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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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There is some regret floating around in the musical community about the closing of Tower Records -- fond memories of browsing through the shop, making unexpected discoveries. A similar regret is following the disappearance of bookshops, where browsing is the most lamented loss.

Truth be told, the last time I was in a record store was more than a decade ago, and the last time I was in one where the proprietor actually knew about new nonpop was 1966. Really. George Hall at Harmony House in Union, New Jersey, knew his stuff. Bookshop? Probably five of six years ago, mostly to be a loyal local customer, but they didn't know me, made no effort to do so, and were too understaffed to have time to learn the tastes of anyone but the most regular of patrons.

Don't misunderstand. I believe in local business. Not only is it my nature, but I'm the director of a statewide coalition of mom & pop country stores. Those stores have taught me something, which is that times change irrespective of one's preparation for them. Those little stores have faced changing times with imagination, discovering with great effort each customer's quirks. Record shops and bookstores? I'm not so sure. Perhaps Amazon.com rose from discounting, but in truth they knew me better than any place but the corner store. And they didn't forget. Does it matter that what knows me is really just a computer database responding to input requests? Not really. I'm not especially comfortable in public, don't enjoy the effort of traveling only to be disappointed in what isn't available, and have rarely been a leisurely browsing shopper. I've never actually read a book in a bookstore, much less sat in one of those legendary comfy chairs.

(No browsing? That's not entirely true. Cruising the cutout bins at 2 Guys from Harrison was a worthwhile exercise. Anything classical and ninety-nine cents was dragged home, and cutouts usually meant unpopular, and unpopular usually meant something I'd end up liking. But I was eighteen, and adored Fellini.)

Folks older than I lamented the loss of listening booths in record stores, but the booths had disappeared already by my teens. The few stores that played records did so behind the counter. A later generation lamented the loss of LPs, and many still play their old vinyl with a kind of cloying reverence. (Shee-it, nothin like that Jethro Tull cept maybe King Crimson. Nother toke? Freakin-A, man.) And yet another transition is underway, and it's exactly to my taste. Years ago I was already a mail-order fanatic. Where else could one pick up a copy of Negativland or Furious Pig, or the Folkways Sounds of New Music or Partch's When Petals Fell in Petaluma or that first Diamanda Galas madwoman LP or some godawful hunting horns & organ recording that only Musical Heritage Society was daft enough to issue to customers like me daft enough to buy it? After the cutout bins were picked clean, it was browing the catalogs that built my collection of several thousand LPs, and browsing different catalogs that grew the collection of CDs (until Kalvos & Damian brought CDs to the doorstep. But by then the transition from internet to graphical web was already underway.)

But lament Tower? I'm not sure. After going through much paperwork, my first CD Detritus of Mating was accepted on consignment at Tower stores. Several dozen CDs traveled in a big hopeful box with naïve anticipation stamped all over it. Did any sell? I don't know. I never heard from Tower again. On the other hand, sales through CDBaby have been regular, and paid for.

What I'm getting at is the distinction between personal and personalized. Personal seems wonderful, but in business is a near-guaranteed failure. Personalized is a faux-personal state, like your-initials-embossed-in-real-gold daily diaries or Amazon.com. Their database is triggered to present information by my username. It looks like it was chosen just for me. I should be excited -- look! It's Dennis's recommendations! Dennis's Gold Box! I'm no more excited about it than going outside to collect the mail, but that doesn't dissuade me from looking through them. I even chuckle at seeing philosophy books, jazz CDs, Senseo pods and Hymns for Autoharp on the same page. My private little inverse yard sale. It's the same with Netflix. There's the slapstick comedy next to the French pouty film interspersed with the blow-em-ups.

I'm not sure why personalized Netflix is less of a 'thing' than the local video store where, unless you went in the Pink Room, they not only didn't know your name, but didn't look up at your face (maybe the Pink Room made you interesting). Or why Amazon is less meaningful than the bookstore where, though they may have your concert poster in the window, don't recognize your name any more than the video clerk did. Who knows my name from my face? The bank clerk. Yeah, I know. Ya got me. So what is personal? Why is the loss of physical browsing important?

There's been a longstanding disagreement between a group of west coast academics and me with respect to personal contact. Here in rural Vermont, being online feels personal -- not only because few people cross this oak threshhold a few yards from the Cox Brook, but also because I've been online for twenty-five years and have come to know hundreds of people, some in a way that feels very intimate. A few I've met in person, most not. Nevertheless they have a tone of voice and an image that I've invented for them; they are simultaneously imaginary friends and real ones. These west coasters do not feel they've been in touch with someone unless they have seen them -- not touched, but seen and heard. Maybe a hug. Second best for them is the telephone, which I loathe. Being online feels disconnected, alien to them. Impersonal.

Could it be that I'm the computer's perfect human foil, the carbon form that molds tightly to the silicon? Nah. It's more that I know what I can expect and what I can trust from the database, and how to browse as if it were the stacks of a bookstore or shelves of a record shop. I can follow a thread or abandon it, leading myself into the accident of misfiling and discovery in reverse. The mouse-driven roulette wheel can be spun as randomly, and links from site to site will become rabbit holes as richly textured as their equivalents in the lower garden or in Wonderland.

But there's still something amiss. How did the virtual and the real cross paths so effectively, with the new path leading away from Tower Records? Virtuality. (You knew I'd get to some serious point.) The most significant transition to the virtual world has been products whose nature survives virtuality, that is, the products of the mind. Failures? Webvan, eToys, Pets.com. Stuff you touch, stuff you eat. Successes? Amazon, Netflix, iTunes. Stuff without substance, already virtualized but marketed in tangible form until virtualization became digital and networked. My grandmother did not make sense of telephones as an extension of a person because they did not exist in her youth ... but we have quickly virtualized the voices of our family, and they can bring us to tears, throw us into a rage, or fill us with joy or eroticism. Loved ones once touched photographs as if they could reach into the past and feel the faces of the lost. Will we touch our screens that way? Yes, we will, until they are succeeded by another virtualization. And so the books we read -- thoughts and speeches and dialogs frozen onto paper -- and the recordings we hear -- likewise, rivers of sound frozen into shellac or vinyl or mylar or polycarbonate or thawed and streamed as pure electrons -- are just a transition from the past to the present, only to recede into the past of memory. Past, present, past.

No, I won't miss the Tower. Or the Barnes & Noble or the Blockbuster. They served for their own times and now are dismantled like a stage set, tossed out and carted off and broken down to be reused and stored in fragments. And we like them will crumple but vanish completely, blinking forever out of existence once the last person to have known us will have died.

On Mount Mansfield, by gondola
On Sunday we rode the last gondola of the season up Mount Mansfield to meet the first snow of the season, and had a picnic. It was a glorious afternoon, none of it virtual except the memories.

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