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Reviewer's Bio

Jules L. Coleman

 

Jules L. Coleman  My father's family came from the Ukraine. Our Russian name was Kahane. Coming to America, my grandparents and their relatives passed through Ellis Island at different times, the net effect being that none of them were given the same last name. Some Kahanes were to become Cohens, others Kohn; some became Kahan, still others King. My grandparents became Cohens. My father and his brother were born Herbert and William Cohen, respectively. I was born Jules Leslie Cohen. Jules! What kind of name was that? For years, I imagined that my parents envisioned me as some sort of Jewish-French actor/intellectual. Why else would they have subjected me to such ridicule in the schoolyards, ballfields and streets of my youth's tough Brooklyn neighborhoods? It wasn't until much later that I entertained the thought that they might just have been sadistic.

Twenty years later, I had a largely but not completely unhappy affair with an older woman of the world who promptly informed me that ‘monjules’ was Parisian slang for ‘my lover’; and that ‘Je vais chez monjules’ was used to express -- typically -- a married woman's intention to see her gigolo. What a sensational revelation! When my wife and I met, she told me that I looked like a French revolutionary/intellectual. What, not an actor? Zutalors. Close enough though. I married her, realizing it unlikely to find another woman of such insight. I began to think of myself as French. (This was trendy at the time, and in any case preceded by many years of U.S. forays into Iraq. And so, my assumed identity posed no threat to either my health or security.) My favorite films were And God Created Women and Jules and Jim. It was only a matter of time before I would be forced to go Woody Allen and sort out these issues in therapy.

In time, I was to learn that my parents' intentions in naming me "Jules" were neither mysterious, grandiose or sadistic. Apparently, my conception was precipitated by an evening my parents spent at a local movie theater, watching what was then euphemistically referred to as "French films".

I don't know whether in naming me, they were expressing gratitude towards the male lead or suggesting a career option. I am quite sure that they did not see me as a budding intellectual, French or otherwise. They certainly never envisioned me as a revolutionary. We were working-class poor. Very likely, they saw me as either the family accountant or a Rabbi. In either case, someone powerful - close to both God and money, if not necessarily in that order. My father was a terrific athlete and an avid reader; his brother was a rogue and a gambler. My father quit high school to pay off his brother's debts. His debts paid off, my uncle managed to accumulate more. My father tried his hand as a baseball player. His career came to a close with the Second World War and marriage.

My father became chronically ill with a slow-growing cancer; my uncle became a successful businessman. My father went to work for his brother in an organization that had strict anti-nepotism rules. To skirt those rules, both my father and his brother changed their last names without telling one another. This level of communication typified their relationship. My father became Herb Coleman; his brother William Cole. It was as close to family as they would ever be.

We were not a particularly musical family. More of a comedic crowd. My father's uncle was Henny Youngman, the comedian best known for his one-liners, including the classic, "Take my wife, PLEASE." We did listen to records on Sunday mornings: some Belle Barthe, a little NicoloPaone, 'Tony the Ice-Man' and Show Music. Lots of Show Music. Carousel and Oklahoma were our idea of Classical music. We were not a particularly cultured household. Needless to say, we did have a special place on our turntable for Jewish composers (and comedians). We listened to Leonard Bernstein - often. Eventually, our playlist expanded to include Robert Zimmerman and Marc Bolan: both Simon and Garfunkel - the Jewish Everly Brothers. During the Civil Rights movement, I tried to convince my parents that B.B, Freddie and Albert King were Jews and related to us; that they too were Russian Kahanes. They weren't buying it. Thank God for jews, Michael Bloomfield and Peter Green - otherwise I might never have been introduced to the Blues.

The Blues is perfect for Jews: all the misery and misfortune wrapped in a repeating twelve (sometimes eight, sixteen and very rarely twenty four) bar structure. Like life. Well, I never became an accountant or a Rabbi. Soon after my Bar Mitzvah, I converted to atheism. This atheism was a natural outgrowth of my naturalistic and scientistic impulses to comprehend and master the world through Will & Reason alone. Will and Reason were less helpful in enabling me to grasp the power, majesty and mystery of a quasi- religious upbringing. Inevitably and, in retrospect inexorably, I was drawn to philosophy: Analytic philosophy. I had little time or patience, then or now, for Eastern philosophies. I have even less patience now for Postmodernist 'thought'.

At Brooklyn College, I studied philosophy and economics. I secured a Ph.D in Philosophy from Rockefeller University (a school otherwise dominated by the Sciences), wrote a dissertation on justice, fault and personal responsibility, and studied law at Yale. I could leave the 'Temple' but not its organizing ideas: Rules, reasons and authority. Can't live under them; can't live without them. During my radical days, I professed to be an anarchist as well as atheist. I used to dress in leather and wear a button that prescribed that one "Question Authority". That was before I had children. Once I had children, I wore suits with a button on the lapel proclaiming "Because I said so!" I soon realized that most of my writings were unconscious efforts to explain and defend authority.

