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Hannah Waters

Jerry's Classical Mixtape (2023)

One weekend this summer I was in New Jersey visiting my parents. The place is full of end tables and various storage cabinets that I have rummaged through since I was a young child, and I like to repeat this ritual. These crevices have a certain smell (nostalgia!) and contain stacks of photos and old letters, various scraps of paper that were deposited there once and remain there. As a child it felt illicit to paw through my parents' aged belongings; I tried to leave no trace. Now it's more of an archival impulse. We all have collectively refused to move anything. It's comforting to open the same small door I did 20 years ago and inside open a cardboard box and inside that find the same mysterious coin collection that has always been there. Everything in our family has changed except that.

Some of the furniture in my parents' house is new to me: objects inherited from my grandfather Jerry, who died in September 2003 not long before I moved out. So, once in a while, I'll find something that surprises me. This summer I pulled down the lid of a secretary desk I had never examined. This is a particularly holy object; it still contains all the items my mother hid in there when she cleaned out his apartment. We opened it together. Inside were photos from my mother's childhood, pictures of her mother (who left us before I turned 4), letters and papers -- and a stack of index cards wrapped in a rubber band.

Each card was scratched with what looked like my mother's handwriting; at the top was the name of a classical composer. My mother recognized them immediately: They are the listings from grandpa's bootleg tapedecks. He had dozens of casettes, each a personal creation. Every week, she explained, he would pore over the listings from WQXR, New York's classical radio station, to see what pieces would air. Then he would live tape the compositions to listen back later. After his death she didn't want to keep all the tapes; they would take up too much space and, by 2003, we had moved on to CDs. But she smartly removed the track-list index card from each casette box. And there they sat for 20 years, until I came upon them. I asked if I could take them home to Brooklyn so I could make them available for the family -- and for you.

My grandfather Jerry left us too soon. I have memory of him: his voice, the kinds of shirts he liked to wear, his smell, his laugh. A survivor of the Great Depression and descendent of New York Jews with the Holocaust in recent memory, he had a sadness and seriousness to him. He was an intellect and a unionist: He met my grandmother Emily at union camp and they went on strike with the United Federation of Teachers. His vocabulary was full of Yiddish, which he passed on to my mother and they together taught to us grandkids. He had an honest, no-nonsense perspective, perhaps best captured by his common retort when presented with food that looked unappetizing: "It's all going to the same place." He loved us kids and his daughters.

And he lived and breathed classical music. He played viola and flute. His grand piano took up significant real estate in his New York City apartment. I can still hear him humming and crooning his favorite pieces. And so digitizing his classical mixtapes has been a joyful exercise for me, a way of getting to know him and inherit an interest that brought him joy and comfort.

Each tape contains the work of a single artist (with a few exceptions). He was patient, attempting to organize each tape roughly by composition type or instrument in addition to composer. I learned from him that with classical music, hearing different musicians play the some compositions was part of the fun -- to internalize a recording so well as to recognize the subtle artistic choices made by a different player -- or even the same player at different times. (One tape contains two full recordings of the Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould -- one an early recording from the 1950s and the second from 1982.)

When I started this project, I imagined some kind of intentionality -- and there is, to a degree. He had to commit himself to taping live radio to capture the music he wanted to relisten to later, and he only recorded a small fraction of what was available. At the same time, he was at the radio's mercy. There is a level of analog chaos to the tapes that is hard to imagine today, in that he couldn't control which order the pieces appeared and couldn't collect a full set of pieces (for instance, all of Bach's violin concertos). One mysterious card has the numbers 1 through 32 listed, with nearly (but not all) checked off and a few stragglers circled -- presumably he was trying to collect all of a numbered set of a composer's major recordings. Today, that would be absurd; we have dozens of versions of each composition available on demand. Sometimes, as I tried to reconstruct his recordings, I found myself wishing he could have simply made us a Spotify playlist of all his favorite pieces in the order he would have wanted them. But in the end I find it all rather romantic. Whatever he did put to tape he surely listened to repeatedly; it formed the soundtrack to his life. Completion isn't the point, rather it's listening to what he listened to.

A note on method: I did not preserve each mixtape separately, but instead merged all the recordings for a single composer into a single playlist. However I did preserve the order of each mixtape within (though they aren't marked as such). If Jerry noted a musician, I attempted to locate the specific recording; if it was unavailable on Spotify, I substituted a different player of the same piece. Sometimes I had to guess; I did my best. I know not everyone has Spotify; I would love to find a way to recreate them on other platforms with some sort of automation. Please contact me if you know how to do this.

This year marks his 20th Yarzheit. It's hard to imagine he's been gone so long. I can still hear him and feel him. And listening to his mixtapes makes me feel closer to him. I hope you enjoy them and learn from them, too.