Fugitive Music | By Joshua Harmon

Joshua Harmon’s cultural history essay “Fugitive Music” appeared in NER 30.4:

phonographMy earliest home recordings were live, direct-to-tape. In a ritual common to my generation, but which now must seem unfathomably absurd to anyone under the age of thirty, I would hold my portable cassette recorder to the speaker of a portable radio and record the songs the DJ was playing. While some friends captured huge swaths of a DJ’s set, letting the tape run until it was full, I was an editor from the beginning, waiting patiently for a specific song to come on, then hurriedly pressing buttons and hoping the DJ didn’t talk over too much of the song’s introduction or fade its ending into another song’s beginning—especially one I didn’t like, since that combination would now become part of my own version of the song, the same way, hearing a song today that was once recorded for me on a mix-tape, I still hear ghost sequences of songs following it. Fidelity was irrelevant, given the cheapness of both the source and the recording devices, and given the media: FM radio and cassette. As Milner writes of the earliest phonograph Edison created, the uses imagined for this machine “emphasized the act of preserving information, with little regard to how that information actually sounded. Fidelity wasn’t the goal; permanence was.” And certainly what mattered to me as I taped music from the airwaves was what I might learn from those songs—about music as pop-cultural entry point and schoolyard currency, or about myself as auditor.

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