In a nearly incomprehensible essay about our slow and steady drift away from reality as we knew it towards a fragmentary, unrooted, "virtual" existence, the post modernist Baudrillard observes that the deep problems of high-fidelity audio illuminate and embody the core principles of a universal crisis of being in the contemporary world.
Baudrillard outlines a "stereophonic" model of social practice and argues that we have moved beyond old-fashioned cause and effect related history into a non-linear quasi-reality grounded only in simulation, the powerful legacy of modern communication technology and the profound capacities for re-production that our wondrous machines provide.
He uses hi-fi as a metaphor to illustrate how we have gone beyond the "vanishing point" into the era of news over direct experience, digitally created collaborations over live ensemble playing, the triumph of represented experience, in all aspects of life.
Baudrillard argues that we now live in a "hyper-reality" that is a by-product of exploding media sophistication and our increasing reliance on mediated input to construct what passes for real. Read audio magazines and note how we have developed parallel definitions of real sound that apply only to reproduced sound, without thinking it unnatural in the least to do so.
Under such circumstances, reality as we knew it in a more innocent age is a casualty of technology and our uses of it, erased along with the barriers that space and time used to present to sensory experience.
Now, that is a rather heady concept but I can relate to the general trends of the argument from the perspective of an audio hobbyist. We all recognize the distinction between music listening, even if it's "simulated" music, and just geeking out on audio for audio's sake. Both pursuits clearly have their attractions and rewards but they are different adventures. Audio maniacs often ignore the fact that they are not the same thing, let alone indications that hi-fi and music exist in a state of tension, such that one denies the other when you really get down to it. If a jazz master is playing solo piano in your living room, what do you need a stereo for? And if you have a perfect stereo, what use is live performance?
Although it is hardly worthwhile or productive to dwell obsessively on this metaphysical predicament, there is a threat that once we enter the domain of audiophillia, we can never listen to recorded music the same way again. Hi-fi music exists within its own system of reference, one where the answer to the question "Is it live or is it Memorex?" is always obvious yet we continue to ask it in hopes that someday we won't have a ready answer. We can fill in the gaps in reproduction partially with faith and desire, but live music only gets played that way once.
This discussion of the mental postures we adopt in listening reminds me of an interview with drum great Max Roach. Max related how jazz musicians can't help listening for certain things when listening to music. Max spoke as though musical civilians were blessed in their technical innocence while musicians are cursed with an involuntary analytical attitude that puts them into a working mode whenever the music plays. The thrill of music listening, according to Max, comes when you listen like a layman, an innocent, because then you can get truly involved in the "feeling of joy of music".
Sounds like the familiar "I, Reviewer" syndrome where obsession with sound overshadows the "feeling of music." The point is that it usually matters more how we're listening and why we're listening than what we're listening with. An obsessive focus on the musicological aspects of performance or the perceptual artifacts of reproduction technology virtually guarantees a non musical experience. In this day and age, we need all the joy of music we can get!
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