Years ago, I gave away my record collection without a pang. I had no record player, no use for such relics (“Grease,” Jackson Browne, Neil Young) though I loved them once. The records were scratched, the album covers scuffed, the technology replaced.
But a recent talk by artist Dario Robleto at the Nasher Museum has me rethinking the vinyl record. He started out simply and took us deeper, layer by layer: The record is a thing more momentous than a black disk on a turntable.
“Whenever I think about the record I have to think about life and death,” Robleto told the audience of about 100 on March 25. “That’s what’s at stake in it for me.”
Sure, Robleto could have been referring to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” or Dusty Springfield crooning “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” But more than the sounds in the grooves, he asked us to consider the material from which records are made.
I figured he was referring to the record as a breakable thing, easily scratched, a once-cherished possession that, at least in my house, occupied shelf space alongside books.
But Robleto was talking about something most of us do not usually think about.
“That story (about the record) began with a sunrise millions of years ago and each succeeding one since,” Robleto said. “The sun shone down on billions upon billions of prehistoric life forms, algae, plants and minerals. These life forms converted that solar energy into the energy of life. When they died and floated to the bottom of the ocean or were buried under the slow accumulation of layer upon layer of sediment, the energy of the earth itself took over, slowly compressing and cooking those tiny bodies over eons, producing the substance we can thank for the modern world: petroleum.”
Ah, those of us in the audience were thinking, we’re catching on. One product of petroleum, of course, is the vinyl record. Robleto walked us through the lovely metaphor.
“Every time a new groove is cut into a vinyl record we are literally carving our history, hopes and dreams of the present onto the backs of life of the distant past,” he said. “Depending on how deeply you are willing to peer into those grooves, you can hear our recent human story, or the story of the Earth itself. What’s so humbling is the mind-boggling discrepancy between the vastness of time that it took to create the raw material of the record and the oh-so-brief time we’ve had to create our story.”
The story of the record continues when we play it.
“Every time we play a record we are participating in a multi-million year transfer of energy from the life-giving light of the sun to the heartbreaking soundwaves of any number of singers,” he said. “By playing it we unleash another round of life and death.”
I find Robleto’s story comforting: Look at a humble record album and think about the painful, beautiful story of humans on the planet. The story will continue with the Nasher Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “The Record,” organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art. The show, which includes several important works of art by Robleto and 26 other artists, opens in August of 2010.
Robleto delivered the annual Andrew and Barbra Rothschild Lecture on March 25, 2009, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
IMAGE: Dario Robleto visits the Nasher Museum. Photo by Dr. J Caldwell.