The Spaces Between the Notes

And to begin with we took out as many [books] as we could. ... We'll take this one and this one, this one, and that one too. ... And we read not one of them all the way through.

At the beginning of the 2022 novel Checkout 19, by Claire-Louise Bennett, I encountered some ideas that resonate in interesting ways with my recent experience of recorded music. The first idea is expressed in the quote above: You take out many books from the library—as many as they'll allow—and you don't read any of them all the way through. There's too much temptation to move from one to the other, "tossing one book down and picking one book up and tossing that to one side and picking up yet another and so on and getting nowhere. ... And we went on like that for quite some time didn't we until we realized that just because we were allowed to take out six books eight books twelve books four books didn't mean did it that we had to." An education.

I've been bringing home too many records from the record store, or too many CDs from the CD shop, for decades—so many that it's difficult to focus on just one, to listen to it again and again, to give it the attention it deserves. In the era of streaming—of having a sizeable fraction of the history of recorded music at your fingertips for $10–$20/month—the temptation is especially acute. It's too easy to move among favorite bits of our favorite music—especially when, as is too often true of audiophiles, we're so eager to hear how a favorite moment in this or that piece of music sounds on our system, now that we've added in that new component.

The second resonant idea in the book comes soon after, in the very next (long) paragraph. The narrator now takes out just one book at a time. "You'll have that finished by tomorrow, they'd say. ... So what. As if the only thing you could do with a book was read it." You could, for example, sit for a long time with the book beside you, unopened, "because we could wonder couldn't we about the kinds of words it contained." Have you ever done that with a new record that you couldn't wait to listen to? Just sat there, excited, a ritual before listening? I have, though not for a long time.

Then Bennett's narrator goes on to talk about the position of the words on the page. "The left page ... has a much stronger pull on us than the right page. We always look down first of all at the right page. ... The words on the right page always seem much too close. Too close to each other and too close to our face." And on it goes. "Very soon our rattled eyes leave the right page in order to seek refuge in the left."

The interesting thing about my experience reading these words was that I was reading them on a Kindle, the e-reader from Amazon. I like the Kindle because the battery life is long and it is backlit. It's lightweight and hard to damage, all of which make it ideal for reading in bed, which is where I do a lot of my reading. If I fall asleep and drop a Kindle on my face, I may get a bruise, but it's nothing compared to the damage an iPad Pro could do, and I don't worry about damaging the device.

The Kindle, though, doesn't have left and right pages. It doesn't have pages at all. The number of words that appears on the screen depends on your choice of font size—adjustable by the reader. The advantages go beyond the most obvious ones. The words are easy to see even if your eyesight is bad—and your attention is focused on the author's creation, the words on the page, on a single word, a cluster of words, a sentence, a paragraph. It's a good way to read.

(Too often, though, those words are mangled by typos, especially on older works, which have usually been moved onto the Kindle platform by scanning a print source and applying optical character recognition software, apparently with little if any proofreading.)

Despite the advantages of the Kindle, I miss the structure of a physical book—the shape of the pages, how far along I am: I'm getting near the end! Kindle convenience and readability is off the charts, but, excellence of Kindle's e-ink acknowledged, I miss the way the ink looks on the page.

I came of age during the LP era, when an album was round, usually black, and usually had two sides—sometimes more—each with about 22 minutes of music on it. The length of an album side was a historical and technological accident, yet for me, 22 minutes, give or take, was just the right amount of time to listen in a single sitting. Importantly—connecting to one of the points made by Claire-Louise Bennett—it made a very big difference which side of the record a song was on.

Indeed, Sides were—I'm tempted to write are—so important that during the CD era I would often find myself wondering, as I listened to an unfamiliar album, is this song on Side 1 or Side 2? It was a meaningless question, since CD releases don't have sides. I knew that of course, and I knew I was listening to a CD, but for me the CD has always been, and continues to be, a stand-in for the real thing—the record—even when no LP version exists.

Even today, when much new music is once again released on vinyl, vinyl is no longer the dominant medium, so "Sides" are incidental, not fundamental. "Sides" are no longer a thing, yet I never got over the habit. Even today, I sometimes catch myself wondering, is this song on Side 1 or Side 2?

And then, with vinyl, there's the question of where it is on the side. The arrangement of songs on an LP is important, a key part of an album's composition. Which song starts off the album? Which comes next? Which song ends the side? Which one starts Side 2? It mattered for the composition of the album—some albums more than others—but it mattered for technical reasons, too: Songs closer to the center experience more inner-groove distortion.

In the LP era—and for LPs still—position was—is—an important consideration.

In the digital, streaming era, the changes from the LP are extreme. A piece of recorded music is no longer associated with a physical object, so it has no existence in space—no geometry, shape, or form that interacts with the music. How the music relates to our turntable, ourselves, our discernment, our psyches—has gone away. Like music itself, recorded music exists now almost exclusively in time—no longer in space. I regret it, yet this transformation isn't fundamentally good or bad—it simply is what it is. We have gained much, but we've lost something, too. It's one important reason I still listen to records and why I still often read real books.

Kal Rubinson's picture

"A piece of recorded music is no longer associated with a physical object, so it has no existence in space—no geometry, shape, or form that interacts with the music."

I am seeing new relationships between a piece of music and visual geometry. All my music is on my server in a rather arcane file structure based both on content and date but I engage with it via multiple views on my large video monitor (not a smart phone or tablet).

