Scuttering through the First Measure

“Cutting up fowl to predict the future is, if done honestly and with as little interpretation as possible, a kind of randomization. But chicken guts are hard to read and invite flights of fancy or corruption.” (Ian Hacking)

Sifting through dismembered chicken gibblets is a lot like making and listening to an authored music mix. They are both about a randomized future, and making a music mix only appears to be less messy. Music mixes are a form of auditory exhibition for some future intended audience—staking a claim on some future desire. At least since the late nineties, a well-known story has taken shape around the practice of gathering together and trading pre-recorded songs—or, what might more generally be referred to as the creation and circulation of “the mixtape.” It is invariably a woeful tale of decline: What once consisted of carefully orchestrated recordings onto bits of magnetic tape wound on miniature spools surrounded by hunks of black or white plastic produced over the course of whole mornings or entire afternoons quickly became replaced by virtual assemblies of data known as “playlists,” whisked on and off of hard-drives, available on any computer and at any moment. What about the period between these two moments? What about the interregnum of the mix CD?

Part of the problem is that mix CDs, when spoken of at all, are often portrayed as the meek younger sibling of the mixtape. Essentially the same, with less soul and character. Yet, CD-Rs are about as like a tape cassette as an 8-track is like an LP. Since their first appearance in 1988, CD-Rs have become a ubiquitous, stackable surface cover, littering homes and office spaces everywhere. Roughly 1.2 mm in thickness, made of polycarbonate and 120 mm (or 80 mm) in diameter, the CD-R is not simply a music storage device, but rather a container for all forms of information including images and text. Proponents of analogue sound recording have been quick to criticize the sound quality of CDs. Celebrants of the mixtape have waxed mystical on the specifics of analogue tape: “each kiss had a new sensation,” a ”mystery arc where cosmos exist,” according to Thurston Moore.

While tape cassettes and CD-Rs share a wide-reaching portability not previously available in recordable sound technology, there are several key attributes that fundamentally distinguish the cassette tape from the CD-R. Unlike tape cassettes, CD-Rs are one sided, which preventing any internal dialogue between distinct sets of songs. Tape cassettes have durations of 60 or 90 minutes while CD-Rs have a storage capacity of 74 or 80 minutes, and thus lack the short and long form typology of tapes. Another crucial distinction is the vulnerability of CD-R technology. Unlike tapes, which come in their own protected shell, CDs are constantly subject to the damage and the pressures of outside forces—despite claims of resiliency by manufacturers. On the face of it, copying files to disk is an act suffused with heat: to burn, to toast, etc. This language of fire and brimstone conveys strength and permanence. In actuality there is no burning or permanent engraving taking place. Rather, songs are transferred onto the disc through an optical process where a laser pulses against an organic dye layer changing the properties of the dye. The result is a fragile, vulnerable artifact easily subject to damage, and with a lifespan of about 5 years. This vulnerability and characteristic of light and optics is central to the life of the mix CD.

If playlists—with their MP3, aiff, and WMA files—can be said to be more closely aligned with the idea of the archive, the practice of the mix CD is related far more intimately to the notion of the album, which is itself deeply intertwined with the idea of the curated art exhibition—one thinks of the early twentieth century auditory exhibitions of Luigi Russolo through to gallery presentations of late twentieth century “sound art.” A mix CD is far from a set of individually (and in the case of playlists “temporarily”) sequestered tracks. As with an exhibition of visual or sound art, they are a set of works organized with care in mind to their sequence and internal relationships. Tracks—the exhibited works—communicate through their relation to other tracks in a sequence in a way that recalls the American poet George Oppen’s phrase: “things explain each other, not themselves.”

Mix CDs are a congress of artifacts. They may have a definitive beginning and ending that encourages a directional movement, yet they allow for a dialogue between various parts. Certain discs may have central leitmotif tracks to which all others hover around. Others assemble constellations of tracks, clusters that cohabitate around one larger idea. One track may form a repartee with another. Certain tracks may jubilate or cheer, others simper or goad, while some may pine for self or societal improvement. While finishing tracks may arise as summations, others close a sequence as non-sequiturs, rejoiners. The mix CD bends the ear into its series of clandestine rooms that can be accessed through multiple thresholds.

If the most common type of mix CD (as it had been with the mixtape) is genre based, the most prevalent sub-form of this practice is new genre. New genre mix CDs curate together like-sounding songs within an established genre, or across genres, in order to generate new categories The missive, or second type of mix CD, is a form of declaration or testimonial deposition (in some cases, perhaps, a sort of psychological wound profile) that is meant to express a set of emotions to the listener. Another type of mix is thematic. In thematic mixes, songs and sounds are gathered together from diverse genres or time periods that refer to a certain subject matter (ie. war, peace, lost love, etc). Another type of mix is the mix of unintended meanings. This type auditory exhibition gathers together tracks and recontextualizes them in relation to an unconscious meaning not intended during their original composition.

If the more inventive and politicized stream of mixtape culture has been shown to be aligned with the raw DIY of late 1970s punk, post-punk and no wave music, mix CD culture exhibits allegiances to a far less constrained set of genres. Crucial to its inception, mix CD culture occurred simultaneous to the revitalization of vinyl and the rise of the live DJ in the mid to late 1990s. In the wake of the pastiche approach pioneered by such creators as Negativeland in the late 1980s, pop songs increasingly butted up against spoken word, avant-garde compositions with radio and television sound. The culture of the mix CD flourished at a time when visual artists were increasingly interested in making art about pop music. It was not until the development of the portable playlist technology in the early 2000s—curiously, the moment of the return of the concept album—that mix CD culture began, at least on the face of it, to decline. Yet, it appears at the present moment that mix CDs have entered a new phase of eccentricity and invention fed by the playlist—and a search for something more concrete—where a curated intensity continues to flourish. While the mix CD as album may function, in the first instance, as an exhibition to a singular (if not limited) audience, it inevitably continues its fragile life to a future shared public. To go back to Hacking’s remarks, mix CDs can be described as “flights of fancy” founded in the “corruption” of a technology and the corruptibility of aesthetic categories and historical associations.

For the central protagonist in Peter Handke’s story The Jukebox (1990), the illusive search for, and close listening to jukeboxes around the globe at a moment in the 1980s when their presence was in sharp decline, caused everything else around these machines to “acquire a presentness all their own.” The essence of the jukebox “awakened, or activated images of what might be possible and encouraged him to contemplate them.” The swinging armature and “crackle through the first measure” are now gone, replaced by the scuttering noise of the spinning disc locking into each new track. Far from lacking a soul or individual character, the mix CD presents similar images of possibility, individual instances of curation, and opportunities for a presentness all their own.

Jordan Strom
Summer 2008