Positive Feedback ISSUE 61
may/june 2012


The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback.

Where it's At
by T. M. Stanley

I tend to think of myself as a top down kind of fellow. I like to be aware of principles and then apply them. I find that informative as well as enjoyable. I feel frustrated with the bottom up approach, especially when I have to follow someone else's program. "Just do this and don't ask any questions". That type of frustration is quite familiar to me. I think it is also one of the problems we face as audiophiles. We are constantly questioning miniscule musical events in front of us and trying to see where those events fit on our path to nirvana. Witness the plethora of products to get you there. Witness the constant turnover of equipment, the search for the instrument of satisfaction. Witness the algorithms. You have to have a tube in the signal chain. Your equipment must be truly balanced. Your speakers must be without a crossover. We are all at the mercy of the maze of those immediate musical events and our effort to make sense of them. That is why I have decided to ask myself the fundamental question "What is music?" and then go forward from there. That is how I try and make sense of it all.

It is not surprising that I think one of the fundamental elements of music, besides the motivation to create, is the communicative power of music. I am no academic, but much like language I think that music is more or less a reflection of the inner mind of the maker bearing meaning. Maybe it is a matter of focus. There certainly seems to be a process there. Products and persons exist that suggest the listener has much influence on the experience, but we must start somewhere, and I am a big fan of purity, hence my concentration on the source.

In my experience I think that there are two well defined perspectives, and one not so well defined perspective that has been noted in the audiophile world dealing with the communicative element of music or lack of it. The "studio" perspective usually indicates a concentration on the sounds produced and engages the critical faculties at the expense of the emotional connection. That is the one that seems clearest to me. Another perspective, often contrasted, is the "music lover". This person seeks to experience the emotional impact of the music. In terms of communication, this second perspective seems closer to the purity I desire in my ultimate playback system, but in truth I think emotional contact can be made in relatively inexpensive systems. What I ultimately desire is something more, otherwise why devote the resources. I think of it this way. I want to get into the mind of the composer. I do not mean this in the sense of classical music, but in the sense of the maker of the music. As a result, in my opinion, I really think there are three perspectives, the studio, the audience, and the composer.

At this very moment I am listening to Abba's "The Winner Takes It All". It strikes me as a tune about an abstract principle, but the content is rather sad. The song is about the breaking point between two lovers. The relationship has progressed beyond personal boundaries to the involvement of judicial bodies to regulate the relationship, and as the song reaches the climax in a relatively quiet passage at 3:36 you hear the female voice break as the abstract becomes concrete, she approaches her lover as the victor in a bitter sweet victory.

I am happy that my relatively inexpensive system allows me access to that content. I can also easily imagine a planet full of people dancing and having fun in response to the music. The emotional content is available to people on a couple of levels, but I would suggest the audience perspective is easier to achieve whereas the mind of the composer perspective ought to be the goal. Everyone can enjoy Abba, but I think a great system would make the content, the emotional essence, more easily accessible. I can hear criticism of my Abba choice, but maybe that is the reason audiophiles devalue pop music. It is basically not important to even understand the words to feel an emotional connection with the song. It is too easy, and makes the hobby seem like the emperor has no clothes. I have a more palatable example.

Audioslave has a song called "What You Are" which I liked from the first time I listened to it. The thing with this song is it contains a lot of emotion. When I went to play it one day my seven year old daughter said she did not want to listen to it because the guy sounds "angry". She was right, and my system doesn't even convey how angry. I have listened to this tune on a system consisting of manly Naim electronics and the degree of anger is intense, uncomfortably so sometimes. I get the distinct impression from listening to the Naim system that Chris Cornell's teeth are clenched in the early vocals on the song. This is only barely hinted at on my home system. My home system makes only a portion of the good stuff available, the perspective of the composer, something I would like to improve.

