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 its 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, Hollands gig is live events. If youre a classical-music buff, youve doubtless attended performances in acoustical horror houses. Me too. Thats life. As audiophiles, our domestic context is the recording -- imaginations richest turf. Had I a proverbial dollar for every time Ive read that a reviewer felt he could reach out and touch the phantom performers, Id probably be able to pay for the piece he extols. A question resides at the scales 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 fathers recommendation, with a 78, the "Anvil Chorus," so-called, from the second act of Verdis Il Trovatore. With respect to those hammered anvils, think of a recording of Tchaikovskys 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 couldnt understand why the idea hadnt occurred to any of the dead personages whose music I was soaking up. Id not yet come across the "Dies Irae" from Berliozs Requiem. Ever on uniqueness trail, I chose for the favorite-music entry in my elementary schools graduation autograph album Prokofievs Alexander Nevsky, the concert cantata drawn from the Soviet composers score to Sergei Eisensteins film. This was an English-language version on a Columbia LP, if memory serves, with Jennie Tourels evocative solo following up the best-known bit, the gratifyingly ferocious "Battle on the Ice." "Ill 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 Chuds 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 hobbyists enthusiasms and ones love of music is as absolute as we like to think. I know several audiophiles whom Id describe as deeply committed music lovers. I know rather more than several who are anything but. Theres the rather-astonishing story producer John Culshaw tells in Ring Resounding, the book about his groundbreaking stereo production of Wagners 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 everyones satisfaction, the critics included. The mystery was soon solved. The music maven had his phonographs 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 Culshaws technically challenged critic what he thought of sound hobbyists, a sneer would surely have framed his answer. The situations 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. Its 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 Ive 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 Ive never been in a car with high-end sound and the prospect doesnt interest me. Ive 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 dont mix well. More significantly, in a moving car, our eyes take in the passing scene. Thus energized, Ive found myself having a terrific time with music Id not bother listening to on my home system. Visual stimulation enriches the experience. Ive noticed it too often to question the statements validity. Perhaps thats 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 cars FM radio -- ones expectations are not only low, they dont even operate. Imagination fills the void. I count myself lucky if the signal is hash-free. Im a little kid again with my bedside radio. At home with ones high-end sound system, its a different story. To this I listen critically.
Setting: my chiropractors 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.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.