Monday, March 23, 2009

Classifying Records

I started writing about organizing my record collection with the basic premise that dividing the collection into musical genres was necessary to find individual albums with the greatest ease. But as I thought about it, it became apparent that arranging all the albums alphabetically by artist name, regardless of genre, would be the simplest organizational system. It would still allow me to find a specific album without much trouble. This method also eliminates the problem of cross-over artists such as Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald who could fit into two or more genres. Yet I will never adopt this system. I can’t bear the thought of finding J.S. Bach next to Burt Bacharach next to Bachman Turner Overdrive.

Then what is the real reason for organizing records by musical genres? My best guess is it has to do with establishing (or imposing) a sense of order. Just as biologists name flora and fauna within a taxonomic system to make the natural world more understandable, record collectors establish a taxonomic system of musical categories and subcategories to understand what they have. Except it’s not an objective, universal system like the taxonomy of organisms. Each collector’s method of organizing records is highly personal. I suspect, ultimately, categorizing records isn’t an attempt to understand the musical world, but rather an attempt to understand oneself. When I look at my collection, I can see I have three shelves of classical albums with about ten inches of Mahler albums, and four shelves of Jazz with about eight inches of Mingus albums, etc. When I see this, there is some sort of self-identification going on that would be impossible if the albums were all mixed together.

I’m reminded of the scene in Diner where Shrevie (Daniel Stern) reprimands his wife (Ellen Barkin) for not returning an album to its correct location on the shelf. He can’t understand how she can confuse musical genres. Her response—“I just want to listen to the music”—is perfectly reasonable on one level, but misses the perhaps unreasonable relationship of the record collector to his collection. Levinson uses the scene to illustrate the disintegration of their marriage. He stages it so the audience perceives Shrevie as overreacting to the situation. For me there’s a little more to it: As long as she has access to his records (I don’t think Shrevie complains about her listening to his records), his sense of order and self-identity will be challenged by another who may think the Nat King Cole Trio belongs in Pop, not Jazz.

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