Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Arts

Hear Ye! Listening to ‘The New Analog’

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“Noise has value.”

So goes the thesis statement of The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a wonderful new book by musician Damon Krukowski. He reckons with how digital media has changed how we consume music and what we’ve come to expect from it. New technologies have begat new ways of listening, but to get to that newness, music has been stripped of its context and surrounding “noise” and turned (for a profit) into pure “signal” over a disembodied digital stream.

In theory this would be ideal; noise is usually considered a bad thing, and boosting signal above it separates the gold from the dross, the wheat from the chaff, etc. But what happens when everything becomes signal? What happens when we cede the authority to determine what ought to be signal to Spotify’s mysterious algorithms and the rigid perfectionism of digital recording equipment?

Krukowski illuminates what we lose when we ignore or eliminate noise. It’s not only the small things— incidental studio sounds captured alongside the recorded music and how smartphones flatten the richness of our voices—but bigger ones too: how we’ve come to occupy space “simultaneously but not together”, and how streaming encourages “ahistorical listening.”

This isn’t a fusty screed against newfangled media. Krukowski avoids nostalgia as he straddles the analog/digital divide, opting for clear-headed rumination on “aspects of the analog that persist—that must persist—that we need persist—in the digital era.” These aspects involve early 20th century player pianos, Sinatra’s microphone technique, the “loudness wars”, and Napster, among other topics I learned a lot about.

The book overlaps a lot with Krukowski’s podcast miniseries Ways of Hearing, though I’m not sure which informed the other more. Ironically, despite its inability to convey sound, I thought the book was better at explaining the concepts and aural phenomena of analog that Krukowski dives into. With the relentless iterations of new media keeping us ever focused on the present and future, it’s more important than ever for thoughtful critics like Krukowski and Nicholas Carr and Alan Jacobs to help promote intentional thinking and challenge our modern assumptions.

Columbus

Columbus, the first feature film of the talented film essayist Kogonada, calls enough attention to its subjects to captivate viewers but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit, which is usually a formula for great cinema.

Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, a recent high school graduate, works at the library in Columbus, a small Indiana town that’s a mecca for modernist architecture. She lives with and cares for her mom, a recovering addict now working in a factory. She says she loves Columbus, but you get the sense she’s also stuck in it.

Then there’s John Cho’s Jin, a literary translator who comes to town when his architecture professor father suddenly falls ill before a lecture. The two meet by chance as Jin holds a grudging vigil for his comatose father, whom he openly resents despite, or because of, his academic renown.

Sensing a spiritual match in the other, they wander Columbus looking at the modernist buildings, looking and wondering at each other, and looking inward, perhaps in search for what Jin’s father referred to as “modernism with a soul.” They struggle with their pasts and parents as they struggle toward a companionship that takes as many forms in their few days together as the buildings they gaze at.

They begin as strangers, become debate partners, and end up confidantes as they forge a temporary intimacy borne out of commonalities, though sometimes tensed by their differences.

The burdens they wrestle with—Jin with resentment toward his ailing father and Casey with her traumatic past—loom almost as large as the buildings, captured with determined stillness by Kogonada both as background scenery and as havens for Casey and Jin’s ambling.

The power Kogonada gives to moments of silent observation is the film’s strength (even if it made it seem a tad too long). In that way Columbus felt like a Midwestern version of This Is Martin Bonner, with characters yearning for connection while trying to soldier through minor existential crises in an alienating modern milieu.

I’d only seen Cho as Sulu in the new Star Trek franchise and Richardson as Hailee Steinfeld’s friend in The Edge of Seventeen, so they both kinda blew me away here. Bolstered by Parker Posey and Rory Culkin in supporting roles—Culkin’s conversations with Casey in the Columbus library about literature and librarianship made me smile—the two leads shoulder the film equally and prove as complex as their surroundings.

Grateful as always to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for bringing in movies like this.

Recent Views

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Flying above Idaho, returning from Portland. I usually don’t take pictures from airplanes, but I’m a sucker for mountains, especially ones as pretty as these. They sparkled.

Chicago-sunset

Chicago at sunset, as lonesome and resolute as the celestial orb overlooking it.

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William Fitzsimmons concert. I liked the natural quadrants that formed outward from the violinist, and the colors exaggerating those divisions.

The Typewriter: A Graphic History

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Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine is a gorgeous compendium of ads, photographs, and other artwork depicting typewriters and related ephemera from their invention in the late 1860s to the 1980s, when personal computers began to supersede their analog ancestors.

In other words: straight-up typewriter porn.

Some interesting tidbits:

The Name

Charles Weller, a clerk who witnessed the early development of the machine, talked years later about how the typewriter got its name: “Typewriter was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.” Other names like “writing machine” and “printing machine” didn’t quite fit, and in retrospect were clearly inferior choices to typewriter, which indeed is an unusual but perfectly apt name.

The War

Typewriters were recruited to the World War II effort just as other industries and product were. The Royal ad below: “Uncle Sam wants every typewriter you can spare because the fighting forces need typewriters desperately today. They’re needed to speed up production, the movement of supplies, orders to ships and planes and troops. The typewriter industry can’t supply ’em – we’re busy making ordnance.” Manufacturers implored customers to either sell theirs to the government or maintain them better, as supplies and repairmen would be at a deficit due to war production.

