Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Search for Musical Ecstasy

For millions of years, before there were words we were surrounded by the sounds of nature. Our current homo sapiens form of brain is over 400,000 years old, but it has only been creating language for less than 20,000 years. Our main mode of being was aural, because this mode gave us the most information. There was no language, thoughts, concepts or complex emotions. Seeing, smelling and hearing was what we had. Our aural connection was the most powerful and subtle, especially for the species that were puny and had to survive through the night filled with powerful, hungry long toothed predators.
We were aural long before we were oral.

Why our home and not the concert hall is the primary place of musical ecstasy? Audiophile, by definition, specialize in the intensely creative process of searching for musical ecstasy in their homes. This does not mean that attending many different types of live music events are not an essential aspect of the search, but the reality is that recorded music has become the dominant musical experience. The most obvious reason is convenience. Going to the great concert can be costly, tickets, dinner, parking. Listening to the music at home is one of the great entertainment bargains, but not the point of this discussion, we are exploring our soul, not the pocketbook.
The gestalt of experiencing music in the home is very different from the experiencing live music. Most audiophiles have had to subscribe to the conventional wisdom and claim that they are striving to achieve the qualities of a live musical event in their 9x12 living rooms. The orthodoxy states that the purpose of our efforts is to create the illusion of live music in our home. I counter this by asserting that the purpose of our efforts is to achieve musical ecstasy and the illusion we create is not the goal but the means to this end.
Let me start by suggesting that there are two distinct musical art forms, connected by the same powerful force, but totally different. The emphasis here is on the art and metaphor. The first musical art form is live musical performance. Within this form there are many established conventions of performance (chamber music, orchestral music, rock and roll, country western...). The creation of recorded musical event is a totally distinct musical art form because the clear intention of the community of the people who cooperate with the artist in creating this
condensed, fractured and synthesized recording is to give you a chunk of encoded data to process, at some future time, through a strange combination of disparate electro-mechanical devices. How the artist creates a great live performance has little to do how they create a great recording!

Things has become musically topsy-turvy. It is a valid assertion that the standard by which we judge the live performance is the synthesized musical performance emanating from the recording studio even though it may be completely non-sequential and spliced. Yes, life is imitating art!
Good concerts are frustrating events. The sound systems at even the best rock and roll concerts are so bad that it is painful to listen. The high level of distortion makes it impossible to enjoy the concert most of the time. Of course there are truly great concerts. How do you recognize a truly great musical event? It is quite simple. You want to rewind the passage over and over again. You know the feeling? Do you stand up during the concert and yell, Excuse me maestro, would you play that passage again? I need to re-experience it again because it caught me off guard and I
wasn't ready for the startling effect it had on me. Doesnt it often take listening to that passage over and over again to fully integrate its energy? How many times it is artistically inappropriate to go on to the second movement of a symphony before you fully get the first movement? How many brilliant conductors are considerate of the audience's feelings, pausing between movements till we are ready? Or what about the frustration of listening to the brilliant performance of a particular piece of music over and over again in our homes and than going to the concert and hearing a leaden performance of the same piece? Do you get up and boo? Why does the audience always applaud at the end of bad performance?

The string quartet was really jiving. They were bouncing up and down, bobbing in and out. They were so energized in their playing that I thought they were going to jump out of their seat and start to dance. But the robots in the audience, including me, had to maintain the proper concert decorum in spite of the fact that many of us were fidgeting and getting into joyous tumult of the music. Do you get my drift? You can not separate music from the dance. In my home I have the freedom to liberate the whirling dervish in me. I can dance naked! Creating the audio system is one of the most sublime expression of testicular beudacity. It is the full expression of man's tool making energy, creativity and skills used for the highest possible purpose. As it is immoral to give children tainted food, polluted air, or toxic chemicals it is also immoral to give children junky sound. By and large, the sound in most homes is junk. In spite of its importance, the audio industry, recoding industry and especially the audiophile community have failed to confront the mediocre sound in average living room.
Lets explore the audio gizmos, the tools of musical ecstasy. It is very easy for me to achieve musical ecstasy while lying in bed in a totally relaxed state listening to my clock radio, provided the volume is just right. If I turn the radio up so that its flimsy little cabinet vibrates or it's 1/2 watt circuitry is pushed beyond its limits, my waking dream state is shattered. This radio does not play any heights or lows and its only mono signal, but everything that is played is in the correct proportion to re-create a musical tableau upon which I can suspend lightly as if I was hovering effortlessly above a field of blossoming lilies of a valley. Conversely, it is very hard for the brain to filter out artifacts that poorly matched hi-fi components are capable of imposing upon the music. The only hard work one should have listening to the music is when one embarks upon a serious moral, spiritual, or emotional exploration brought on by total involvement in a great piece of music, such as Shostakovich's Lenigrad Symphony. Even that exploration is not really hard work because such music sweeps us along effortlessly on a musical path that leads to greater and more challenging truth about ourself and the world.

by Harvey Rosemberg