Sunday, September 5, 2010

And imagine a world without music . . . .

For some time, I've had it in the back of my mind to write about Walter Van Tilberg Clark's chilling story, "The Portable Phonograph," published in 1942 and set some time in the future.

But before proceeding there, let us briefly review the dizzying range of technologies by which music has been recorded, played, and heard (to use the late astronomer Carl Sagan's memorable catch words) "billions and billions" of times in the last 150 years up to the present: through the broadcast media of radio and television, and the Internet (see my last posting); on wax cylinders; on gramophone records (10- and 12-inch 78 rpm, and 7-inch 45 rpm, and 10- and 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm, as well as a wide range of less common sizes and speeds); on magnetic wire and reel-to-reel tape recordings of various materials, sizes, and speeds; on 8-track tapes and "compact cassettes" and micro-cassettes; on digital audio tapes (DAT); on compact discs (CDs), minidiscs, and digital video discs (DVDs); and now on compact flash cards of unprecedented capacity (i.e., hours of continuous recording on an electronic "card" the size of a thumbnail).

But from a tiny flash card which can contain whole symphonies, let us consider a world in which virtually all the technologies mentioned have been lost, a world in which only a small portable wind-up phonograph is left to commemorate the miracle of centuries of music throughout the world.

I read Clark's tale more than once in my youth, though I don't remember which years. But the dark, stark scene captured in that story has haunted me over the decades, even now as a scenario to contemplate, from the rich musical realms of the present, with both gratitude and dread.

* * * * * * *

After three paragraphs describing a chilly, desolate post-apocalyptic world, Clark writes: "Around the smoldering peat four men were seated cross-legged." The ragged quartet's host, an old man, was re-wrapping, "like a prehistoric priest performing a fateful ceremonial ritual," four books--the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy--and he is thanked by one of his companions for his reading from Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Sensing some further expectation, the host said, grudgingly: "You wish to hear the phonograph."

The youngest of the group responded "anxiously, between suppressed coughs, 'Oh, please,' like an excited child." Slowly, painfully, the old man retrieved a small portable phonograph from its hiding place back in his "cell," carved above a frozen creek "like the mouth of a mine tunnel."

After carefully opening the case containing the phonograph, the old man said: “'I have been using thorns as needles. . . . But tonight, because we have a musician among us'—he bent his head to the young man, almost invisible in the shadow—'I will use a steel needle. There are only three left.'”

A brief discussion ensued as to which to use--the thorns or the needle--but the old man selected one of the three remaining metal needles, saying that he would only play one record: “'In the long run we will remember more that way.'

"He had a dozen records with luxuriant gold and red seals. Even in that light the others could see that the threads of the records were becoming worn. Slowly he read out the titles, and the tremendous, dead names of the composers and the artists and the orchestras. The three worked upon the names in their minds, carefully. It was difficult to select from such a wealth what they would at once most like to remember."

After some discussion, it was decided to play a nocturne by Claude Debussy--the young musician's choice.

"At the first notes of the piano the listeners were startled. They stared at each other. Even the musician lifted his head in amazement, but then quickly bowed it again, strainingly, as if he were suffering from a pain he might not be able to endure."

The four men listened, motionless.

"The wet, blue-green notes tinkled forth from the old machine. . . The individual, delectable presences swept into a sudden tide of unbearably beautiful dissonance, and then continued fully the swelling and ebbing of that tide, the dissonant inpourings, and the resolutions, and the diminishments, and the little, quiet wavelets of interlude lapping between. . . In all the men except the musician, there occurred rapid sequences of tragically heightened recollection. He heard nothing but what was there."

The story ends with the group disbanding, agreeing to meet in a week to listen to another record. The host carefully replaced his treasures--the books, the phonograph, and the records--in their hiding place, a hole in the back of his cell, covered by a board and then raw earth until nothing unusual was visible. Aware of the inestimable value of what he has hidden, the old man lay down to sleep facing the entrance of his cell:

"On the inside of the bed, next to the wall, he could feel with his hand, the comfortable piece of lead pipe."

Let us treasure all the music that we now have . . . . .

No comments: