modern mixtapes

I flick my laptop open.

Music, stifled when the screen was last closed, resumes abruptly. It’s jarring when a song launches from the middle, like waking up mid-flight, momentarily unsure of where you are, where you’ll land.

I smash the pause button and punch in my password.

Unlocked, my screen is a collage of open windows, half-formed thoughts. Chrome with a stack of tabs – maps, unfinished articles, shamefully titled porn, swell reports, the Aftmth – all of which I close rapidly, not wanting to be reminded of yesterday’s highs and lows.

Spotify looms in the background.

I bring it to the front and scan the listening activity of my Spotify buddies – D-man‘s deep in an ambient playlist, flowebrother‘s stuck on some bad 90s rock, which I’ll give him a hard time about later, el gringo is doing his stomp and holler thing, Francois is playing Ciara, odd for him, but then again, the guy listens to a bit of everything. Most people are dialed into new Travis Scott.

I think about listening alongside D-man but quickly reconsider, I’m feeling too blue for the ethereal sounds of Tycho. If I go down that road I’ll probably end up with a joint in my hand and really turn my day upside down.

Nope. Instead, I scroll through my playlists, our modern mixtapes.

For decades, friends, crushes and lovers, shared albums and made mixes. We, music listeners and music lovers, expressed ourselves by cassettes, or through the prismatic shimmer of a scratched CD.

Now we use playlists, which allow for shared, disparate listening. Two people, or millions, worlds apart, can simultaneously jam to the same set of songs.

Which, of course, brings me to her. Back to her playlist. It’s what I select now, what I knew I’d be listening to before I opened my laptop.

Her playlist… it’s a mountain of alt-rock, that, according to time stamps, she’s been consistently piling for the past couple years. I tuned in a couple months ago, after meeting her briefly and finding commonality in our musical affections.

We have no contact outside of Spotify. We’re not familiar enough to text back-and-forth and I’m not engaging in the flimsy like-this, like-that tennis of social media. Our only connection, the only signs of her being out there at all, is every couple days she adds a song to her playlist.

And when I listen to that song, her newest jam, latest anthem, I find myself above my desk, a thousand miles away from Portland, somewhere in her atmosphere. I hear RKS wail and I can’t help but imagine her working in the coffeeshop she described, or aux-ed in on the drive to one of the weekly folk-rock shows she goes to. And overtime, patterns emerge. Moods take shape. This music, her playlist, is the soundtrack of her days. It stethoscopes her nature. She’s happy, she’s sad, in love, heartbroken.

In college, I’d sometimes ask girls I was sleeping with, or wanted to sleep with, what they were reading. That way, when time passed inevitably, and they disappeared from my twin bed or from that semester’s class, I could pickup the book and share with them the words on the page. To read the words they’d read was to participate in something together again.

Sometimes, feeling pathetic about my musical voyeurism, I snap shut my laptop. Get a life, quit listening to someone else’s. But curiosity and catharsis bring me back. Music has the capacity to fill (and yes, also widen) the voids of longing and loneliness. Not with her in mind or body, I can be with her in the shared experience of her playlist. In memories made, in futures possible, and now, above my desk, silently listening to the musical choreography of her days.

She’s just added a song. Let’s listen together.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash
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Alberto Balsam

Pushing open the door of the Play It Again Sports in Portland, ME, I’m reminded of being a kid, eyeing the Vapor skates displayed on the rack, weighing a Synergy in my hands.

It’s a grey, New England morning and we’re on our way to visit my brother in Vermont, making a quick pit stop to sharpen our skates, and for me, an opportunity to record a Music That Moves Me Segment at Maine Public Radio.

We try on a pair of red and white gloves with an enlarged thumb to ward off vicious hacks, and then it’s time to head over, so I slip out, nervous to put words to something so wordless.

The studio is just two hundred yards from Play It Again Sports. There’s a good amount of snow on the roads so I clomp my boots out front, and suddenly I’m in the studio, in front of a microphone, watching the audio levels rise and fall.

“Want me to read from here?” I say, holding up a crumpled piece of paper.

The producer smiles, as if anticipating the question. “Why don’t you just talk to us.”

Washtown

To pass the time I scan the wall. Above the coin machine are flyers, stuck with sharp, metal tacks. There’s a poster promoting a liver detox, an ad for arigatou classes, and a photo of a sad-looking cat named Dwight. He’s been lost since Friday.

A woman in a khaki jacket sits across from me. She’s leaning back in a plastic chair, her iPhone perched upright in a wrinkled palm. I insert my ear buds, which are tangled around each other like jungle vines, and hit play on Elder Island’s feverish, twangy Bonfire. 

Inspiration comes at the weirdest times, no? Too often I sit down at a computer to write, headphones on, then headphones off, sitting, then standing, trying to squeak out something new. But when I have the time, nothing pools.

The woman across from me exhales and Jim James’ wobbling Here in Spirit starts to play. Truthfully, it’s the only protest song I’ve ever liked. I want to pump my fists.

The dryers click and whirl. My mind is moving, swishing through avenues of past, present, and future. I find it odd that it’s happening now, in Washtown, details jumping out like fireworks.

Bringggggg!

My clothes are dry. The woman in the khaki jacket coughs, wipes her nose, and heads for the exit. I start to sort through a pile of crispy t-shirts. The fluorescent lights descend and the playlist resumes, shooting me back up into space.

Manchuck’s Seven

I was sitting on a frozen pile of 2×4’s, battling the winter air, a crossword puzzle in hand, a new found way to pass the ‘mud hour’ at work: 4-5pm; most contractors have already claimed a stool at the local bar.

6 across: ‘contains the motherlode’

I began running the basic solving processes through my head: *8 letter word, 7th letter is ‘n’, hmm, motherlode, the name of an old video game my brothers and I spent endless hours on which involved operating a mining vehicle on Mars*

The Aftermath has often discussed ways in which we discover music. It’s become an important riddle for both the basement music scourer and the industry giants, both seeking a way to find the next rich lode, the next profitable source or supply, the next rare gem, the place that will contain the motherlode, the, goldmine.

Whenever a Spotify link pops up from him in my texts, I get excited and grab my headphones. He knows it when he hears it. A similar ear for music and countless memories created through sound makes his read on it a good one. He’s a consistent source and has a knack for finding the gems, a goldmine for my music library:

The Case for Not Knowing

I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while now and can’t shake it. Our lives have become detached from unbiased experiences.

Yelp tells us if we should expect a good meal, Rotten Tomatoes dictates our viewing choices, Airbnb photo galleries are the basis of lodging selection, dating apps remove any mystery around meeting someone, and Instagram gives us utopian expectations of vacation destinations long before we step on the plane. The list goes on.

Put simply, we actively avoid going into things blindly. And this is a problem. Our bodies and minds need elements of the unexpected and unprejudiced; of this I am certain. Without them, how do we stay sharp. How do we remain curious. How do we feel alive.

Think on this, and dive blindly into the sounds of Volta Jazz. Let it take you wherever it takes you.

Volta h/t Tommy