In some views, I see music in the context of the history of its acquisition which relates it to the season of life when I bought it. In others, it is presented in the company of music of similar genres, performers, composers, etc.. In still others, it appears in what seems like random company but, being based on underlying sort algorithms, it usually suggests new relationships as I play from one "album" to another. Even the checkerboard patterns of album art provoke surprising plans of what to play next.

Unlike the fixed linearity of shelved albums of any physical format based on any single sorting plan, I am stimulated by the multiple perspectives on my collection. New additions make the views dynamic as they distribute into and disrupt the views. It also reduces the number of rarely played albums lost to memory or simply misfiled since they will keep popping up on the screen. I truly believe that I would not get as much joy and satisfaction from a physical collection even though I miss holding an LP cover and reading the very legible notes. It's a trade-off but I am very happy with my choice.

Lazer's picture

In the physical magazine. Some(or maybe most) will only read it here. As you say, “it is what it is”, without making a judgement. I, however, see the resurgence in vinyl and am truly hopeful that young people will discover the pleasure and connection one feels with their favorite musical artists from owning and caring for physical media, mainly vinyl.

This article also made me ask myself why( as far as I can tell) reviewers in this magazine that prefer vinyl also have ALL digital formats in their system. On the other hand, reviewers that prefer digital don’t even have a turntable… and why do they know they prefer digital? They haven’t listened to vinyl in “their room, with their equipment” in years, maybe decades, or maybe never.

Something seems wrong about that to me.

Jim Austin's picture

Lazer, thanks for your comment. Certainly most of the reviewers who don't have turntables have been there, done that, moved on. Kal spent decades listening to records, has simply moved beyond it. JA has a Linn, rarely uses it. Jason likes vinyl but has made a strategic (or tactical) decision not to include analog in his current setup due to logistics and space constraints.

It's easy enough to understand why a reviewer would be digital-only After all, that's where almost all the music is, while vinyl remains a niche (if a growing one). There's certainly still a ton of pre-mid-'80s music that's never been issued digitally, but it tends to be pretty obscure (which is not to say it's without value). There's still a place for vinyl crate-digging, especially for those who like to go down rabbit holes (Indonesian music of the 1970s, anyone?). Gradually, over time, much of that is making its way to digital, but there's a ton of it out there.

On the other hand, how much post-1990 music is out there that has never made it (and perhaps will never make it) to vinyl?

If the music itself is your focus, today, digital (in various forms) is surely the way to go. A vinyl system, though, gives you access to some music that's not available in digital form--and to me is just more fun.

Best Wishes,

Jim Austin, Editor

Lazer's picture

I just think vinyl is more fun too. I also think it sounds better…..

Kal Rubinson's picture

how and why do they know they prefer digital? They haven’t listened to vinyl in “their room, with their equipment” in years, maybe decades, or maybe never.

But I have and chose to give it up for two reasons. The first is that I listen almost exclusively to Classical music and there is no way to enjoy new music and new performances on vinyl for the past two decades (aside from a few boutique offerings). The second is that I greatly prefer to listen to discrete multichannel recordings, if possible, and that is certainly not possible in vinyl (again, aside from a few surviving quad discs).

On the other hand, older Classical recordings are continually being digitally re-mastered (even, re-mixed and remastered) for digital release. Leaves me no need to look back (although occasionally I do).

Lazer's picture

Everyone needs to make their personal choices. Classical is not my preferred genre but I do own about 100 classical vinyl albums and yes, most(maybe all) are reissues. I’ve searched for other classical albums I’d like to hear and can’t find them on vinyl. My hope is that, because of the resurgence in vinyl, more classical albums will once again be available on vinyl. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.


Kal Rubinson's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. However, I waited more than a decade hoping for signs of such a resurgence but gave up and discarded my turntables and vinyl. There is even less hope for it now.

ok's picture

..things are thus with classical recordings. Is it merely a matter of sound quality? Or that classical music - being centuries old per se - doesn't appeal to (if I only could have) been-there-when-it-first-got-out vinyl nostalgia?

Kal Rubinson's picture

I believe it really is a matter of sound quality but also that serious Classical fans (a much larger pool than Classical audiophiles or even, perhaps, all audiophiles) are not obsessively bound to any particular technology.

ok's picture

..on a speaker based system, in some aspects better than digital; not so much on a good headphone setup, where its inherent limitations become painfully obvious.

PeterG's picture

An interesting point, but from recent experience I'd have to say the reverse is also true. One advantage of vinyl over CD is the size of the soundstage. Headphones have the effect of compressing the soundstage--not so noticeable on CD, but very noticeable on vinyl. With vinyl I am much less likely to pick up my (quite excellent) headphones because they just can't cut it

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I believe the dCS Lina system's new "crossfeed" technology may address this issue. I didn't have enough time to confirm, but I expect Herb will offer his usual well-considered observations if and when he reviews Lina. (If not Herb, another Stereophile writer who spends far more time with headphones than moi.) Until then, scroll down to the bottom of


mns3dhm's picture

Digital music and streaming have made it possible for me to immediately access and listen to more music than I could ever hear in 100 lifetimes. A nearly infinite source. The cost to do so is miniscule. Information on musicians and their works can be accessed and retrieved with a few clicks. For nothing. We're living in a golden age of audio.

hollowman's picture

Hmmm ...
JA wrote:
"Like music itself, recorded music exists now almost exclusively in time—no longer in space."
How does one know TIME exists?
In the dreamscape, music occurs as situations sequence.