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Positive Feedback ISSUE 44
july/august 2009


Saying What You Hear, As If It Counts
by Jim Merod


You Talkin' At Me ?

There's something about the ease of data and information exchange in our current culture that renders recipients of music on disc (or via cyber transfer) blithe and truly blasé... as if the actual audio contents delivered are irrelevant, underwhelmingly "ordinary" or just flat out too mundane, in the scheme of 21st century things, for human comment.

Here's what I mean. The typical plea I receive, from many sources and all directions, to share the hippest music I'm aware of just about always eventuates in a gift received in perfect silence. That acceptance after a request, followed by non-commentary, offers a tacit mooning of the giver as well as the music and the partnership potentially fulfilled... 'fulfilled' until the long duration of wordless mooning dampens one's resolve for partners inclined toward mute reception.

Clearly age advances curmudgeonly outlooks, but experience imprints reasons for dyspeptic aversion. I'm no less aware than most, I think, that our present way of life (its slow throttling of human time and leisure) is choking the old neighborly and collegial modes of thoughtfulness. Rushed lives exist under stress. Stress breeds evasion, ill will and every imaginable form of petulance. And that, too often, is the cultural karma we endure... and, without meaning to, perpetuate by acting like everyone else under stress. I'll not pretend that I've not been both victim and victimizer.

What does this have to do with music, audio and a cheerful Big Time investigation of great sound and music: noble music; imperfect sound forever?

If music frequently saves us from the worst and acts as a counterweight to stress of many kinds, then the diminution of shared appreciation—which, for me, includes critical commentary—undermines a necessary affirmation of the glorious pleasure and emotional sustenance that music provides.

Amorous Musical Adjectives

You'll remember John Ashbery's "Happy Hooligan" who careens at high speed down neighborhood alleys in his trusty jalopy. That's us, in some perfect instance of blithe existential indifference. Happy Hooligan only wants you to stay out of his way. No words. Just speed. You dig? No need for conversation, just breeze in his curls, James Dean his heroic model, the car radio blasting full volume.

Happy's probably quite correct in knowing that words cannot improve his buzz. Think of Michael Jackson on steroids. Or my goofy pal Horace "Hound Dog" Poacher high on martinis. Or maybe the stoned Guy You Love To Hate next door, whose dogs bark incessantly, needing no language or intelligent chatter to rouse his sub-cerebral illusions of personal greatness.

These are our friends who make the notion of an "enemy" pale in comparison. What they hold in common is mute self-righteousness, smug and insular certainty that their poop is odorless. Nothing you can do to wake them from torpor has value of any sort.

For a moment's sharp hilarity, try this. Put your most beat up, long-in-the-tooth blatantly distorting speakers out on your back patio, right ear the line where the neighbor jerko looses his throbbing canines. Crank up your old Pioneer integrated amp pumping heavy metal right in their chops. Then call Birdbrain next door to offer sad apologies on his voice mail all the while your racket rattles his pooches' self-confidence as well as his flaking stucco.

Your voice message, of course, would apologize for the necessary hellacious volume of the Atom Smashers' crashing noise alert since, after all, you're an audio reviewer and do on occasion have to carry out your professional work in "real world" circumstances to simulate, for example, an outdoor metal concert recorded to a disconcertingly high dB level, without compression, against all reasonable odds.

Why not? Who cares, right? Happy Hooligan all over again. Only you, the weirdly thoughtful and sensitive neighbor bloke, are now Mr. H. Hooligan. Just as my ol' nemesis Hound Dog (which his close acquaintances refer to fondly as "Houndie" or good ol' H. P.) stakes out new territory for self-centered self-assertiveness each day he crawls out of the sack. You, too, can be sublimely in sync with the worst of our era's mindless stupidity.

Where Do We Go From Here?

My colleague, John Marks, has recently noted that a fairly low volume for music listening is both good for the preservation of hearing acuteness and probably beneficial for ongoing neighborliness. Since John is a cultured fellow who sometimes quotes poet-obstetrician William Carlos Williams, I give John the nod here. My friend, Bob Levi, noted the other day that the world of audio has nearly infinite choices of gear and musical taste to make a diversified if elusive and complex audiophile universe.

That's what we surely need: musical civility and audio sanity. A world without hype and equally without blithe and sullen muteness. The audio and musical universe I heard Bob invoke includes, in my reckoning, talking to one another on a relatively regular basis about what we hear, what we enjoy, and how that works for us on any significant level. Here's where commentary and shared audio and musical give and take their rightful place in civilized discourse. That place is not professionally mandated. It's the informed observation and appreciation of the caring amateur. We'll remind ourselves, now and then, that the word amateur is derived from the concept of "one who loves" innocently, openly and with full intelligence.

You say that we've already achieved that aesthetic and interpersonal nirvana! I say, nonsense. If music soothes beasts and mean-spirited instincts, then the cultivation of musical reception by sustained acts of shared experience, critique and observation is the stuff great dreams emerge from.

Happy Hooligan is too far gone to resuscitate, and maybe my dopey guy Hound Dog will never get it, but I'll hold out hope that most who offer hints and suggestions about where to pitch a moment's musical enhancement are more than decent folks. Our inferior habits divide the best from the worst, make indifference to one's self and theoretically welcome others a stale regime of self-diminution. I'll substitute a dram of Balvenie for Hound Dog's five fingered martini to celebrate the spirit of freedom here in July. The elemental liberty I have in mind resides with astute attention that, shared among us, breeds joy and curiosity where doldrums lurk.