Some might say I am ignoring the studio perspective in the evaluation of a system. I do appreciate sound quality. Rain falling ought to sound like rain falling, and clapping ought to sound like clapping not rain falling. Having fidelity to the original sound is absolutely necessary even essential, but it is mainly so because those sounds are in the service of the deeper meaning or emotional content. It's not the notes but the relations between notes. One rarely throws out content in favor of form. Oh I suppose there are times when this is relevant. Maybe when something is done for the first time, or when form is exactly the point. Perhaps then form is more important than content, but that is more spectacle. "Oh look, he is playing the guitar on the neck rather than the body". Spectacle is rarely enduring over the long term. After all, how many Theremin recordings do you own?

In fact this is part of the central problem with audiophiledom. There are a thousand different flavors of the original sound out there available, for the right price, all insisting that their flavor is musical truth. It is the problem with equipment reviews. This or that reviewer talks about the disembodied sound of this or that piece of equipment while inserted in the system. I have, somewhat cynically, decided to interpret that review as being about the "sound" and not about anything more. It is frustrating, but in those cases I prioritize what the review does not say rather than what it does. Although form rarely trumps content, by far what audiophiles mostly get as information is what the piece of equipment sounds like instead of the meaningfulness of the sound. As I have heard it said before elsewhere, "You can never get enough of something you don't really want".

But I digress, here is one more example. This is one to appease your audiophile soul. "Friday Night In San Francisco" is a delightful experience in the company of Al Di Meola, John Mc Laughlin, and Paco De Lucia. It is a live recording. Aside from it being especially enjoyable for the music making, there is another gift of this, and maybe all live recordings. I have listened to these three play many times on my home system, and again although I get a portion of the communicated essence, the meaningfulness, I do not seem to get all of it. When I listened to it in the context of a system with Exposure electronics I noticed that the audience seemed more connected to the playing. On my system the audience response was there and discernible and followed the ebb and flow of the music making but was not quite as holistically connected as on the Exposure system. There seemed to be more emotional intensity available through the Exposure system. The audience response to the physical act of creating the music gave me a window, a clue, through which I could be a greater participant in the emotion on the Exposure system. The relatedness of the disembodied sounds of the performance became more apparent.

Just think about it. Having a recording with live human beings on it is quite an advantage in terms of assessing fidelity. If you need a measuring stick, there is one built in. We all know what hoots and hollers mean. We can make a judgment as to whether those communications, that we are intimately familiar with, are in harmony with the ebb and flow of the music, or are they merely there to some degree. As I said, there is some disconnection in my system between sound and meaning, a thing I would like to improve upon. However, I do enjoy the access I do have to meaningfulness in any case. That is the gift of live recordings.

So that's how I see it. I want my system to present content over form. I do not only love the music, I want into the mind of the composer. I want access to the intimate emotional content of the music, the meaning. To the extent that my system sounds good, I am on side. I want to be able to resolve words and discern instruments. Resolving power is important. However, I acknowledge that resolving power, or pixels per square inch, is really in the service of the holistic content, the meaningfulness, not the individual notes but the connectedness of the notes.

You might say I am setting up a false dichotomy. It is not true to say resolving power and holistic connectedness are mutually exclusive. "There are products that do both at the same time" you say as you recline single malt in one hand Cuban cigar in the other. "Maybe just not at the price points you troll". To that I say, "Maybe so, maybe so". It is true. I do not live in a manor. I am not an early investor in Facebook, and I do not share professional courtesies with sharks. My system is a modest one. I have to make moves that are measured, considered, and justified. I as much as anyone and more or less than some have to be responsive to the currents of life. I cannot simply throw money at a problem to have it go away. "I'll have the Magicos and that French amp over there that starts with a D". I would love finding a gem, but I have to put in a workman like effort to zero in on the prize because those are the resources that I have, and I love doing it because I'm viscerally and intellectually engaged. This is this deliciousness which I wish to bring to everyone, and I think it is what many of us wish to savor.