My mother always told me, "Eddy, you are classed by who you keep company with." (I hated when she said that.)
Cave, SW Germany ca. 35,000 BCE:
You carved your five-hole flute form a vulture bone. And, the most amazing thing about your instrument is that it is pentatonic (a musical scale with five notes per octave employed by virtually all world cultures) – which means you are playing a little Strauss-family polka and some of those German cave sirens are dancing by the river!
Ahhhhhh! Life is good!
Those polka-dancing cave girls are singing the words out loud. They feel their legs moving with the rhythm. They are having vague thoughts about man, woman, child, earth and sky. They tingle all sexy and kinetic. They feel their blood and the river moving. We are all lost in the flux and flow.
Here in my story everything is still experienced as connected and whole. Music is free and time is endless. Change is immeasurable.
Notice that the sun is shining warmly and we are
outside with the women. Neither you, me, nor gramps are sitting like hermit
crabs in some dank man-cave scrutinizing the sounds coming out of a couple of
wood boxes. ("Utterly transparent and neutral, without a hint of boxiness")
We are not discussing the merits of power line
conditioning. Hell no! We are dancing around the axis
mundi with nymphs and sirens. We hear beautiful voices. The ones that
brought us into the world and the ones that will welcome us into the next. This
can only happen if the music and the songs and the dancing are still connected
to "us", to "we", to the larger human group.
My father always told me, "Eddy, everyone's life
is either on an upward spiral or a downward spiral. There is no third way."
(That idea upset me too.)
Up until sometime after the second big war music was pretty much a group experience. Men and women "gathered together" in churches, living rooms, pubs, cabarets, concert halls, fairgrounds, and parades.
Humans played and listened to music for the purposes of, soothing the spirit, creating a mood, enhancing a mood, foreplay, educating the young, reassuring the old, and celebrating the moments that marked our passages through life. But something really strange happened in those paneled basement rec rooms during the 1950s. The family radio was abandoned. Men with pipes started playing black discs in the rec room as a hobby! But this was not a hobby about collecting jazz records or enjoying classical music. It was a hobby about amps, speakers, turntables, and wires! It was a hobby whose primary activity was a quasi-scientific quest for "good sound." It was a hobby where adult men working mostly alone or occasionally in pairs or small groups, bought, built and modified audio equipment for the purpose of studying and evaluating its perceived effects on the playback recorded musical programe.
In less than ten years, this new hobby became a
substantial global subculture with an array of shared values, technical issues
and countless audio clubs and societies.
Initially, like post-war hot-rodding, these hobbyists modified stock gear – "souping it up" for enhanced performance. Bigger, tighter bass, more detailed less colored midrange – faster more extended highs! Slowly but simultaneously, a manufacturing and marketing industry-developed products to serve the needs of these freshly minted "audio" hot-rodders. A new breed of specialty magazines fanned the flames of this new cult. In the beginning there was sort of a trickle down. Pro-sound manufacturers "de-tuned" their theatre, studio and stadium gear making it more "streetable" and attractive for the home. This was a basement, den, or family room thing with big Altec and JBL loudspeakers being re-fitted with oak veneers and beige grills with gold threads. This was the birth of audio "gear-heads" and their emerging need to interface their prized, modified "gear" with larger family, house, and marital concerns. The birth of WAF!
It is also the birth of a totally new, "hybrid" type of music listening. This is the start of a new "use" for recorded music. Down in the rec room Bruno Walter recordings became a "tool" for judging the "quality" of "sound" coming from the magic boxes. This is also the birth of a new "site" for music listening... the "listening" room! What used to be the family radio is now is now a street rod playing E. Power Biggs' 16 Hz bass notes and runaway steam locomotives! Recorded music is doing something it almost never did before it has become a tool for study and assessment... of sounds! This is a significant change in family behavior and a major cultural/musical paradigm shift.
Sun Records, Memphis, 1954
Sea Cliff, New York, c.
This appears quite innocent (maybe even genius) on the surface but I think that idea was (for audiophiles) the beginning of a new era in music listing that compromised, maybe even sabotaged, our listening pleasure at virtually every music site on the planet.
Mr. Pearson viewed (and wrote about) live music as something we must think about, assess, and commit to memory. He urged his readers to bring those memories to their listening rooms. Because of Harry's writing, we audiophiles are now spending some part of our live music listening time thinking about and comparing our experience of live music to our experience of reproduced music in our home. Suddenly, we are bringing our ‘judgmental' and ‘analytical' minds to every listening experience. This judging mind blocks and colors our perceptions and subverts our direct experience of the musical presentation. Feelings and thoughts become disconnected.
