ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

November 1, 2005

Werewolf? There Wolf!

I’m only human. I do foolish things. For example, I once tried typing "getting closer to the music" into an equipment report. The room grew eerily silent and dim. My fingertips got gluey and stuck to the keys. A tiny personage in what looked like a toga -- purple, I think it was -- appeared on my left shoulder.

"You’re not really thinking of using that expression."

"Well, yeah. Sure. I mean, a lot of folks in my dodge use it. ‘Getting closer to the music’ -- it’s the highest kind of praise."

It wasn’t a pretty encounter. The tiny personage in the purple toga threatened to play my left eardrum with a claw hammer. That’s my good ear. Let’s approach this from another angle.

In several huffy instances, I’ve lectured that we audiophiles don’t get closer to the music. If we get closer to anything, it’s to the recording. Music there, recording here. You say the recording sounds right? -- I mean, of course, convincing? I couldn’t be more pleased.

The enthusiast develops a perspective -- a sense of what good sound ought to be -- peculiar to his or her musical tastes. I listen mostly to classical, all periods, with a particular interest in the avant-garde. Classical’s a genre with a history centuries long. The very idea that listeners are more likely to encounter their music on recordings than in a concert or recital hall, opera house, cathedral, outdoor fête, or drawing-room soirée would strike composers and performers who died no later than the early 20th century as peculiar. Putting the cart before the horse, as it were. Indeed, but there the cart stands: recordings in their plenitude. Then there’s the Internet. Facts of present-day life.

Classical music occupies more than one minority position. Five percent of US record sales? Not even close. In any event, in the live setting, one customarily listens to classical music absent electronic assist, unless of course it’s a contemporary or modernist work that specifies electronics in part or in whole. The ondes martenot, among the earliest of electro-acoustic instruments, made its appearance in 1928. No fuddy-duddy he, André Jolivet promptly wrote a concerto for the instrument. The climax of Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, derived from his opera Historia von D. Johann Fausten, features the devil as a sultry cabaret performer singing, lustily amplified, into a hand-held microphone: one of music’s scarier moments. But these are exceptions. Britten’s War Requiem, Mahler’s Second Symphony, or Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder -- all big-boned works for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, no mikes in sight unless the music’s being taped. It’s not amplified. God forbid.

Elsewhere in music, amplification in the live setting is all but universal, and a vocalist’s hand- or stand-held mike is already your grandfather’s Oldsmobile. As they cavort about the stage, younger performers sing into telemarketer-style headsets if they sing at all: the perfidious lip sync. Even in a small club, a saxophonist will likely -- and a bassist always -- have a miniature pickup clipped to the bell of his instrument, with sound-reinforcement about on a par with your old junior high’s PA system. This puts one in the curious position of preferring well-recorded jazz as the more lifelike. I recognize that what I just wrote is difficult to assimilate without blowing coffee through your nose or heading for the aspirin.

The domestic audio systems we’ve striven to achieve -- and those about which we fantasize -- address idealization. If I’m listening to a recording of a string quartet or string orchestra with my sound-geek hat on, I measure what I’m hearing against an idealized verisimilitude. Do I sense the performance’s place and space? Can I "see" the players? Am I hearing the music in all its lovely, gutty, resinous detail? Do the instruments sound as they would in life? ("As they would in life." Interesting phrase. It deflects us from the performance, but not the production.

Getting back to idealized: A first-rate domestic audio system playing a first-rate recording of a string quartet or string orchestra probably does better at conveying space and inner detail than the same performance live. Yes, I know -- I’ve uttered a heresy. At most seats in a given hall, reflected sound smears the sounds coming from the stage. If you doubt this, the next time you’re at a concert of unamplified classical music, close your eyes. Your sense of the players’ positions in space will somewhat diminish, particularly your sense of depth.

Even so, working within necessarily slippery parameters, the art-music buff/audiophile maintains a framework against which he or she evaluates a system’s or a recording’s qualities. Removing "audiophile" from the above leaves you with the individual who, frankly, my dear, doesn’t give a damn -- the true-blue, shrink-resistant music lover who’ll even listen to mono. Imagine.

To return to the sticking point: proximity to the music as the measure of audio quality. When I invite interested guests to hear my sound system, I ask them to bring well-recorded examples of the kind of music they most enjoy. (Classical’s my thing, not necessarily theirs.) I’ve more than once been astonished at what they consider to be "well-recorded": a female pop vocalist, for recent example, whose sibilance could fry an egg and whose likewise supercharged backup occupied a different space altogether. Absolute crap. Nor was my guest an audio tyro. More off-putting yet was a demo (by invitation only) at a super-snooty sound salon. New speaker system, vocals again, absurdly spitty highs. And the demo discs had been carefully selected. The most egregious example was a symphonic recording recommended as "superb" by one of Audiophilia’s charter pooh-bahs: shrill enough to chip a tooth. Makes you wonder.

If I’m attending a recital by a promising young baritone performing German lieder or French chanson, I’m listening to a buck-nekkid voice -- its sibilance, timbre, and chestiness are integral to the gent standing in front of the piano. It is what it is. If I’m at a supper club listening to a vocalist sitting at a piano, upon which perches a microphone, I’m listening to a voice via amplification and all that that entails. If I’m at a rock concert . . . and so, tra la, it goes.

Which music you’d like to be closer to depends on which music you’d like to be closer to. Any questions?

...Mike Silverton

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