One of my favorite Aldous Huxley essays is “Music at Night,” from his occasionally deranged but mostly illuminating 1931 collection of the same name. Only recently, however, did a parenthetical phrase leap from its moorings to command special interest. Huxley is writing of a starry, fragrant, moonless evening-a good night for music. And, thanks to relatively new technology, music is at hand: “in a box, shut up, like one of those bottled djinns in the Arabian Nights.” Huxley works “the necessary mechanical magic,” and “by some miraculously appropriate coincidence (for I had selected the record in the dark, without knowing what music the machine would play),” a movement from Missa Solemnis soon floods the sky.
I had never given much thought to his casually noted method of selecting music, “in the dark,” presuming it a habit formed in consequence of Huxley’s wretched eyesight. Yet it now occurs to me that this may be the first documented account of “shuffle play.” Admittedly, only one side of a 78 has been shuffled. Still, the idea applies. Like the shuffle djinn in iPods and CD trays, Huxley has robotically reached into the available discs in his collection and retrieved, without intent or prejudice, Beethoven. Had chance favored, say, a Liszt rhapsody, he might not have been moved to wonder at the “blessedness” of “accidents or providences,” gone to sleep early and never written his essay.