(Disregarding his own invented absolute, Mr. Pearson spent most of the following years using a photographic metaphor as his true reference.)
In a brief twenty years, this new audio hobby qualitatively changed how millions of men worldwide experienced live and recorded music!
Meanwhile, I believe that Harry's thinking was good – it is his application that became the problem. If Harry Pearson had chosen to be really true to his absolute he would have compared his experience of reproduced music to his (unadulterated) experience (as in thoughts and feelings - body and mind – time and space) of live music. The minute we start analyzing the ‘sound' of either live or canned music we are engaged in listening to, and evaluating, Sound, not musical performance art.
If we audio guys insist on having serious mancave discussions about the relative merits of expensive audio equipment I suggest we now start comparing our experiences (thoughts and feelings -- body and mind) of the music content. Let us listen together (maybe even in a group) to system A and system B. Let us play the same recordings all the way through. Then let us at least try to do our comparisons using a music-fan-based vocabulary instead of pseudo-scientific sound-stage babble. Instead, as a start, let us try out the time proven musical vocabularies of our favorite artists or music writers. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Robert Cristgau or Sasha Frere-Jones*** might be good for a start.
In my view, recorded music, played back in the typical high-end listening room, is it's own unique, evolving, fashion-based, enjoyable but very scaled-down experience. It is so far from the experience of live as to be unworthy of the comparison.
Therefore, I am thinking it is time for some change in the high-end audio hobby. I am thinking it is time for a shift in the music and social culture of the home. I have watched the audiophile gear head get older and more lonely and more separated from his family. I have watched him lose touch (literally and figuratively) with grandpa, the wife and kids. I am thinking it is time to get everybody back in the same site sharing in musical culture and heritage. And, I am thinking maybe that could be something like a Five-Year Plan.
Additionally, having watched this whole 60-year audio history unfold, I am becoming increasingly skeptical about whether we have gained any tangible ground in making canned music sound more like "live" in the home. All this quasi-scientific research in listening rooms hasn't netted much improvement in the audiophile experience. (I remember what system J. Gordon Holt used as his reference in 1971 (Altec A7, Marantz, SME, Garrard, etc.) To my ears, skin and bones that system showcased the art and poetic invention of jazz, folk, and classical music way better than the stuff I am hearing now. It excited my thoughts and feelings in a way I clearly associate with the live experience.
During the experience of live music, thoughts are happening in the mind and feelings are happening in the body – both as one – simultaneously! (Sounds like sex right?) For me, high quality hi-fi is one that ‘re-creates' that thought-feeling connectedness. (That is my "absolute.") My idea of a high quality stereo is one that enhances the chemistry between me and a piece of recorded music. (Why can't it also be one that enhances the chemistry between me and my girlfriend?) For me, a high-quality stereo makes the artist's intentions more clear. It shows me the attitude of the artist. A great stereo is one sucks me in and steals my time. That is what I look for in high-end.
The People's Republic of
Bed Sty, c. 2013
This story is not about Neolithic culture, lesbians or gear heads - is really about me being concerned that contemporary high-end audio cults have lost their raison d'être and are in danger of becoming extinct. I am writing this now to suggest and encourage a audio-critical paradigm shift that will bring listening to "high-end reproduced music" closer to what the people playing the music intended for the listener.
I have this picture in my head of Charlie Sheen, in a big room at the NY Hilton, a mirror, a rolled-up c-note, and a bottle of Jack sitting on the nightstand. A Die Antwoord video is screaming from the TV. What appear to be naked girls are standing upright dancing on the bed. ("The imaging isn't as good on this model")
The last time I was in the NY Hilton, I saw mostly men of a certain age scrambling for a center seat, sitting rigidly face forward, staring at gold, silver and wood boxes, listening to bloodless, soulless, and unchallenging musical selections. What were they really seeking?
The obvious problem here is that most contemporary audio tribes are about cult-approved gear, cult-approved musical programme, and sound, and (maybe) about what sounds "closer to real". "Real" ???? Real is what I just described next to that big glacier! Where are Gramps and Charlie and the girls? Where are you with your flute and simple Strauss songs? For recorded music to be joyful and "real" we need the Venus of Hohle Fels.**** We need the feminine force. We need feelings and thoughts arising from the experience of music not the "sound" of our playback. And I believe this change must start with a radical change in both the expectations and the vocabulary of audio reviewers.