In real life, I am Senior Vice Provost for Academic Planning at New York University, where I am also a Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Clive Davis Program in Recorded Music in the Tisch School of the Arts. As part of my responsibilities, I also teach one course every year at NYU-Abu Dhabi. I have been fortunate to have had many excellent experiences in the academy, but this is a position that has surpassed even my wildest dreams.

I write books and articles that very few people outside the academy read. Not that many inside the academy read them either. The titles say a lot about what interests me as a legal and political theorist: "Risks and Wrongs"; "The Practice of Principle"; and my personal favorite, "Mischief and Misfortune".

One of my younger brothers, Reed, is a writer as well. He writes detective novels. In a way, we are both obsessed with life's fundamental mysteries. The difference? His protagonists normally solve the mysteries they confront, whereas I content myself with clarifying what the source of the mystery is and pointing in the direction in which a solution might lie. Of course, I am too close to my brother to have any judgment about just how good a writer he is, so I asked one of my best friends, the poet John Koethe. I said, "John, tell me, how good is my brother as a writer?" He replied, "Jules, I don't know, but he has one hell of a way with sex scenes." No one ever said anything like that about my books. No wonder he sells more than I do. He is also a two time nominee for the Edgar Prize and a three time winner of the Seamus Prize, among other awards. He must be doing something well.

I have a wonderful family; a wife of 42 years refers to me as the 'incumbent' and not just during the political season. We have a home in Connecticut and an apartment in NY. Our three children live in NYC. The eldest, Jesse, is co-owner of an online book editing company, after spending his formative years toiling at Farrar Strauss and Giroux where he edited several award winning books. His younger siblings, Jeremy and Laura, have pursued careers in the arts and together made up ˝ of the now defunct indie pop band, Murder Mystery, that had an internet hit with the song, ‘Love Astronaut.’ Videos of some of their performances and songs can be found on YouTube. My son, Jeremy is singer, songwriter, lead guitarist and occasional keyboardist. He also drums when my daughter, Laura, the regular drummer, steps up to the mic to front the band. Laura is also the principal dancer in a NYC tap troupe.

Real musical talent skipped my generation. As a kid, I sang a little street corner doo-wop and toyed with the guitar. I loved the more obscure doo-wop songs and groups: Sonny and the Sunglows' "Talk to me"; the Impalas' "I ran all the way home (just to say I'm sorry)". I had been taught that there was a correlation between musical talent and mathematical competence. We were poor. I couldn't afford a proper guitar, so I joined the high school math team. Couldn't actually sing then. Still can't.  For a time I was an avid if not an accomplished guitarist.  I gave up playing after suffering irreparable psychological trauma upon listening to my playing.

My childhood friend is Matt Umanov of Matt Umanov Guitars. He and Zeke help me pick guitars. Actually Zeke does; Matt mostly complains about having to sell to me at a discount. For a guy who plays like shit, I have a very fine collection of electric guitars including a rare 59 Fender Esquire and a 72 Thinline.

I got into high end audio almost 30 years ago when we lived in Wisconsin. At Koss, I had a friend in R&D. We got our hands on some fancy stuff on a regular basis. I loved it. It's been that way ever since. My first serious rig consisted of Magneplanar Tympani speakers, Dynakit amp and preamp, and a Connoisseur Turntable with a Formula 4 arm tracking a Decca Plum cartridge. Not so much high resolution as a big wet kiss. I amassed a large record collection that followed me from job to job. Every move precipitated a change in system. When we left Wisconsin for Berkeley/California, we went from a large house to a shoe box. Out went the Tympanis; in came Rogers LS3/5A and JR149s. So it went. In time, my colleagues at various Universities began seeking my advice about purchasing equipment.

I devoured information, loved listening, tried my hand at building equipment, and generally obsessed. I still obsess a good bit, but now I take clonopin. Most of my friends outside academia are either athletes or musicians, sometimes both. Audiophilia overcame me completely when moved to Connecticut. We bought a house and added a large family room and master bedroom above it. Completely without planning, we built and furnished a room that, save for a few oddities, turned out to be perfect for listening to audio equipment. Almost everything brought in to try in that room sounded as good as it could. We got much better sound in the Coleman family room than we've heard in any room at the local high end emporium. We also had more fun than they did.

