Thursday, August 05, 2010

The mix tape: Old is new again

The Internet can make wonderful things happen. On April 21, 2009, I posted a video on YouTube entitled “The Joys of the Mix CD and Mix Tape.” Like most of my videos it wasn't seen by many people. Nearly a year and half later it only has about 60 views. But sometimes you only need to be seen by one person.

Three weeks ago I received a message on Facebook from a woman named Alek O. She is putting together an art exhibit in London dedicated to mix tapes in October. Based upon my video she thought I might want to contribute. I answered with an unequivocal yes.

My love of making mix CDs is notorious among my friends. The process borders on obsessive compulsive. Compiling one 80-minute mix CD takes me hours, and once I start I can't stop until it is finished. I've been up until 5 a.m. perfecting a mix.
The transitions need to be as smooth and as seamless as possible. There needs to be a flow and mood. Within mixes there can be different themed sections: a rockabilly section could give way to a hip hop section. But no matter how varied or diverse a mix is, it should never be jarring unless of course that's your intention. Everything should seem like it belongs. That is the sign of a great mix.

I tie my interest in mixes back to making radio shows with a boom box that had a single cassette player and a built-in microphone. I'd record theme songs from my favorite TV shows or songs from movies and introduce them with all the wit a 7-year-old could muster. I vividly remember dedicating Peggy Lee's “He's a Tramp” from “Lady and the Tramp” to my mom.

It wasn't until the release of 2000's “High Fidelity” with its mix tape making hero Rob Gordon that I became completely hooked. Many hours were spent sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by CDs and tapes trying to create the ideal tape for personal use or for a specific friend. Hearing about Alek's project brought all these memories back.

Alek is from Italy, but living in New York through September. She has put this exhibit on once before in Berlin. That would be the real Berlin, not the one in our lovely state of New Hampshire. The exhibit is an example of found art with Alek collecting mix tapes and playing them from an old boom box. The mix tapes are accompanied by a track list and a history of the mix including when it was made and who it was made for. A mix becomes a time capsule not only of the music on it, but of the impetus behind its creation and the emotions attach to it.

I am contributing a mix entitled “The UK Mix.” I made it prior to a trip to England in either 2000 or 2002. The idea was to include all bands from the United Kingdom. I botched it in one case: Jimi Hendrix. In my defense he did gain his fame in England and has English band members. I remember listening to this tape in the car with my parents on the way to the airport.

This contribution didn't seem enough, so I took it one step further, one that Alek wasn't expecting or even requesting. Monday evening I got a hold of a boom box and a two-hour blank tape and once again — like the teenage version of me — sat on my floor surrounded by CDs creating a brand new mix tape. Alek was thrilled to have such an addition to her a exhibit. A newly minted mix taped is a rare entity in 2010.

It was fascinating reconnecting with this old technology. The old techniques came back as I got flashbacks from a decade earlier. Each song had to be put on individually and I had to make note of the time to make sure I didn't go over.

In the era of MP3 players and streaming music the cassette tape seems quaint. And yet there was something very exciting and more personal about making a mix this old way. The process was not nearly as obsessive as the modern day equivalent and was much more based on impulse. It felt more organic and immediate as I grabbed songs at will while still being concerned about the flow of the mix.

Through new technology and social networking I reconnected with an old technology. There's something poetic about that. The title for my new mix tape sums it all up: “Old is New Again.”

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