Acoustic Reverie

I recall visiting the homes of childhood friends and often noticing the droning presence of an AM radio. I recall riding in the cars of their parents and the radio always on. When I got to junior high school, I recall friends doing their homework in the living room or family room with the television on. If you asked them, they would swear up-and-down they had to have the TV on in order to do their homework. More often than not, the parents grew up in the Golden Age of Radio and kept the radio on just for company long after the novelty of wireless wore off and their favorite shows disappeared.

When I arrived at an urban college in a wholly different part of the country, I confirmed these practices were not peculiar to the rural mountain people I grew up among. Underground FM stations, amplified through battling component stereo systems, cut through the walls of the dorms and apartments. It was normal for students to go about their business oblivious to the acoustic chaos all around, and a lot them again claimed they could not do without it. One popular justification was, “I am trying to drown out the noise on the street”, or next door, or upstairs. Real noise was somehow distinguished from the cacophony of phonograph recordings and broadcast programs. Real noise was anything but their noise. It was up to each individual to carve out his or her own acoustic territory. It was a personal declaration. It was your personal soundtrack.

Mine had been a quieter household. Though my parents were born and grew up in the Golden Age of Radio, the only radio I remember from childhood was a 2” x 4” x 7” battery-powered transistor radio that my father bought my mother. It had a tinny sound and she listened to it for a few weeks until the novelty of portability wore off. There was also the nuisance of replacing batteries and the difficulty of tuning with the protruding edge of a serrated plastic thumb-wheel. No amount of fake chrome on that plastic wheel made it easy to tune and hold a signal. My parents met during World War Two when they were both taking a class in the principles of radio broadcast and construction. (I still have some book around here with illustrations of vacuum tubes and circuitry.) I recall my Dad saying he used to build crystal sets when he was a Boy Scout in Connecticut. Now that I think of it, maybe Dad bought that transistor radio as joke.

My Dad also bought Mom a portable stereo phonograph player from Sears. She never really took to that either, but some of her kids did. She played some old records from her early years which seemed to me barely out of the Victrola era. She even ventured out to buy some contemporary stuff in “Full Dimensional Stereophonic Sound”. Pretty soon she went back to her old ways and read books.

Dad was pretty much the same. He had an AM radio at the office, but he claimed it was for the employees, not him. That may have been true because he let them decide which of three available stations they wanted to tune to. Dad hated all of them, so he only insisted on controlling the volume. On long road trips with my Dad, I was allowed to play with the radio dial mainly because he did not have a lot to say that I could understand. Then again I do not recall a radio even being in the first several family cars we owned. Seems like my friends’ parents’ cars had them, but not my family.

My older brother was the first to obtain an AM/FM/Shortwave radio with his own money. It was portable too and he bought it specifically to listen to a radio station outside of our immediate area. He also started his own record collection and used Mom’s stereo to cultivate his musical tastes. I followed his initiative and in my teenage years took it a step further by investing in full-blown component systems based on their specifications.

That was the beginning of about seven futile years of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.

I used to play music loudly and was the first in my family to do so. However, I was also learning to play the trumpet. I suspect my parents actually preferred the loud music to the trumpet playing and pretty much left me to my own devices. Eventually I bought some headphones. Later, a mute.

Later still, I realized I didn’t want the music thundering-loud or have the television on when I was trying to do homework. I think it happened early in my high school years and it came about gradually. I eventually realized music and television were annoying unless I could also pay attention to them.  I started out as an audiophile, listening for all those differences claimed by various manufacturers about their superior handling of woofers and tweeters, flutter and hiss, 60 cycle hum and so on. I was doing a lot of comparative listening to the same tracks. I mixed a lot of my own tapes long before it was fashionable or easy, and somewhere along the way I began to notice the quality of the content as well as the signal.

In 1970’s Intro Psych courses, you learned about the unconscious mind, subliminal perception and its role in advertising and propaganda. There isn’t a lot to add today. Audio stimulation is a powerful way to get us into moods, and moods are a powerful way to control the direction or outcome of decisions. It is called priming. Priming whom and for what? Victor Borge claimed he did not like elevator music not so much because it was bad music, but because it was designed and delivered to be in the background, almost unheard. That is pretty close to how I react. Of course today, Muzak isn’t all Lawrence Welk or the Living Strings. Depending on the hour of day, your grocery store or your Starbucks is broadcasting a demographically targeted playlist of music (and probably at pre-selected sound levels) to enhance your Consumption Experience.

