Known Unknown

Around 2009 I bought a new Macintosh computer. I had given up using Macs more than a decade before, primarily because I needed Windows to do the work I was doing. Cross-platform issues were extreme then. 

So for years I used Windows, and it was during that time that I discovered the .mp3. This seemed like eons before Napster came along, because in those days time was plentiful. I began to collect .mp3s, to transfer my ever-more-vast CD collection into exciting digital files. It felt so naughty to do so; there were constant reminders that even though I was actually just backing up my library with degraded sound files, what I was doing was legally grey, instead of common practice as it is now. 

I wound up filling disk after disk with files. I started burning data CD-Rs with my collections, and I quickly became grumpy that I would never likely be able to afford a drive large enough to keep the whole collection in one place, accessible all the time. 

I bought the Mac because I wanted to stop worrying about the many complications Windows presented. It’s a boring challenge for me explain, but know that I really resent the epistemology of Windows. I’ve always found it non-intuitive and unpleasant and slow. The magnitude of music on my drive didn’t help the speed of my stuttering Dell laptop. 

So I began to transfer my meticulously-organized library by the flashdriveload from my laptop to this sleek new Mac, and with each load I’d dump the contents and imagine that my battle-weary computer might feel a little relief and get the kick back in her step. 

It was about halfway through the transfer that I made a horrible discovery: I had been allowing my Mac to operate in its default mode, which meant that every time I dragged the “Music” folder from the flash drive to the hard drive, it overwrote the directory rather than merging the folders and files with the prior contents. I was minding my P’s and Q’s when I discovered that ABCDEFGHIJKLMN and O no longer existed. 

What had I done? What had I lost? 

I researched solutions, and things took a turn for the insidious - it turns out that the data wasn’t even really erased when the directories were overwritten. The data was all still filling up space on the drive; what was gone was all the identifying structure. The songs were there, but their titles and artists were now forgotten.

There was software available claiming to be able to solve this problem, but I was in no position to pay that kind of price, especially since I doubted the veracity of this software’s claims. I worked in an arts non-profit. I didn’t have that kind of money to throw around. 

Plus, most of my library was still archived in gleaming stacks of CD-Rs, and although I had purged two-thirds of my library nearly a decade prior I still had a full wall of audio CDs on display. And so I started the long journey of rebuilding my library, disc by disc; making meticulous backups and filling backup drives: a 500GB drive that looked like a whiskey flask; then a 1TB drive that looked like a pack of cigarettes; and then ultimately a 4TB drive that looks like an inflatable boat. 

It was in early 2016 that I finally finished reorganizing my library, when it began to feel like it was complete and accessible. I realized there were hundreds of hours of music by artists whose names I couldn’t recognize, tracks and albums I’d acquired in my travels, from shows I’d forgotten I’d attended and the shared libraries of friends to SXSW samplers and Soulseek adventure sprees. Surely, even though I had created a whole separate directory for archiving Triggering Media (e.g., Ted Nugent’s shockingly stupid song “Change My Sex”), there were things in this Wild Unknown folder I wouldn’t want to pop up on iTunes at my New Year’s party. 

So into the Wild Unknown I dove, loading up my iPhone with the unrecognized and for most of that year I found myself listening almost exclusively to an exasperatingly random selection, with the intent of deleting what I never needed to hear again. I’d be doing the dishes, listening to a Chopin nocturne decompose into some long-abandoned teenage bedroom band covering a post-Violator Depeche Mode song. And then there would be a 60-second fit of guttural screaming from a man who couldn’t possibly be that angry about anything. The delightful discoveries, ultimately, did not outrank the jagged feeling this listening experience provided. After almost a year of listening only to this unfamiliar music, I really yearned to get back to the music I had already selected for myself and put into meticulous order, that I had taken so many years to collect, and then recollect again. 

And so I merged the Wild Unknown with my Known library, called it complete, and as I did so was presented with a summary figure I had never considered: it was likely that I would never live so long as to listen to each song on this drive just once more.

I remain ambitious about my longevity. I do not feel especially old, but still. My body, like my music library, is a finite quantity. I think about every minute I have left as more and more precious; eventually my time will come. Eventually I will be overwritten. Eventually my name will be detached and forgotten. I’m unsurprised; most of my favorite people in history wade around in obscurity and I am content to wade among them although my heart still crumples when I consider how many people to whom I feel a debt of gratitude have died in abjection, impoverishment, and loneliness. I do my best to remember their names, and to occasionally check that the links are still live, hoping beyond hope that the software still works.

 

Baltimore, MD

Rahne Alexander is an artist & musician from Baltimore. She is a professional tarot reader and the front woman of the rock band Santa Librada. More detail at rahne.com

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