ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

July 1, 2003

It Wants More than Ears

In his New York Times article of April 6, 2003, "Listening to Walls and Ceilings Instead of Music," music critic Bernard Holland suggests that colleagues should be attending to the music, not the peculiarities of the hall in which it’s being played. He writes, "The concert experience is, or ought to be, a transaction between two imaginations: one that emanates from the stage, the other going to meet it from the seats." Nicely put.

Holland drops crumbs along the way through his article, and they set me thinking -- and remembering. He reminds us that imagination is a powerful tool. It is a faculty that permits us to invite a symphony orchestra into our homes via a "small box with wires" -- small as in modest and lo-fi. I am a yarn-died, case-hardened, mildew-resistant audiophile. I cherish good sound. And yet, some of my profoundest moments as a music lover have occurred where no self-respecting audiophile would be caught dead. Although now and again he touches on recordings, Holland’s gig is live events. If you’re a classical-music buff, you’ve doubtless attended performances in acoustical horror houses. Me too. That’s life. As audiophiles, our domestic context is the recording -- imagination’s richest turf. Had I a proverbial dollar for every time I’ve read that a reviewer felt he could reach out and touch the phantom performers, I’d probably be able to pay for the piece he extols. A question resides at the scale’s other end: How bad must things get before imagination and its attending pleasures depart?

As a little kid with a lingering fever, I whiled away the hours with the help of a bedside radio and discovered, thanks to a few good New York City stations, classical music. I was maybe seven or eight and hell-bent on being special -- few contemporaries in blue-collar Flatbush listened to classical music. At Davega Radio on Flatbush Avenue, my parents bought me a Philco 1201 radio-phonograph and some years later the Brooklyn Museum staged a show featuring post-war design. There sat my Philco under glass. Things like this make a guy feel old.

I might well have entitled this little essay "On the Greased Slide to Where I Am Now." The journey began, on my father’s recommendation, with a 78, the "Anvil Chorus," so-called, from the second act of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. With respect to those hammered anvils, think of a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 in which snapped pretzels do for the artillery. Not much there to swell the savage breast, even so tentative a specimen as mine. This was at a time when I thought orchestral music might be more exciting if drums outnumbered violins and I couldn’t understand why the idea hadn’t occurred to any of the dead personages whose music I was soaking up. I’d not yet come across the "Dies Irae" from Berlioz’s Requiem. Ever on uniqueness’ trail, I chose for the favorite-music entry in my elementary school’s graduation autograph album Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, the concert cantata drawn from the Soviet composer’s score to Sergei Eisenstein’s film. This was an English-language version on a Columbia LP, if memory serves, with Jennie Tourel’s evocative solo following up the best-known bit, the gratifyingly ferocious "Battle on the Ice." "I’ll not be wed to a handsome man…." For Jennie, only heroes need apply, however ugly and dopey enough to have been hacking at Teutonic knights on Lake Chud’s unreliable ice. The nasty knights drowned to much jubilation. Russian losses went unreported.

To say it again, I love good sound. However, I do wonder whether the linkage between what, at bottom, has to be termed a hobbyist’s enthusiasms and one’s love of music is as absolute as we like to think. I know several audiophiles whom I’d describe as deeply committed music lovers. I know rather more than several who are anything but. There’s the rather-astonishing story producer John Culshaw tells in Ring Resounding, the book about his groundbreaking stereo production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. A critic complained -- I believe it was about the last of them, "Götterdämmerung" -- that the recording lacked bass. Culshaw and his recording engineer were thunderstruck. They took the gentleman to one of the better sound salons in London where they sampled the production to everyone’s satisfaction, the critic’s included. The mystery was soon solved. The music maven had his phonograph’s bass control set to minimum.

At the time, hi-fi as a hobby was well underway. However, audiophilia was not yet a clearly developed subset. Even so, had someone asked Culshaw’s technically challenged critic what he thought of sound hobbyists, a sneer would surely have framed his answer. The situation’s not much changed. Audiophiles do not cut an impressive figure among music lovers, unless of course the music lovers are fellow audiophiles.

But I drift from my purpose. How do music lovers indifferent to high-end sound systems manage? The question is meaningless. They simply do. My father-in-law signed over his Buick to my wife and me a few weeks before he died. It’s a great car with all the sex appeal of a spinster librarian. The new Buick and the old Volvo that preceded it have standard-equipment FM radios, and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly, despite, as an audiophile and reviewer, my heightened awareness of what a good sound system can bring to the listening experience. No doubt that Lexus with the Mark Levinson sound system is hot stuff. I blush to admit I’ve never been in a car with high-end sound and the prospect doesn’t interest me. I’ve wondered about that and have come up with what may do for an answer. The noise floor in a car is high. High-end sound systems excel at resolution. A noisy milieu and resolution don’t mix well. More significantly, in a moving car, our eyes take in the passing scene. Thus energized, I’ve found myself having a terrific time with music I’d not bother listening to on my home system. Visual stimulation enriches the experience. I’ve noticed it too often to question the statement’s validity. Perhaps that’s why movie music seems so much more rewarding when accompanying its film.

Further, when one knows, performance-wise, that something is barely adequate -- in this case, the car’s FM radio -- one’s expectations are not only low, they don’t even operate. Imagination fills the void. I count myself lucky if the signal is hash-free. I’m a little kid again with my bedside radio. At home with one’s high-end sound system, it’s a different story. To this I listen critically.

Setting: my chiropractor’s office.

"Cindy, can you do anything for a pain in the ass?"

"Odd request, Mike. How did the problem develop?"

"I listen critically."

It wants more than ears. Audiophiles are suspicious of listening tests that call into question differences we detect among, for notorious example, non-distorting amplifiers performing within their design parameters, and so on. Enlist me with the subjectivists, and make of the following what you will. A test performed many years ago had its subjects listening to identical speaker systems, the only difference being the color of their enclosures. Without of course being told that the speakers were identical, the subjects were asked to characterize the sonic differences they perceived. Have you guessed?

The speakers in brightly colored enclosures sounded bright; the dark ones, dark.

Gives one something to ponder, that does.

...Mike Silverton

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