People still stake-out their personal acoustic space in the belief it will help them identify and stabilize whoever they are or whoever they want to become. The messages travel through the earbuds of millions bus riders, skateboarders and joggers. Celebrity recordings of best-sellers accompany us on our long commutes. Maybe it is my imagination, but I notice fewer boom-boxes elbowing innocent bystanders in the aural landscape. They still thrive in places where you would expect them like Times Square and other already noisy and chaotic tourist destinations. Now when you see people plugged into their MP3 players with a distant expression on their faces, you wonder what they are listening to. Are they captivated by it? Or is it just personal background noise?

My son is part of the current generation who must do all his homework at his teacher’s website. Multiply this by four of five teachers and you have a lot of real time logged in on a computer. Our computer is in a the place where the radio in the kitchen and sound from the television collide, so he puts on his headphones and puts about four different tabs on his browser—some You Tubes, some music, his email/chat site and his homework tab. He spends hours rapidly clicking back and forth, and sometimes bats out a few sentences on the keyboard clocking-in answers to a digitally timed quiz. It is hard to get him to read a book now. He doesn’t have a smartphone, but he has an Ipod and it goes everywhere with him. I married a woman who keeps the radio on all the time whether she is within hearing distance of it or not. She’s Old School. My son is New School and has become a mystery to me.

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  • I did listen to a lot of radio from about age 7 until I went into the service at 19. After that, radio was only on in the car while I was commuting and only to a news station to keep track of traffic delays. Retired in ’98 and haven’t had a radio in years. I was never much into pop music. Today, I listen mostly to folk music as well as some Irish, Scots, French and Middle Eastern, on both Youtube and vinyl with an occasional CD thrown in.

    I grew up without TV and very seldom watch it today. My wife, OTOH has it on from the minute she wakes up. Not ‘officially’ bed-ridden, she has a lot of physical issues and tends to spend a lot of time either in bed or at her desk nearby. She often mutes the TV and doesn’t necessarily follow what’s happening – it’s more a matter of providing company when I’m not around.

    I never really had to study much in high school and usually did my homework at school, but when I hit college, I found it easier to study while sipping coffee in a booth at a local drugstore cafe. The steady, more-or-less-regular hubbub was ‘white noise’ which drowned out the irregular sounds of traffic and such. It was only when I really had to concentrate intensely that I needed silence. I recall having to read 700 pages of history the day before a final exam: I used earplugs plus a winter hat with ear flaps plus unconnected headphones and I read non-stop for about 12 hours. .

    What I find amusing about the ‘plugged in’ generation is how unaware they are of anything except what’s coming to them via the hardware. I’ve seen people bump into walls, doors and other people because their eyes are glued to a screen.

    What I’m more concerned about than the method of delivering information is that more and more it’s all just soundbites. We used to have conversations (remember blogs?) but a lot of folks have given it up for mini-conversations on Facebook – and if they’re really into minimalism – Twitter.

    And when I was a kid, if you saw someone walking down the street alone but talking loudly, you went out of your way to avoid them. 😀

    • The other night my son and I were watching Coppola’s “The Conversation”__Gene Hackman as a professional electronic snoop circa 1974. It featured a lot of 1974 audio hardware. My son was familiar with reel-to-reel tape machines because I have one and introduced him to jazz with it. He had never seen synchronized gangs of them, and mixers with band filters,or how people use rotary phones for that matter–all that was in the movie. I could tell he saw these as the anachronisms they are, just like I see my Dad’s books on superheterodynes explained with vacuum tubes. He had asked me earlier about the difference between recording today versus vinyl records having seen Barnes & Noble restore some their vinyl bins albeit modestly. I started to explain how folks like Neil Young were trying to resurrect analog recording with newer technology but that phonograph playback is the big issue. In my day it was all about magnetic vs ceramic cartridges or parallel arm vs pivoting arm players. It must have sounded boring to my son. The technology that brings him sound is unitary, seamless, invisible. There is the player with volume and mode selector, and earphones and software. Recording is no more complicated than a smartphone or handheld digital recorder. Point and click, plug and play.

      I have to drive through a college campus as a part of my job. It is dangerous for the reasons you mention. People who are plugged into their devices are remarkably, dangerously unaware of their immediate environment. It is bad enough that so many drive with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a phone to the ear, but pedestrians who wander about un-selfconsciously stepping into the street are the worst.

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