Needless to say, this spawned massive purchases, long listening sessions with friends and a major obsession

Kidding aside, over the years I've developed a pretty good ear; I listen to lots of live music. I have a large record and CD collection. Writing comes naturally to me. I'm an open kind of guy and enjoy conveying my passion for the things I love and the joy I take in them; family, friends, work – I love teaching and writing and mentoring junior faculty and graduate students. I take pride in what I have accomplished as an academic, though mostly I am just proud not to be an asshole. I listen to music at least three to four hours a day. I listen while I write, and I listen  while I watch sporting events on TV with the mute engaged. I am listening now. I love all kinds of music, but I confess to being more knowledgeable about rock, pop, blues and jazz than about classical and world music.

I am a believer in both authority and modesty -- the two are connected -- and so I am happy to rely on others to help me develop my tastes, especially in have attacked audio playback a bit like a student. I spent six years listening only to horns and low-powered tube amps. I know both pretty well by now, a lot better than many who write about these combos in the audio press - but not nearly as well as some contributors to various audio forums. I spent two years listening to cables and power cords. That was enough for me. I have a feel for cables and power cords, but I don't think of myself as an expert. I am now interested in system synergy and whether it really only makes sense to review systems holistically. Like my work i n philosophy, I am interested in the kind of objectivity that is presupposed in various domains of discourse.

I am concerned about making clear different senses in which subjective reviewing can and must be objective. I want to explore the sense in which evaluative judgments in audio reviews are objective and what notions – like progress in the audio reproduction domain -- can mean. My current interest is trying to figure out the norms that are appropriate to reviewing audio systems. In particular, I am interested in the relative importance of the psychological or mental states that listening to recorded music has or should have in assessing a system.

I also reject the vast majority of the truisms of audio reviewing as empty or false or worse, incomprehensible. Thus, I reject the idea that the best audio system is the one that disappears leaving one in touch with the original event.  Without the audio system one can not be in touch with the original event. I reject as well the idea that the ideal audio system is one that is transparent to the source. This is simply false as we all know from having experienced obviously flawed systems that are much more musically satisfying and correct than others that are technically more transparent. I even reject the very idea of coloration – sort of. I accept the notion of distortion of course and don’t much care for it. But something is always colored relative to a baseline, and that baseline cannot be characterized non-normatively. Instruments have color and that color changes in different settings. The same cello will sound very different in Disney and Carnegie Halls. Which hall is colored? Neither or both – relative to the other. We can argue about which hall is truer to the music – to particular pieces of music. But beyond that speaking of colorations is unhelpful.

For me, the most surprising aspect of the time I have spent in high-end audio including reviewing – and the most rewarding as well – has been the people I have met and the friends I have made from all walks of life. These include other reviewers, like the distinguished poet, Garrett Hongo; musicians like David Chesky; manufacturers like Roger West of Soundlab, Merrill Wettisanghe of Merrill Audio, and John Devore of DeVore Loudspeakers; distributors like Jonathan Halpern of Tone and Jeff Catalano of Highwater Sound. Perhaps the best part has been the friendships I have forged with people who have read my reviews and began conversations with me. Two who spring to mind are Greg Scholl, Richard Emerson and Jay Bargman. When I met Greg he ran the Orchard, he then went on to be President of NBC local content, and now has found his dream job (like me) as CEO of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Richard has spent his life in high finance and Jay is Senior Vice President of Vinoly Architects, ironically the designers of the new NYU-AD campus! Perhaps the oddest relationship I have developed through audio is with Robert May who has had quite a distinguished career as a philosopher and linguist. We knew of one another and of one another’s work for years, but never met or spent time together until we connected through audio. Go figure.

Those of you who may have followed my reviews in the past know that my reference system was an all-Shindo system built around the 300B Ltd amplifiers and the Shindo/Garrard Turntable. I loved it. For me it was as close to ne plus ultra as I could (barely) afford in the domain in which I was most expert: low powered tubes and horn loudspeakers. When I left reviewing a few years ago, I thought it would be for good, and I planned on keeping that system forever. Costly health issues intervened and I had to let the entire system go. Following a principle that seems only fair to me I sold it back to the distributor at the price he had charged me so that his dealers could resell the equipment and make a profit that they were precluded from making by the distributor selling the product to me directly. I had a makeshift system in the interim that wasn’t bad: mostly gifted to me by friends.

I decided to get back into reviewing when I accepted the position within the Clive Davis Program on Recorded Music at Tisch. In that position I get to teach about aspects of music recording. In my case, I teach about listening to recorded music. Well how could I do that without doing that for real. So it was back to reviewing for me – with a twist. I didn’t have a reference system anymore. So it’s doubly, maybe triply exciting for me now. I am back to reviewing (excitement #1); I am searching to find a new reference system (excitement #2); and I am not reviewing anything in what was once my area of expertise. Instead I am reviewing only solid-state electronics. But I am also going to restrict myself to the only other kinds of loudspeakers aside from horns that excite me: namely, electrostatics and planar speakers (excitement#3).

So it is a new journey for an old dog. Let’s see where it takes me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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