The practice of listening that was once invigorated by the genius' of Harry Pearson. J. Gordon Holt, Peter Axcel***** has no further usefulness. It has become lonely, unproductive and unsatisfying. I am hereby petitioning for change.
Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2012
Zach and I started talking. I told him how I used to be involved with high-end audio. He was not impressed – he seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. I asked him why he had a turntable, records and tube amps. He said, "Quality!" "And it looks cool and it's fun." Zachariah exclaimed, "It makes the music feel organic – not broke up and artificial." I asked him where he bought this stuff and he said, "flee markets, Craigslist and stoop sales"
Zach could have ridden his fixie to Sound by Singer or Lyric Hi Fi but he never did. Why not?
Why should he? If he had all class A recommended components with full cables and tweaks would his friends love or respect him more? Definitely not. I think if they saw all that polished audio bling they would be embarrassed for him. It would be like him buying a Hummer H2 instead of a vintage Toyota. As a card-carrying member of numerous audio cults past and present I am telling you now – this is our exact problem. High-end audio cannot survive fighting for seats in the middle. We need Zach and his friends. We need those upscale PhD lesbians and their witchy-pagan cat! We need all the good taste antique dealers and Double RL customers. We need new blood in high-end audio and the only way we will get that is a conceptual rebranding and the creation and advocacy of a new listening room experience.
The currant listening paradigm, its vocabulary and methodology, as well as the style and aesthetic of contemporary high-end audio must evolve into something more culturally and experientially diverse.
What I learned from Robert Cristgau (via Steve Guttenberg) is that music listening is always "site-specific". What we receive from the music changes radically whenever we change the listening site. When we move from the car, to the kitchen, to the roadhouse, the stadium, the small club, the bedroom, to sitting on the stoop or the subway – what we expect to think and feel changes very radically. This is especially true in the man cave listening room.
Starting today we must at least consider a new reality. One where connoisseurs of recorded music play the source material of their well-considered choice over superbly engineered equipment to an audience of friends, lovers and believers. One where culturally diverse, mixed gender groups sit casually on chairs, couches or pillows. There is candlelight and dogs sleeping on laps. We have couples holding hands. None of us are talking. We are dreaming, thinking and noticing our feelings. We are studying and admiring the music - quietly and together. We are having sacred silent psychic conversations about ancient subjects. Imagine the listening room as a place of silent group meditation. Gramps and the sirens are always invited. But they must respect the art and beauty that is being released from these venerable wood boxes.
What I am alluding to is not about background music and dinner conversation. It is about a unique ‘high-quality' experience of stillness, bonding, love, and friendship. It is about magic and ritual. It is about sharing our taste and wisdom about music. I am proposing a new hi-fi world where the listening room is like church – a sacred place where people gather in groups to listen, meditate, rejoice and learn. I am imagining a world where the audiophile becomes a music-priest-shaman type of guy.
Our gear will have to change a little too. Equipment racks will become altars. I am serious. No kitsch or bling. Bright emitters become devotional reliquaries. Recorded music is the new hymnal – high rez messages of hope and joy.
Imagine class A components that are so good that the second the music starts everyone sits down and shuts up. They turn and face the loudspeakers. Heads are bowed. The room fills with feelings of wonder and admiration.
Try thinking of audiophiles as persons who create musical theatre and liturgical masses for an educated audience. Think of the listening room as a sacred space not a mancave. Imagine elegant wizards (in Hawaiian shirts) who share their engineering and musical connoisseurship with their friends, family and business associates. Listeners will make pilgrimages to become enlightened.
Imagine your child bragging to her friends, "My Daddy is an Audiophile!"
Imagine playing musical art for real persons who will not judge you on the length of your tone arm or the tightness of your bass.
Imagine that you designed your hi-fi to impress your lover, your neighbors, and your oldest friends instead of your audio buddies.
Pretend all that exotic gear was assembled (and judged) by its ability to show music as a profound expression of our collective ability to think and feel.
I am begging you to imagine what it would be like if hi-end audio were less about soundstage and more about the human stage -- about our absolute collective humanness.
* Creator-Publisher-Editor, The Absolute Sound and the man who coined the expressions, "high-end audio" and "soundstage."
** Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.
*** Sasha Frere-Jones is an American writer, music critic, and
musician. He has written for The Wire
, The Village Voice, Slate, Spin, and The New York Times. He has been on the staff of The New Yorker since 2004.
**** The Venus of HohleFels (also known as the Venus of Schelklingen); is an Upper Paleolithic Venus figurine hewn from ivory