That to play a record is to learn how to die

Last month, on a flight from New York City to Miami for a business trip, a pen burst in my hand. An omen, I thought to myself. I was reading Paul Valéry’s Cahiers on my iPad at the time, and wiping the ink off my hand with a superstitious sense of foreboding building in my head, my eyes locked onto this random passage in Cahiers by happenstance –

How strange it is that a living person has the psychic property of depreciating life and its rhythm!

He is tangency, centrifugal force, and life holds him in and brings him back into orbit. The variable radius is – experienced time.

A surefire barometer by which to gauge whether you are a record junkie: read a passage like Valéry’s above and your unruly mind, quite unbidden, begins to draw up a parallel analogy – of course unintended by Valéry but no less pertinent in my view – which involves the way a stylus travels in its lovely parabola toward a record’s center as it mines music from the vinyl’s side.

Robin Rhode 2

After all, Valéry’s note is remarkably descriptive of the mechanics of “depreciating life” involved in playing a record, no? Taking aside the simple fact that the record’s life depreciates as its grooves wear out, even the minute geometry and physics involved in the tonearm’s traveling arc from the outer edge toward the spindle contain a reminder and a whiff of our own mortality. Consider the two null points in the midst of the tonearm’s arc where there is zero tracking error, the purity of youthful health. Yet how fleeting, such zenith, as the skating force inexorably pulls the tonearm to the spindle, and after tracking more uncertainly through the grooves near the end of the record toward the center: the inevitable end of life.

Robin Rhodes 1

No doubt the analogy above stood out more saliently in my mind because the world, at the moment of my business trip, was abuzz with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death from overdose. For a Generation X-er like me, his work in various films serve as mnemonic landmarks by which I can clearly remember hauntingly specific moments of my own youth. Even still, a death that affected me even more deeply is Claudio Abbado’s which occurred about ten days prior to Hofmann’s. I clearly remember the day when my dad took me to the Classical Annex of Tower Records in North Hollywood as a kid, where I picked out my first records (which I still own) – Dmitri Sgouros playing Liszt, a mono Vladimir Horowitz recital from his youth, and Ivo Pogorelich’s perverse but lushly beautiful account of the Chopin F-minor Concerto with Claudio Abbado –

abbado pogorelich

Or when I dropped out of college after first semester and worked as a classical music clerk at Academy Records in Baltimore (where I routinely barfed into the trash can during morning shifts, hung over): the first CD set I bought with my first paycheck was the Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic’s Brahms Symphonies set. I can literally track the arc of my own life through the various Abbado recordings I acclimated myself to and loved, and the news of his death was a reminder to me that, yes, I, too, may have already passed through the null points of my life and am no longer young. I am tangency, as Valéry puts it, as we all are; though still humming music, yet doubtlessly traveling toward the end of a record, accumulating longing, happiness, regrets, grief and nostalgia. Until we run out of grooves and must be obliged to final silence.

Jeroen DiepenmaatIt was in the late summer of 2010 when I first met Chris Sommovigo (co-founder and editor of this fine racket of a website). He was visiting Manhattan, so I took him to Jules in St. Mark’s, where we drank and ate razor clams, heard live jazz, talked about life mostly, and audio, barely. He had to leave early so that he could get on the road back to Atlanta, so I decided to head to a Mexican restaurant/bar near my apartment to get my fill and just to think about something and clear my head. There were 6-7 guys drinking outside. I don’t know how it got started, but before you knew it, I was outside throwing punches. Then I tripped over someone’s foot, fell over backwards. The back of my head hit the concrete: lights out.

The next thing I knew, I was in the ICU of the New York Presbyterian. A nurse explained that I sustained a skull fracture; originally, an ambulance had taken me to the hospital near my area, but they couldn’t handle my complications, so I was ferried to the Presbyterian. There was a blood clot in my head so they were going to open my head up for surgery, but one doctor had suggested waiting overnight. Apparently, as if by miracle, the condition stabilized on its own, so no surgery was required, and they were just waiting for me to wake up. She told me that I was fortunate to live, that they have to watch me but I’d likely make a slow but full recovery. The nurse then asked me my name, who our president was, things like that. I thought about fooling with her and giving her funny answers circa Grover Cleveland administration but I refrained because I had a catheter sticking out of my penis: not a ripe moment for comedy. She asked me what day of the week it was. I said Sunday, obviously because I got in a fight with those guys the previous night. I was wrong: a couple days had passed without my cognizance. I had effectively been in a coma.


After I was discharged from the hospital, I was nevertheless grateful for the experience, despite – or because of – this close brush with death. Back at home, some force outside me compelled me to cut out what I deemed was superfluous to my life. Included among this calm but ruthless rationalization were audio items. It was easy, this letting go; the art of losing indeed wasn’t hard to master, as Elizabeth Bishop would have you know. Aside from my amp and speakers, I sold off or gave to my friends most of my audio equipment, including my pretty turntable. Yet, I couldn’t, for the end of me, bear to part with my tonearms, cartridges and record collection. For the simple reason that when I looked at them, my gaze was somehow returned, and further: inviolably contained within this gaze was the  foolish but somehow worthwhile story of my very own life. Music was playing –

Experience of the aura thus arises from the fact that the response characteristic of human relationships is transposed to the relationship between humans and inanimate or natural objects. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us. (Walter Benjamin, from “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” bold mine)


(Images by Robin Rhodes and Jeroen Diepenmaat scattered here)


Henry Lee lives and works in New York City. A bottom-dwelling corporate bureaucrat by trade, he occasionally publishes literary essays and book reviews. When not reading, listening to music, watching baseball or drinking bourbon, Henry is supposedly at work on a book.

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