London musician Aleksander Kolkowski is giving new life to a dying musical format—by turning it into an even older format. His idea: repurpose the compact disc to play like its musical predecessor, the vinyl record. “I’m taking the optical digital back to analogue,” he says.
Using a modified Wilcox-Gay Recordette—a 1950s home stereo and recording device—Kolkowski cuts grooves into a CD, making it playable on a turntable. The re-engineered CD plays at 45 rotations per minute for up to two minutes and 50 seconds. The audio result is “a nice, warm sound, like it’s been remastered through an overdriven tube amplifier.”
Any digital or audio input, including a microphone, can be connected to Kolkowski’s customized device—which means he can put whatever song, sound, or voice recording he chooses onto the CD to be played like a record. To do this, the input device sends an electrical signal to a needle on the Recordette which cuts an exact waveform representation of the sound onto the CD like the arm of a record player working in reverse. It renders the original data on the disc unreadable, but etches into the disc something new and often spontaneous.
At a handful of public appearances across Europe, Kolkowski has produced recordings of everything from throat singers to a marriage proposal. He says it's most fun to work with people performing live and off-the-cuff directly into the microphone, while some bring memory sticks with audio they've prepared in advance, and on one occasion he was given a CD from which he ripped a song to his laptop and then cut the song back onto the same CD.
“It’s transforming a disposable media storage device made for cloned copying into a one-of-a-kind cult object,” he states. But that’s not to say he’s too precious about the whole thing. “In a way, it's very tongue in cheek. There's a lot of fetishism about vinyl, but I see this as quite throw-away, really. I do it for free. People bring a CD and I give them one in return. On a few occasions people have asked me to go into commercial production, but that’s not really my intention.”
Kolkowski is making art, but he’s also toying with the nostalgia that swells around aging audio formats. In the United Kingdom, just over 780,000 vinyl albums were sold in 2013, the largest number since 1997. In the United States, Jack White sold 40,000 copies of the special vinyl edition of his latest solo album, Lazaretto, during its first week of release. It was the biggest week of vinyl sales since Soundscan began tracking data in 1991. (The previous record was around 33,000, for Pearl Jam’s 1994 vinyl-themed album, Vitalogy.)
In an age when ever-improving digital technology is available anywhere and all the time, why the persistent affection for analogue items from the past? (See also: Polaroid cameras, 35mm film, and typewriters.) Perhaps it's a desire to take back creative control from digital gadget settings, maybe it's down to pure aesthetic appreciation of vintage items and their output, or it could all be just a form of trophy gathering. Kolkowski thinks vinyl’s renaissance is a combination of its alternative status as a format, and our desire to own something tangible—something physical you can hold in your hands—at a time when music is becoming increasingly “invisible.”
“People still want something to cherish,” he said. “There’s something about sound being rendered into a physical object that has magic to it, and I think that’s why people get a thrill from what I’m doing. And the process, the fact it’s a recycled object, adds piquancy to it.”
His CD-Recycled 45rpm project is part of a larger series of work having to do with repurposing, remaking, and recreating, including an installation at the Science Museum in London called The Exponential Horn. For the exhibit, Kolkowski helped reconstruct a 1930s loudspeaker to broadcast newly-created sounds, music, and spoken word, in an exploration of its original intention to establish a benchmark in audio quality. He’s also recreating one of the first-ever recordings of a symphony onto wax discs in a project for the Royal College of Music. “In 1913, in Germany, one of the very first attempts was made to record a whole symphony. We are re-enacting that recording session using wax discs. No one has actually attempted a full orchestra using a wax recording lathe before, so it’s a serious research project, as well as a lot of fun.”
Kolkowski, who collects string and wind instruments as well as gramophone and phonograph players, says he’s always been interested in early recording formats and has “a fascination with the listening experience.”
“As a sound artist, I'm interested in using antiquated audio technology to challenge notions of obsolescence and, as well as making connections with the past, in giving a new perspective on our current relationship to recordings, amplification and digital sound.”