Review By Rick Becker
As I sit down to write this review of Paul McGowan's video expose on the history of power and the importance of clean power to the enjoyment of audio and video reproduction, the world is reeling from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changereport on the validity and significance of global warming. Another Tsunami has struck, this time in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The king of pop culture in Europe is Knut, a recently rescued polar bear cub at a German zoo. And terrorism continues in the Middle East, as usual. In comparison, Coal to Coltrane is an engaging breath of fresh air that puts the importance of electricity in perspective at this critical juncture in the history of civilization.
As the evolution of culture accelerates, we tend to loose track of history and live life in the present, anxiously anticipating the future, assuming (or praying) that the future will bring improvements and our lot in life will also improve. History can provide our ship with a rudder, if you will, helping to steer our course into the future, and expand our options for survival of the species. The future is a given; the existence of mankind is not.
The bias of history in formal education is usually to focus on governments, religions and wars. Art history and music history have a long, but minor tradition in Western education. The history of science, invention and medicine, not to mention culture in general, are far from the mainstream of educational channels. At least they were when I was in college back in the 1960s. Perhaps the teaching of history is different now, but the generation of Baby Boomers has grown up on a diet of war and political conflict. The Boomers are also largely the generation in power at the present time, and their historical perspective rests on their outmoded education and the times through which they have lived. If you need proof of this, examine the vehicles they drive. Only an enlightened few have continued to expand their global view, as a comparison of the ratings of prime time commercial TV and Public television will reveal.
Coal to Coltrane fills in the pothole otherwise seen as my lack of knowledge of the history of electricity. It starts with some eye and ear-popping displays to engage us, then trips up the un-initiated viewer with some insider language like "PS" and "High-End." The show bounces back and forth between the history and scientific explanations of electricity on one hand, and the importance of electricity and the value of high quality musical and video entertainment on the other. The gestalt of the relationship between the two was easy for me as an audiophile, but may prove problematic for others. A simple demonstration of the effects of running a hot-air popper or a hair dryer on a video image might have gone a long way to bridge the gap for those new to high quality audio and video systems.
McGowan does a remarkable job in avoiding references to his own company. Only with the comments of a professional recordist did I feel what seemed like too strong a plug for PS Audio products. High End audio insiders will be quick to pick up on his power cords and electrical outlets used in demonstrations. Would you really expect him to go to Home Depot for generic substitutions? It is not a problem. The dialogue he creates within the viewer's mind and the quick pace of editing are too engaging to quibble over such trivialities. Likewise, as he stands in a canyon of light on a sidewalk in Las Vegas, I could almost hear the legions of the power companies and IBEW electricians on one side, and members of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club on the other…just off camera. McGowan acknowledges the frailty of our civilization with its dependence on electricity, but avoids being sucked into the fray.
In bringing us the history of electricity, he starts way back with names and drawings that I recall from chemistry class, but never viewed in relation to, say… religion. Part of the beauty of his presentation of history is the connection he draws with concurrent social and economic forces. Edison and the electric chair. The competition of DC and AC electricity in the Colorado gold rush. The building of the Hoover Dam during the Great Depression. He throws the information at us so quickly it sometimes feels more like sound bytes than a logical progression of a timeline, but perhaps this is how most young people learn best today. It was anything but boring, and the residual memory a week or a month down the line would probably reveal a similar outcome no matter which educational approach he took.
Cutting to prominent audio journalists for comments on the importance of clean power is a huge non-sequitur for non-audiophiles, but for insiders, it is both informative and hugely entertaining. For the casual music listener, the editing structure of the program may plant a seed that ultimately leads them to the discovery of higher quality entertainment playback options. Not until nearly the end of the program does McGowan come forward and state this hope outright.
Paul McGowan's skill as an on-camera presenter and narrator border on the professional and his ability to explain electricity and its generation was as good as any teacher I had in high school or college. Unfortunately he stroked the rabbit fur with the glass rod, and twisted the magnet and coil a few times too often, probably to cover the dialogue. He more than makes up for this with his excellent explanation of the moving coil and moving magnet phono cartridges.
What really fascinated me was his bringing to my attention that coal and oil came from the power of the sun. He stopped short suggesting that the sun may well be the key to our future supply of electricity, maintaining his relatively neutral view on the subject. Atomic energy is barely mentioned, but the video is called, after all, Coal to Coltrane, not Coal to Marsalis. He suggests, but does not delve into cutting edge technology and the need for both technological and social change.
I watched the video the first time with my wife and both of us were totally drawn to the subject matter and fully entertained. It felt like we were watching a good program on Public Television. As a filmmaker and videographer myself, I spotted a couple of technical things that could have been done better, but they were largely irrelevant to the transfer of knowledge, the entertainment value, and the stimulation of additional thinking. That this is Paul McGowan's first venture into formal filmmaking is pretty amazing. It seems his target audience was largely audiophiles and copies of the program are offered free through the PS Audio website. I think he is being shortsighted. I urge him to stick a copy in his brief case, saddle up and ride into Rocky Mountain PBS. Then, hold them hostage until they broadcast it. Coal to Coltrane is so good he could probably pull it off with a squirt gun. No kidding! Two thumbs up — whether you're an audio geek or not!
Viewers interested in the high end audio industry and manufacturing in general will be very interested in the Tour and History bonus tract on the CD. It lets Paul and others unabashedly talk about the importance and contribution of PS Audio products to the recording and playback side of the music industry. This company has generated very significant buzz in recent years, and their products have been very well received by consumers and the critical audio press alike. In this little hotbed of creativity, it would not surprise me if something truly huge emerged for the benefit of mankind. Consequential inventions, history tells us, are often the byproduct of toys.
For audiophiles who like to gobble up news from the audio press, a second bonus track including interviews with some very highly regarded writers is very entertaining and somewhat informative. It's not only nice to put a face with the name, but to experience the personality of these writers. Thank you, gentlemen.