The Acoustical Standard (with follow-up) A Tale of Two Systems part two

When it comes to the music, however, George Szell felt that there was nothing wrong in altering scores to achieve balances more in tune with modern-day needs. Sir Thomas Beecham, too, felt that the interpreter had a duty to adapt music to suit its circumstances in order to be true to its needs. "What largely distinguishes good music from bad is the beautiful sound of the one as compared with the ugly sound of the other," he stated in the first volume of his autobiography, A Mingled Chime, and went on to ask the rhetorical question: "Does music which is beautiful when played exactly in accordance with its composer's intentions, and which is made to sound ugly by being played under totally different conditions, remain good or turn bad?"

Mahler, however, in his humility assumed that those who would alter his scoring would be his intellectual and musical equals. And Beecham emerged from a milieu where it was routine for performances of Handel to feature casts of thousands and where Bach's keyboard music, so sublimely suited to the harpsichord, was exclusively the province of the bombastic Steinway. In these days of urtextual honesty, where a new generation of musicians is intent on presenting the listener with what Johann Sebastian's, or Wolfgang Amadeus's, or, soon I am sure, the mighty Gustav's contemporaries would have heard, such attitudes strike many as arrogant beyond belief.

To echo the distrust of such arrogance, many recording engineers now feel that it is their duty to preserve an honestly portrayed version of an event, not to overlay that original sound with an artificial sonic framework in a doomed attempt to "improve" over that which the composer felt sufficient. Telarc's Jack Renner, for example, feels strongly that the engineer's job is to capture the sound of the orchestra with the minimum number of microphones, almost as though it were being heard from the ideal seat in the house; having determined the mic positions, he then has an obligation not to touch the controls, leaving matters of balance and proportion to the conductor and musicians.

This, in fact, is what distinguishes purist engineers such as Renner—and J. Gordon Holt (and myself)—from those revisionist engineers working for the mainstream companies, who, horrified by such an archival philosophy, point out that a recording which can only preserve the sound of the performance totally ignores the event's visual and social aspects. Even the sound is compromised, according to Hans Fantel in his above-mentioned article: "even the most carefully contrived stereo recording cannot do justice to the spatial aspects of an actual concert situation." The sound must be contrived, must be larger than life, concluded London's Paul Myers in 1978, then with CBS, in order to compensate for these failings (footnote 3), "There's a danger in talking about a record as though it were a reproduction of a concert...they are different media. For record purposes you shouldn't limit yourself with the problems of the concert hall." "Art," said Ayn Rand, as quoted by Mark Fishman in the BAS Speaker, "is the selective recreation of reality."

Evan Eisenberg, in The Recording Angel (footnote 4), also argues that to attempt to capture the sound of an original event is doomed to failure on philosophical grounds. Stripping a concert from its cultural context bestows a sterility from which it can't escape. The butterfly may be pinned to the disc but it sure don't fly no more. For a recording to make the grade as a work of art, more is needed, a fact recognized in practice because, as Eisenberg points out, "In the great majority of cases, there is no original musical event that a record records or reproduces. Instead, each playing of a given record is an instance of something timeless. The original musical event never occurred; it exists, if it exists anywhere, outside history."

We have a choice, therefore, between two kinds of commercial recording: a small number intended to be archival transfers of acoustical events, from such audiophile companies as Sheffield Lab, Reference Recordings, Performance Recordings, and Wilson Audio; but a large majority, whether classical, new age, or rock, that only incidentally have any relationship to an original "event." These are what people vote for—these are what they buy! So, if the majority of classical recordings are no less artificial than that Steve Winwood track, then they too would fail Gordon's criteria for being used to reveal the sonic performance of a hi-fi component.

But, of course, it is possible to apportion merit to recordings intended to stand on their own as art. To condemn them on the grounds that they do not sound like the work would have sounded in real life—something that I have done too often in the past—is to miss the point. To equate quality just with what you like, as JGH implied last month, is both arbitrary and insufficiently discriminate. What remains, therefore, is to throw the listener back on his or her own resources. The whole point to music is that it can communicate concepts and emotions non-verbally. Well then, the listener can decide whether to condemn or praise totally on musical grounds, on the basis of that communication. In the case of genius John Culshaw and his productions of the Ring, or, at the extreme, Strauss's Elektra, the recording can stand on its merits despite not sounding like the work could ever sound in the opera house. But when an earthbound individual takes the same amount of liberties, as in the case of the 1974 John McClure/Leonard Bernstein/LSO Mahler 2, recently reissued on CD (CBS M2K 42195), then the continuous procession of seemingly arbitrary decisions about instrumental levels and balances detracts from the musical whole rather than enhancing it, places stumbling blocks in front of the listener's ears, and must be condemned.

If it is possible, then, to make valid value judgments concerning a recording-as-art, then, even if there is no absolute reference (you don't know ultimately what the record should sound like), surely it can still be used to make value judgments about hi-fi components? To insist otherwise is to take too narrow a view. The LP grooves and the CD pits have no memory of their genesis: the construction of a reproduced soundstage, with the images of instruments and voices hanging in space, is an illusion. It is as complete an illusion whether it resembles an original acoustic event or whether it springs totally from the genius of the artist and producer. Consider, for example, a recording that I use as a reference for judging a system's ability to present a tightly focused soundstage. Clannad's "Newgrange," from the album Magical Ring (RCA RCALP 6072), is a typical modern rock recording in that it is totally artificial. Nevertheless, on a good system it possesses considerable depth of field, just as effectively producing the illusion of a consistently well-defined soundstage, for example, as the simon-pure Sheffield Lab recording of The Firebird.

What is important is not the recording's pedigree; rather, it is that the listener hears in the illusion of an image what he or she interprets as a direct sound from an instrument or voice associated with reverberation. When that reverberation is coherently reproduced, then the listener's brain will interpret the soundsource as being set further back in the soundstage than one with less reverberation. A lesser system can destroy the coherence of that reverberation, fouling the correlation between the apparently direct sound and its reflections and therefore reducing or even destroying the sense of depth. A superlative system can have sufficient resolving power to reveal when the reverberations associated with individual sources within the mix are disparate, giving the listener a multiplicity of views superimposed. When such differences are reduced in magnitude, then, by inspection, the system must be less good. The fact that the recording being listened to never had any prior reality is outside this process. What the critic is listening for is as transparent a window into the illusion of musical reality as possible, and the origins of the recording are, to quite a large extent, irrelevant.



Footnote 3: Hi-Fi News & Record Review, August 1978

Footnote 4: McGraw-Hill, 1987

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