Musings on life, travel, design,
family, art, and other stuff.

Formats: Mixtapes + Playlists

As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about formats. Not only of file formats, but of mediums—the possibilities and limitations of them, or their contextual uses. In Statement and Counter-Statement by the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, the trio comments on how a standard LP can only contain 45 minutes of music, acting as a creative limitation in a very physical manner–leading to the classic discussion around the relationship between form and content: “This is also what we consider to be one of modernism’s most defining characteristics: this state of being permanently aware of the way in which our material environment shapes us, and how we, in return, can shape our own material environment.” I love this idea of our physical world acting as a constraint, and I’m really interested in how certain formats have shaped us—and how we can consider shaping them in new ways.

For the last few months, I’ve been working on a pop-up exhibition project called Armed with Our Voices with the Kent State University’s May 4 Visitors Center and Wick Poetry Center about the May 4, 1970 tragedy. The exhibition features memorials to the four killed that day, specifically archival and personal artifacts that are now on display or tucked away in the University’s Special Collections and Archives.

One object which has stuck with me throughout the project is a handwritten playlist written by Jeffery Miller on the Chambers’ Brothers “People Get Ready” 45rpm vinyl. Miller hosted a radio show called “Short Mort,” and often utilized his personal collection. This object, now in a display case, is so personal—and now deeply painful to view. Ben Ratliff has said that “we build an autobiography and a self-image with music.” I think this is why there is pain in listening to the songs written on Miller’s 45. But it got me thinking about how playlists have changed as a format: from something very intimate, tangible, and crafted, to something more public, ordinary, and thrown together.

The playlist was really born out of the mixtape, which grew to popularity in the late 70s and into the 80s as cassettes grew in popularity. When people used to make mixtapes—a compilation of music recorded to a cassette tape—they could only be drawn from personal collections of things someone already owned—things which existed as a part of the physical world. They became a special type of communication from one person to another, often codified through track listings, or customized with personalized cover art.

In contrast, contemporary playlists have become streamable, and our access to music has grown significantly into a global digital library. They are still very personal, though not as popularly exchanged. Playlists often become symbolic of a particular season of life, or are made up of music that has a certain aesthetic flow or coherence. I’ve heard people mourn the loss of mixtapes in the age of streaming, and I wonder if this is because they lack the vulnerable aspects of knowing an LP or a tape inside-out. Spending money on music, or keeping it in your bedroom for that matter, makes the exchange of mixtapes a special sort of gift. In “PCs killed the mix-tape star,” Joel Keller writes: “The process of making a mix tape gave people a connection with music that the electronic version simply can't replace. Because it is so easy to drag and click a mix into existence, the sense of satisfaction with making what many feel is a work of art gets diminished.”

Mixtapes and playlists require active listening both from the creator and the listener. They require full attention since they are a special combination of genres or styles, or since they might be codified by the maker in some way. This active listening has perhaps become a lost art after the evolution of The Walkman, which made music private and portable, thus removing it from rooms where the only available entertainment was a record player or reel-to-reel player. Listening to music as a primary activity has now transitioned to serve as a background for cooking, riding the subway, working, and the like.

At first, I was thinking of how much we’ve lost because of this change in format from personal cassette to streamable playlist. But I was refreshed as I started reading Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff. He asks an important question in an age where algorithms instead of people often determine the formations of our playlists: “How are we going to listen better than we are being listened to? […] There is a possibility that hearing so much music without specifically asking for it develops in the listener a fresh kind of aural perception, an ability to size up a song and contextualize it in a new and personal way, rather than immediately rejecting it based on an external idea of genre or style.” In other words, now that we have such a vast library of music to listen to—from other civilizations past and present, from around the world—how can we deepen our musical vocabulary? How can we utilize the tools at hand to expand the format of the playlist—keeping that same sense of craft that physical mixtapes once required? Can we make them more personal in new ways? How might this determine the ways we share them with the people we love? More importantly, how can playlists make us better listeners?

Found Objects

I continually find myself inspired by the work of Bruno Munari (1907–1998), an Italian designer and artist. During my MFA thesis studies, I often looked at the ways he was inspired by nature in his design works—whether observing “continuous forms” and replicating these in a lamp, or cutting up oranges and rose petals to see their symmetry. Munari is also known for his own found object collections, whether stones, shells, or paper. This summer, I spent a lot of time at the beach with friends and family. Whenever I had a chance, I would take walks in the morning and comb for interesting shells or driftwood. My son Arlo also found some great objects in the sand (and then I found them while stopping him from putting them in his mouth).

“When the artist observes nature... it is as if nature communicated, through the sensitivity of the artist at that moment, one of its secrets.”

—Bruno Munari

Thoughts on Place

Last year in May, we traded an apartment near downtown Kent for a home about five minutes away next to a lake and the woods. For us it was a big deal to stay in Kent rather than to move away to another city after college. We felt like we were finally putting down roots. All in all, we’ve lived in Kent for about 9 years now, and we’ve loved every bit of it. We’ve grown to love this city and its people, arts, Great Blue Herons, poetry, rivers, restaurants, and events. Especially at E+E, we place high value on knowing our community, and have participated in and created our own events to invite others into.

Naturally, this has had me thinking a lot about place—how it can shape us, and how we can shape it. I didn’t intentionally set out to read a set of books about place, but over time realized that the ones I had chosen over the last year offered unique perspectives about the ability of places to heal us, shape our perspectives, create identities, solidify memories, and grow local culture. From each writer and their respective book or essay, my hope was to distill their perspectives of place to a set of brief ideas: place as healer, collage, identity, and soil.



