The Gospel According to Mark Levinson Page 2
That's the essence of his famous "boxes" speech, one that might be called the Levinson Leitmotif. It goes like this: "Most [dealers and manufacturers] aren't selling musical instruments; they're selling boxes. And what they need to do to stay in business is to sell more boxes. That's why audio products have these ridiculous revisions and upgradesto keep the customer coming back. Manufacturers exploit the customer's basic insecurity. They need to keep him feeling that really satisfying performance is just a step away, the next model up, whatever it is that's just out of his reach. The customer spends all of this money and in the end has nothing but frustration and dissatisfaction....High-end magazines stir up this dissatisfaction, too. Why else do you have a 'Product of the Year'?"
He argues that many in the High End participate in a tacit conspiracy to separate the music lover from his liquid assets as often as possible. "From product design to product termination, the whole process is extremely cynical," he says. "There are two different themes in audio. One is sincerity, dedication, and love of music. The other is: How do we make the maximum amount of money?"
Whether from marketing or engineering, Levinson thinks many companies have dead-end product-development programs. "They lack the engineering discipline to produce a truly finished product. Cello has never discontinued a product. Some have been on the market 11, 12 years virtually unchanged." The Palette received an Academy award at HI-FI '97. "Twelve years old, no changes. How revolutionary was it 12 years ago?" Levinson asked.
"There are lots of problems in the retail environment. It's all in such a primitive state, with so much ignorance and a huge shortage of resources....I don't want to devote my life to an industry that perpetuates unhappiness. Accuracy and musical satisfaction are qualities that don't change. Cello is where people come when they want to get off the merry-go-round." He believes there will be a strong need in the near future for the "audio designer," a sort of sonic architect. For that reason, Cello is starting a school to train audio professionals and is actively recruiting students.
We walk a few blocks to one of his "favorite little Italian places," Nanni il Valetto. The restaurant is sumptuous but intimately scaled, and almost empty at this hour. Chef Luigi Nanni, one of several who introduced real Italian cuisine to New York 40 years ago, greets Levinson as an old friend. We order swordfish steaks with vegetables, and a nice California chardonnay. I ask how he got started in audio.
"I always loved music. It was part of my life right from the beginning. One of my favorite family snapshots is a picture of my brother Doug and mewe must have been, like, four and sixstanding by our Garrard record changer. I remember playing Bix Biederbeck records on that machine and trying to copy his solos with my cornet. One of our family heirlooms is a Bösendorfer piano that was hand-picked at the factory by Gustav Mahler for my great-grandfather. It's in my daughter's home now." The genealogical angle again: Levinson's mother, Maria Hertz Levinson, is the grandniece of 19th-century German physicist Heinrich Hertz.
"By the time I was 18, 19, I was pretty deep into hi-fi, too. But I realized that most of it didn't sound very good. So I decided to start building my own equipment. Dick Burwen was one of my first mentors. I learned a lot from him. In the beginning, I worked in my parents' basement. My first commercial product was a preamp, the LNP-1, in 1971. We made exactly four of them, but it was enough to show my parents that I was serious. My mom was disappointed that I never went to college, but my parents believed in me enough to put up $15,000 for me to start my company.
"That was a lot of money in the early '70s. They gave me everything they could. That was the start of Mark Levinson Audio Systems, MLAS. My next product was another preamp, the LNP-2. We sold thousands of them. Eventually, we had a factory with more than 90 people, and a whole line of products: tape recorders, amps, and preamps...MLAS did very well. In 1979, we needed more capital to push the business up to the next level and I signed a deal with an investment group, giving them 57%." That group was the core of what later became known as Madrigal Audio Laboratories.
He then offers his version of what he calls "an untold story": how Mark Levinson the man got separated from Mark Levinson the product. "It wasn't long before we had some serious differences...the heart of the matter was that Sandy Berlin [Madrigal's erstwhile kingpin, now heading up speaker company RevelEd.] forced me out two years later..." A subsequent lawsuit resulted in Mark being unable to use his name in connection with the audio business.
He decribes what happened with the detachment of a man who witnessed a horrible accident a long time ago. "But miracles do happen. An attorney named Allen Duffy knew I didn't have the resources for a legal defense and agreed to work for almost nothing. His initial efforts enabled me to start Cello in '84, despite all the threats and legal pressure. We fought all the way up to the US Second Circuit Court, and finally won.
