David Chesky: A Portrait of the Artist as His Own Man Page 2

Lander: You've long used exotic equipment to make your recordings.

Chesky: We have so many things in our studio: a large selection of vintage tube mikes, our own custom tube mike preamps and custom tube mike mixers. We use a lot of audiophile mike cable, and we have a SoundField mike that we had customized as well. We use Genex multichannel optical disc recorders, and we have a selection of A/D and D/A converters.

Lander: As a longtime champion of high-resolution digital and the first to release a recording with 128x oversampling, do you want to comment on the format wars?

Chesky: I don't care what the format is—SACD, DVD, Blu-ray—as long as it's one format and we go forward with it. I believe high-end audio is 15 years behind what's capable today, but we're locked in these political battles. We record in [Ambisonics] B-format, with a one-point mike that captures 360° around it. That gives us all the information of the live event from the same perspective a listener would have if he were there, and I can decode to four channels, six channels, or a hundred channels—any way a future format dictates. All the perspectives, all the spatial cues will be correct. But apart from surround sound, we still need to think about higher sampling frequencies, because 16-bit/44.1kHz doesn't capture the correct timbres of instruments.

Lander: You've said that record reviewers should focus more on things like those timbres. Can you expound?

Chesky: Take a hypothetical review of three recordings of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, with [Lorin] Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic, [Simon] Rattle with the Berlin [Philharmonic], and [Pierre] Boulez with the Chicago [Symphony]. I know they'll all be good—though maybe not exactly what I would have expected—and I'm tired of hearing music critics tell me about the performances they liked or would have liked. I want to know which recording will sound best when I get it home and play it on my expensive equipment. In a world where most people hear music on recordings, not live, we can't separate the music from the sound.

Lander: I've heard you use the word tonality a lot.

Chesky: Tonality is a big part of music. A great violinist works a lifetime to achieve beautiful tone. A reviewer ought to tell me if a recording makes it sound like he's playing on a Stradivarius or an instrument made of plywood. What sometimes annoys me is that most music critics have a double standard. In a live concert hall, they want soloists and orchestras to have a sweet, rich sound. They understand tonality is a big part of the live experience, but when they listen to recordings they ignore it. The same high standards for a live concert experience should apply for recordings.

Lander: You've also said that record reviewers at audiophile magazines should do more to support audiophile labels.

Chesky: High-end audio is one of the few places where the pursuit of excellence still applies. In high-end audio, everybody wants to be the best. It's an arts-and-crafts trade; instead of making Mission chairs, they make amplifiers, and I respect that. But I don't see enough championing of the audiophile labels. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Lander: You're a classical composer, you're obsessed with the sound of recordings; in fact, you're an anomaly in this society. You've noted that even cab drivers in Italy know—and respect—Rossini or Verdi, but how many Americans would recognize Aaron Copland's name?

Chesky: If a guy goes to McDonald's or Taco Bell, and goes to the movies and sees Batman, Spider-Man, etc., he's not going to walk home and say, "I want to hear Mahler Five." The only thing that's important in this society is money. The state of the culture is not important. We don't educate children. We talk about family values, but at the end of the day it's MTV.

Lander: And MP3. Do you ever get tired of fighting uphill battles?

Chesky: It exhausts me.

Lander: You had heart surgery not all that long ago. Is that something you want to talk about?

Chesky: When I was 36, a problem developed, and 10 years later I had to have a valve replaced. The operation went well, but then I got pneumonia. It took a long while to recover.

Lander: In the booklet for Area 31, a recent CD featuring your classical compositions [Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for July 2005—Ed.], you make a point of thanking three doctors and the cardiothoracic staff of Mount Sinai Hospital "for really giving me the opportunity to do this recording." You've also agreed to participate in a testimonial advertisement for the hospital.

Chesky: I'm enamored with scientists and doctors. They can do so many great things today. When it comes to medicine, we always want the best. Why can't people have the same attitude when it comes to culture?

Lander: Did those medical experiences change your way of looking at things?

Chesky: For a while, but pretty soon it was back to work and writing music.

Lander: You've called the classical style you've been writing in most recently "neo-impressionistic," but I don't see a pastoral landscape when I close my eyes while listening to Area 31 perform your Violin Concerto.

Chesky: I don't live on a farm in the pastoral countryside. I live in New York, a fast-moving, pulsating city. My new music is about pulse, all types of rhythm superimposed on each other. About 10 years ago, I started playing drums in an African band. It's a drum circle, a lot of guys from Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast. We get together on the weekends in Central Park and play. When I started, it was uncomfortable because it's very polyrhythmic; I sat there one day and wrote these rhythms out and said, "God, are these things complicated!" Now, after 10 years, it feels natural.

Lander: You've complained that classical music has been hijacked by academics.

Chesky: It seems that the concept of the music is more important than the music itself today. The mass evacuation of youth from America's concert halls tells me what's being performed there doesn't reflect our urban culture. When you live in an insulated academic environment, you might write music that pleases you but isn't relevant to our culture in general. This is just one aesthetic viewpoint, but to me music has to sound good, and it has to be visceral as well as intellectual. Music has to sweep you away. You have to be moved. Otherwise, what's the point?

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