his living room and listening to Arthur Rubinstein and members of the Pro Arte Quartet sail through Brahms’s G-Minor Piano Quartet, that I had never truly heard any of the older historic performances that I owned only as CD reissues. But what made an equally lasting impression was also the sheer size, weight, and physical charisma of these albums, with each side containing only about four minutes of music. “Don Giovanni’’ contained a massive, shelf-warping 46 sides.

It is, by contrast, extremely hard to fetishize an MP3. A digital file that lives on our computer is immaterial and deracinated, shorn of context, not to mention liner notes. Even with CDs, whose charisma is much attenuated, you can still marvel at their silvery iridescence, display them on your shelves, and squint at their spines.

In other words, they can still serve one of the unique functions of many collections, be they music, books, or photographs: They help us hold together the fugitive pieces of both a historical and a personal past.

The personal aspects loom large for many collectors, and a home library becomes a kind of autobiography, an index of one’s quirks, passions, and adventures. I love for instance my recording of the Tokyo Quartet (with violinist Peter Oundjian) playing Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.’’ The performance is great, but if I’m honest, I’d say I love it even more because of the sticker from “Uncle Bud’s Deli’’ truck stop that was whimsically slapped onto the CD while on an epic road trip in my early 20s with my string quartet. That sticker is still there, brittle and crinkled, and the entire album has become a kind of jewel-cased madeleine. No wonder I can’t quite bring myself to pack that one away.

Even our collective buying habits hint at a deeper ambivalence about losing music’s corporeality, its thing-ness. It’s somehow no surprise that even as MP3 players get ever-sleeker and more capacious, people are also once again buying turntables and vinyl records in numbers not seen in years. And within the CD market itself, there is a surprising robustness in the area of box sets. What are these sets if not quintessential “collector’s items,’’ complete with single-disc slip covers made to look like LP jackets. They are also big physical hunks of music that can anchor all those vacant shelves after the rest of their contents have disappeared.

The ease of the click
Yet it is not only the object itself, but also the process of bringing it into our lives that has changed. For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life’s quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.

Today’s increasingly preferred mode of acquiring music - downloading - is a surreally effortless activity. A few clicks of the mouse, and, as if some cosmic spigot has been opened, the music pours onto your hard drive. If you are converting a large CD collection, there are services that will do the entire thing for you. It has become, in some senses, too easy. If Locke’s theory of property is true - that we accrue authentic ownership of land through our labor on it - then in this Lockean sense, we no longer own our music to the same extent anymore.

Music can also be copied with disconcerting ease. Another collector I knew who had gone digital once offered to clone his entire meticulously assembled virtual holdings for me, a sprawling library no doubt assembled over decades. Drop off a 500 gigabyte hard drive, he said, and his music would be mine. It was an extremely generous invitation, but it felt like cheating. Or more eerily, like receiving a transfusion of someone else’s past.

There is an individualized aspect to collecting, a sense that we are each in it alone. Concerts bring people together, but assembling a collection is typically a private endeavor. For the true collector, the critic Walter Benjamin once wrote, “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.’’

Saving time
Collecting has been around for centuries, but collecting recorded music was, by definition, an invention of the 20th century. They were mutually reinforcing endeavors - collecting recordings and listening to them. Both are retrospective activities. And unlike, say, collecting stamps, records actually capture not just the look or feel of a past event, but something still more ephemeral: its sound.

Certain recordings can summon the broad pathos of a collective historical moment, or they can trigger the upwelling of memory in an individual mind. Sometimes both. Bruno Walter’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded on the eve of the Anschluss, seems to speak for an entire continent on the edge of the abyss. The music critic Hans Fantel was at that same concert, and came across the recording five decades later. It moved him most deeply, he wrote, because it was “71 minutes of the 16 years’’ he had spent with his father, who would subsequently perish in the war.

On the deepest level, a recording - at least a live one - is an invitation to time travel, a chance to resurrect the voices of the dead, a way to indulge a deep instinctual yearning to slow the passage of time. With a recording, we can preserve that fleeting moment, and play it again and again, according to our will. In his penetrating book “The Recording Angel,’’ Evan Eisenberg calls record listening “a séance where we get to choose our ghosts.’’

To collect on a hard drive is to collect without amassing anything, and that is perhaps why, for some, it may ultimately feel less meaningful. We fasten time a bit less firmly. The price for all that convenience and instant gratification is that music - not as sound, but as thing - has vanished into the ether.

Yet for any digital collector, the choice of course is not either/or. You can rip or burn, save or pack away. And every once in a while, as I plan to do, you can visit it all in the basement, a life in boxes.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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