Place as Healer

The Solace of Open Spaces began as journal entries from Gretel Ehrlich to a friend in 1979. She had moved to Wyoming for filming, and during this suffered the death of her partner and collaborator. Her book is one of personal observations about the people who live in Wyoming—their timidness, calloused hands, stubbornness, and tenderness. She also observes the land itself—its “indifference”, its expansiveness, its aridness, its light. Wyoming provides a space for Ehrlich that is healing in the wake of her loss, solace in the face of pain:

“Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use the space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or "spaced out" but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation […] We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to took at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.”

Ehrlich uncovers the way in which the space in us may be reflected by the landscapes we inhabit, and how places can teach us to create space within ourselves for reflection, humility, mourning, or healing. The spaces we create and occupy—the ones that we fill up or leave empty—have the ability to remind us of this space in ourselves.



Place as Collage

Jack Kerouac is most notable for his ability to capture post-war beat culture. His stream of consciousness writing style in On the Road imitates the free-form jazz improvisation and bebop of the time—his writing becomes music, and the music his writing. Throughout his travels, his personality is preserved even while he experiences a collage of places: urban jazz clubs, the streets of Denver, the stars over the desert, the mountains at Tehachapi Pass in California. There is a tirelessness in him to move, to the point where readers feel exhausted along with him: “Here I was at the end of more land...and nowhere was nowhere to go but back.” This often feels similarly to listening to a 15 minute jazz improvisation session, hoping it will end.

In many ways, Kerouac exists in a continuous temporal state, without roots—a nonlinear “modality of consciousness” as said by Allen Ginsberg—in many ways reflecting how his generation felt, and inspiring many generations afterwards to follow his routes. Kerouac has a gift in capturing this movement from place to place, documenting the people and places he experiences along the way, and embedding each of these experiences into his writing style. Even though the road he traveled was linear, his plots “zigzag in a spatial, nonlinear relationship of language and form.”

Kerouac’s experience of places can be seen as a collage: pieces torn from the pages of a numbered magazine, but arranged as if musical notation, an exploration in form and composition—becoming a unified whole by which to view America. In Teju Cole’s article “Far Away From Here,” he describes Italo Calvino’s idea of “continuous cities,” suggesting “that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: “Only the name of the airport changes.” On the Road offers a glimpse of a perspective of many places becoming one. What Kerouac observes is a special kind of continuity.



Place as Identity

Much like On the Road, Travels with Charley is John Steinbeck’s documentation of his travels throughout America in his truck Rocinante, named after Don Quixote’s horse. Steinbeck sets off to capture “the speech” of America, and to document the changes happening at the time from his own perspective. In many ways, the book can be considered as a period piece—it captures many social, cultural, technological, and environmental changes which still affect American life today.

Throughout his travels, he records a picture of America at a brief and turning moment in time. He paints a picture of American identity as a collage of perspectives, and makes holistic connections between the personal and the collective:

“If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness.”

Our witnessing and recording of place and culture—whether through photography, writing, oral histories, or other documentations—is a way of understanding the outworkings of human ecology and identity at a specific moment in history. From our own perspective and more importantly from the collective perspectives of others, we can build a shared history and identity out of what we see in the places we live.



Place as Soil

Throughout Wendell Berry’s essay “The Work of Local Culture,” he examines what it means to be a part of one, and how our society has shifted away from them. For many years, Berry has taken walks around what used to be his grandfather’s farm. On a fencepost hangs a bucket which accumulates soil, fallen leaves, pollen, dust, and water. Over time these aspects of nature collect and become a rich soil. Berry creates a metaphor for building local cultures:

“A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into an account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—that will be its culture. And these two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.”

In contemporary American society though, it has become the norm to leave one’s own town—to “move on” to other places and cities, and to create one’s own life there. Berry argues that this breaks a generational continuity, thus disrupting the forming of a local soil. He goes on to discuss that there must be a pattern of “reminding” which occurs in a living community that will allow history and culture to survive. In many ways, a place is an accumulation of the stories of the people who once went before us in a place. Only when we understand those stories and local histories can we begin to build upon them.

Long Island

Every few years, we visit Katey's great aunt MJ at her home on Long Island, NY. MJ is always filled with incredible stories of her life, and the life of those she loves. We spend countless hours drinking coffee or wine around the table, looking out at Cutchogue Harbor, and talking about everything—from how our year is going, to the times when she would watch Albert Einstein (her neighbor at one time) learn how to sail around poorly around the Little Peconic Bay... or how he sat on the rock in Horseshoe Cove (which we can see from her home). Long Island is a beautiful place, and each year there is something new to see, or new stories to listen to.

Emerald Isle

Photos from our yearly trip to Emerald Isle with Katey's family.

West Coast Road Trip

For our 3rd anniversary, Katey and I took a road trip on the West Coast. We flew to Sacramento, CA, where we made our way up the coastline to Seattle, WA over the course of about two weeks. There is so much that I could say about our trip, but I think the photos will say more. Katey and I planned our trip by looking up the National Parks we hoped to visit, and made highlights on a paper map that we bought in the cases where we wouldn't have cell coverage, but we ended up using the map the entire time (a first for us), and it was a fantastic way to travel. There was a lot of planning and saving for the trip as far as which roads to take, where to stay and when, or what food we'd eat—but it was all worth it, especially once we were out on the road in places we didn't know. We were so fortunate to have taken this trip, and we hope to do another out West again.

I've always had this draw to the Western half of America. I've taken classes about it. I've watched and re-watched the Ken Burns documentary. Its size alone has been a part of America's history, a manifest destiny that has drawn people to its open spaces. Traveling it was much different than I imagined. I think that there are so many aspects of the West that are overly romanticized. And yet I can see why people are drawn to its beauty and size. The West is so big, and beyond comprehension.

Cleveland Anniversary

Photos from Katey and my anniversary spent exploring the Cleveland Botanical Gardens and visiting Mentor Headlands State Park.

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.