New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

A Poetry of Lossy Media

By Thomas Jackson Park


Current methods of recording and preserving audio use digital technology. Theoretically, by using digital methods, we can create ideal and permanent records of media. A file I create today could be accessed 1000 years in the future, and if compatibility was in place, it would sound the same.

This is certainly a compelling and exciting capability. To the archivist, it presents the possibility to freeze media in time, so that any further decay is arrested. If all media were archived in 2017, then they would continue indefinitely as they existed in that year, at that time.

That’s all technically very interesting, but it does lack a sense of poetry. What is permanent? Ideas, perhaps, could be, or virtually so. God, some might say, is infinite—to the believer(s). Most things of this world are not permanent. Even durable materials such as stone and metal crumble and rust over periods of time.

Analog cassettes are a more organic and feasible way of storing audio—in a sense, a more humane way.

I recently obtained a portable cassette player, and was then able to play any of several scores of audio cassettes that I had saved from over 20 years ago. What was obvious right away, upon listening, was—not only was I hearing the music that I so enjoyed during my college years, I also was hearing the effects of subsequent years on the music.

I noticed a variety of time- and device- based sounds—there was what we call “tape hiss”- a sustained, upper-range layer of white noise. To my ears, this seemed louder now than when these tapes were recorded—thought it may be the case that I am simply more used to high-fidelity digital recordings that have no lossy sounds of this nature, and so I was more aware of the earlier sounds. There were periodic sounds that were something between metallic and noise sounds. I was not sure what those were—they seemed to have to do with the decay of the tape. There were also thrumming bassy sounds emitted by the cassette player. I was amused to discover that these bassy sounds could be detected on any of a variety of cassette decks, of different ages and conditions.

William Basinski, with his famous “Disintegration Loops”, captured instrumental phrases on reel-to-reel tape in the very process of erosion. Listening to these recordings is both musical, emotional and philosophical, as the process of time is made manifest before our ears.

For the musician, and perhaps archivist—there emerges a challenge. That is to capture, as Basinski did, media in a particular state of decay—to digitize the media at one moment, and therefore to preserve both its original condition, to some degree, and its “present” one. This brings up all kinds of possibilities—one analog cassette, for example, or vinyl record, could be recorded at different times. One recording might represent a particular symphony as retrieved from a particular segment of tape, say, in March of 1995, where a different recording could be made and cataloged at a later time—maybe March of 2005. The archivist (and others) could experience and assess the differences between the two recordings, and note the effects of time on the media.

With that in mind, I began a process of freezing several of my old cassettes in time. I created a 2017 “rip” of over a dozen cassettes. Some of this music was original, by myself, and some works were by other artists. I captured and preserved a mix a friend made for me in 1992-3, and then shared this mix with the friend. We talked about the sonic and nostalgic qualities of the tape, and noted its condition in 2017.

Those of my personal works captured were of interest in that the passage of time had altered the music, making it much more complex than originally was the case. Nearly all of these recordings are available to me as lossless files, with no decay, as I have saved the files from when they were created. Yet, I return to the ripped versions and listen to them instead, with their warm, organic qualities, and attributes added by time, dust, heat and other factors.

People, animals, plants, they all age and pass away, Materials, even the sturdiest, do, as well. Astrophysicists can suggest an approximate time when the Earth itself will disappear into the Sun as it swells into a Red Giant star. It is interesting that we try to create and preserve media that is, technically, “perfect”, or lossless, and does not fade with time. Perhaps a more honest approach would be to record on lossy media, and note and reflect upon the influence the passing years have—if art is a truly a mirror, it cannot truly be permanent.

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