I have always liked to have music readily available when I travel whether by train, plane, car or foot; it does in many pleasurable cases add considerably to the experience and in others, less pleasurable, make it more bearable. Perhaps, evoking great film scores I have imagined mountain pastures and purling streams blossoming to the sound of Beethoven’s slow movement from his pastoral symphony (subtitle for this movement is “scene by the brook”) or walking through the myriad colours of summer roses to Delius’ “Walk to the paradise garden”. Beethoven and Delius were both great lovers of nature and surely they had these wonderful pieces of music running through their head well before they began to write them down.
In the pre-Walkman era it was well-nigh impossible to fit the music to the actual scene you found yourself in but I determined to do so when I stayed in India. I was glad that I’d come to truly appreciate the amazing rhythmic complexity and mellifluous melodiousness of ragas but sometimes there were moments when I wish I could listen to a Bach concerto or even a bit from a Shostakovich symphony and return to a culture I understood more about.
When cassette players came out I seized my chance; I settled for the Sony TC-146, fitted a pair of rather large headphones to this, got together a collection of cassettes of my favourite pieces, put everything in a separate case which sat on top of my rucksack and set off East.
Of course, the venture was not entirely successful for the big problems were the relatively short life of batteries (even shorter with those then available in India) and some eventual technical mishaps with the moving parts of the equipment and cassettes. But for about half-an-hour a day I was able to listen to what I wanted and not what the short-wave radio imposed upon me.
I remember at an ashram on Mount Girnar when holy men began to emerge quite naked from the caves in the sacred mount on the night of Shiva that I was glad I’d found a dangling electric light from which I could attach a special socket to power my cassette recorder thus saving the batteries. It was wonderful to have heard the mantric chanting of that ecstatic night but at some stage I felt I was somehow losing my reference points and needed to seek refuge in the opening movement of a Vivaldi oboe concerto!
Another problem with this pre-digital technology was the weight. Carting all this equipment up mountain paths was not exactly easy – one really needed to be a devotee of music to do it!
The coming of the Walkman in the late seventies made my cycle commuting trips across London from Woolwich to my teacher training college at Wimbledon (a distance of over twenty miles) much less of a chore; the sound equipment was a lot lighter too, with small headphones and batteries. However, there was still the problem of carrying extra cassettes if one wished a change of music. Here is my first walkman: a Sanyo M5550:
CD’s then came in and they were the first disc media to be fully portable. It would have been difficult to transport a record player and vinyl on a bicycle, quite apart from the needle-tracking quandary! But CD players were not always reliable – tracks jumped when hitting pot holes and you still had the problem of carrying extra discs with you if you wanted to listen to something else.
MP3 files and fully digital technology, of course, changed everything: from size, weight, variety and portability. I realise that many audiophiles say that listening to an MP3 file is not the same aural experience as listening to an original full frequency recording but, regrettably, my hearing is not what it used to be and the higher frequencies can no longer be discerned. As Flanders and Swann famously sang:
The ear can’t hear as high as that.
Still, I ought to please any passing bat,
With my high fidelity.
Now with my fully-integrated smart phone I can store the equivalent of at least forty feet-worth of vinyl within my shirt pocket. The trouble is I no longer seem to want to listen to symphonic music in the middle of my allotment or my walks; the sound of goat and sheep bells, the incredible vocal virtuosity of certain thrushes, the rustle of the leaves in the breeze, and the buzzing of gnats provide me with the best background music to the scene in which I find myself….
PS I note that a TC-146 was recently sold for £50 in mint condition on E-bay. The ad (which also gives the dimensions) states:
You are invited to bid on this rare all original SONY PORTABLE Stereo cassette tape deck from 1970s rare old shop stock condition which is in excellent MINT condition for its age. The advantage of this model is that it can be used at home as a quality Hi-Fi separate or on the go as a portable cassette player. Runs on mains voltage or on 4 size C4 11.2 x 2.6 x 8.5 inch.
Perhaps I might even have made an offer for it but, as Peter De Vries said: “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”