"That was 1986. They got the right to use my name, but I got the right to work in the field I always loved. Allen died of leukemia three months after that. I could never repay him, but I promised that if I could ever help his family, I would."
That promise was the beginning of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports the traditional musicians whose pictures line the halls at Cello. Allen Duffy's son Tim, who counts Eric Clapton among his supporters, is the musician, folklorist, and musicologist who first approached Levinson with the idea of helping these artists, many of whom live in dire poverty in obscure parts of the south. Based in Pinnacle, North Carolina, Tim travels throughout the South seeking out and recording them. Music Maker recordings are available from the foundation at (910) 325-3261.
In the battle with Madrigal, "A lot of important personal relationships were damaged," Levinson says. "It was particularly painful that my friend and mentor Mike Kay would choose to side with them." He mentions a 16-year rift with his friend Peter McGrath that was only recently healed. "That incident was symptomatic of a change that took place in the industry then, when the hard-business types began to take over."
He looks out the window. Silence. I offer him a quote from photographer Helmut Newton: "The past is important, but it is still the past."
"That's right," he agrees, "The future is the important thing. When the high-end industry began, it was extremely radicala reaction against mediocrity, a real revolution. But somewhere along the way it became stagnant. It's an establishment now, full of people in comfortable little niches. When I started Cello I was told that building music systems rather than specialty components was going to upset the industry. I was told that I was committing suicide with my career. It didn't matter. It's more important to do what's right than to be politically correct."
He credits the hard work of people like Cello engineer Tom Colangelo and Tony DiSalvo [president of the Cello company that actually designs and manufactures Cello componentsEd.] with freeing him from product development. "Something brought me to New York," he says. "I wanted to take a different course. I wanted to make direct contact with the people who bought Cello equipment. Can you imagine a company president opening a boutique and running it by himself? I ran the Cello showroom from March of '90 'til January of '92 all alone, without even a secretary, but it was the foundation for our new company. We are redefining the bridge between the people who make the products and those who use them. What's new isn't a DAC or a loudspeaker, it's a mindset."
We step out into a warm late afternoon. A short cab ride later, we're back at Cello. The building is almost empty now, save for Elizabeth ("I keep his chaos under control") working late, Kurt and the cats somewhere upstairs, and Kiva, the hulking Great Pyrenees I saw sleeping in the hall earlier. While Levinson returns phone calls, I play with the gear in the demo rooms: Serafins; Stradivari Legends, Premieres, Masters; Encores, Duets, Palettes. Good, you ask? Is nourishing a superlative?
He returns laterI've lost track of timeand asks if I play music. I admit to tuneless whistling, singing in the shower, and to having dallied long ago with a garage band as an incompetent bass player. But play music? No, I listen. "Let's try something," he says, and we go back upstairs to the studio.
He explains the role of the tamboura in North Indian music. It provides the underlying meditative drone over which other musicians weave a melodic texture. He kneels next to the instrument and tunes its four principal strings. "Like this," he says, plucking a slow four-note riff that makes the whole instrument ring. "Then start again before it dies out." I likewise kneel and likewise pluck. He corrects my clumsy efforts. Soon I've half-got the rhythm. Levinson swings his bass upright and begins a sort of raga improv that seems to flow up and out of the room we're in.
It's not a Western-tradition kind of musiclinear-logical conflict-and-resolutionbut a feeling-state kind. What I hear as he plays is more than the woody resonance of his bass or the warm serenity of the Indian melody. I hear a yearning for a deeper connection, an almost religious need to melt the barrier between player and listener. A healing urgethe high purpose of music.
Taking the elevator down, I notice him frowning and rubbing his fingers, frustrated like an out-of-shape athlete. Saxophone legend Lee Konitz has been after him lately to return to playing, but he hasn't been able to practice much. "That's what I would like to get back to," he says. "I want this business to get to a point where I can step back a bit and play more. That's really important to me." Friedrich Neitzsche, perhaps apocryphally, summed it up this way: "Without music, life would be stupid." That's always been the gospel according to Mark.