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A Secretary Is Not A Toy

Sex and sexism are common themes throughout the decades of typewriter advertising shown in this book. Early 20th century graphics often depicted the office secretary as the “temptress at work” or an idle daydreamer, with the word typewriter “often used to describe both the machine and its operator.” The ads above make winking reference to these assumptions with the bait-and-switch headline that’s actually just selling carbon copy paper. The ads below promoted using bright red fingernail polish to contrast with the style of the machine; in a brilliant move of synergy, Underwood even made its own “chip-resistant” polish secretaries could sample by writing in on their office stationery.

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Typewriters and Self-Worth

Showing us that some things never change, some mid-century ads promoted typewriters to young people as statements of social standing, self-improvement, and self-worth. One Corona ad from 1921 just comes right out with it: “You probably suspect that we are trying to sell you a Corona. Nothing of the sort. We are just trying to convince you that you need a Corona. That’s different.” Royal really hit the self-improvement theme hard, promising a 38% rise in grades due to all the “exclusives” the 1958 Royal Portable provided.

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While I would have appreciated more contextual information accompanying the artwork, Vangool mostly lets the many images speak for themselves. Overall, it’s a superbly made coffee-table book that fans of typewriters and the graphic arts especially will enjoy.

Postmortem No Aware

Only recently did a cruel reality suddenly appear before me: that after I die I’ll miss out on so many books and movies and albums. Leave alone everything that will be released after I die; I dare not ponder what greatness I’ll be missing, as it can’t be helped. There are just too many good things out there right now I still have a shot at. Too many for one lifetime.

The way I see it my options are: A) bank on a good draw upon reincarnation and try to use the extra time wisely; B) frantically read and see and listen to everything in a desperate yet futile fight against the crushing march of mortality; and C) cry.


Not lookin’ good…

Girl Meets Rainbow

I was heartened by the exceedingly successful Kickstarter campaign to resurrect Reading Rainbow, which will help bring a new version of the early-literacy television program back to solvency and into classrooms to foster a love of reading in today’s children.

But this article from Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post gave me pause:

“Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own … which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.

“But if you’re donating to Reading Rainbow because of the grandiose charity rhetoric Burton’s employing on Kickstarter, you might want to look elsewhere — maybe the nonprofit Children’s Literacy Initiative or the Washington, D.C.-based First Book, both of which get high grades from Charity Navigator. They might not have LeVar [Burton]’s nostalgia appeal, but there’s no doubt who those charities serve.”

Rainbow was cancelled in 2009 and had been existing as an app since then, so though its name already has a pedigree I think it still deserved a chance to ask its fans for money like any other cause, charitable or otherwise.

In this light, let’s also consider the impending arrival of Girl Meets World, the sort-of sequel to that ’90s TGIF mainstay (and personal TV favorite) Boy Meets World. The title character is the daughter of Cory and Topanga, adorkable teen sweethearts and stars of BMW. When word of the show’s development hit the internet in late 2012, I’ll admit I got excited. Boy Meets World was a seminal show in my adolescence. I saw in Cory and Topanga’s relationship a healthy model for friendship and romance: Cory was silly and Topanga was rational, but both were strong, self-sufficient people who loved the other despite their foibles and occasional conflicts. And the people around them were just as well-rounded: Shawn broody yet loyal, Feeny upright yet playful, Eric clownish yet sincere.

Like Reading Rainbow, the BMW brand—much-loved yet dated—has received new life thanks to the groundswell support of its fans. Though this new show will be its own story with a new protagonist and surrounding cast, but with Cory and Topanga back in the mix, and the original BMW producer at the helm, it might as well be considered a continuation of the story. But for whom?

It’s common, I know, for entertainment meant for kids to have something their parents can enjoy too. Whether it’s Sesame Street or the latest Pixar movie, the best filmmakers and producers find a way to appeal to many age groups. And perhaps that is why Girl Meets World is being made: to give Millennials with young kids something they already have an attachment to that they will (theoretically) be able to enjoy watching with their kids. But the Disney Channel audience of Girl Meets World either hasn’t seen the original series or hasn’t even heard of it. They will have as much emotional investment in the characters as they would for any new show they encounter. So why do we need Girl Meets World?

It’s not as if kids today lack any source of entertainment whatsoever; what BMW was to me and my Millennial ilk, they have today (I’m guessing here) in the variety of television shows, movies, apps, and YA novels being made specifically for them right now. Don’t they deserve to have their own Boy Meets World, a show or thing they discovered in their youth and will feel special kinship toward into adulthood? Boy Meets World was my generation’s thing; shouldn’t they have their own that didn’t descend from their parents’ cultural experience and sensibility?

Perhaps I’m just being possessive. Who am I to cling to a TV show that many, many others cherish as much as I do. I suppose this gets at another question relating to pop culture and our interaction with it: Do we own the culture we embrace or are we mere stewards of it? In our produce/reuse/recycle media culture, do we lose the right to claim something as our own? I don’t think so. Once a work of art is created and sent out into the world, it is the artist’s no longer. It becomes a public entity of which we can all buy shares and claim partial if ardent ownership, but we can never own it outright. My Green Bay Packers stock is tangible evidence of my intangible ownership and love of the team, but it’s not real stock. There will always be more Packers fans, and Boy Meets World fans, and Reading Rainbow students, no matter the form those things take.

So here’s to hoping that everybody wins: that Girl Meets World and the new iteration of Reading Rainbow will enchant young viewers and delight older ones, and that we’ll finally find out what happened to Mr. Turner.

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