Listening #13 Page 2
Leonard Bernstein made some artistically brilliant recordings during the years when his label, Columbia Masterworks, opted for a house sound that today's audiophiles abhor: a little bit edgy and a little bit colorless, with brass instruments that sound too lean, instrumental images that often exhibit "unrealistic" (hoo, boy—don't get me started on that one) scale and perspective, and a shocking dearth of both stage depth and audible subway trains.
A lot of people choose not to listen to Bernstein's recordings, and that's their right. But to ignore his music merely because they don't care for his recorded sound strikes me as sad. Good grief, the man was an original—a distinct talent whose understanding of certain composers (Mahler, obviously, not to mention Ives and even Mozart) enabled him to create recorded interpretations of real importance. By all means, ignore Bernstein's recordings because you don't care for his exaggerations, his melodrama, his musical neuroses (no wonder he understood Mahler so well), but not because you're afraid his recordings aren't conducive to the "high-end" listening experience.
When you die young and you cross The Great Divide, which are you likelier to say as you take one final look back at this world? That you regret not spending tens of thousands of dollars on surround-sound gear in order to heighten your appreciation of a minuscule percentage of available recordings? Or that you regret avoiding the music of Josef Hofmann, Arturo Toscanini, or Leadbelly, just because you thought you couldn't do without stereo imaging?
Everyone's personal relationship with music is different—an indisputable truth. Some people listen in order to get away from the events in their lives. Others listen to get closer to God. Some listeners revel in the abstract, the indescribable. Others listen to be reminded precisely what happened to Billie Jo McAllister. (Hint: It involved a bridge.) Whatever the case, we all get something different out of art, the only universal truth being that the more we bring to a work of art, the more we can take home with us.
I'm not going to raise my glass and toast the designer of a $70,000 speaker with a pompous, fatuous, and ultimately untrue "To Music!"...and then slap on another Amanda McBroom side. What I'm saying is this: What you get out of a hi-fi is art. It isn't quite the same as live music—it's very different, since microphones and ears don't function the same way, a fact regarding which even the smartest engineers seem to have an endless supply of self-delusion—but it is music, and it is art. How you interact with it is your business.
The only thing in the world of home audio that comes close to truly enraging me is the ranting of anyone who would suggest that there's anything in home audio worth getting enraged over. There isn't. Not the people who sell $10,000 speakers with $29 tweeters. Not the people who sell $500 sets of pointed feet, yet who can't tell you whether they're acoustic "couplers" or "decouplers" (well, what do you want them to be?). Not even the magazines and websites that would offer you reviews written by people who are paid to promote either the gear they're reviewing or that product's competitors. All of these are cause for annoyance and, one might hope, bemused dismissal. But anger? Nope. After all, no one's forcing us to buy any of those things.
Judging from a small portion of the responses John Atkinson and I have received to my column, the notion that hi-fi ought to be fun—that components should or should not be purchased solely on the basis of how much pleasure they seem capable of delivering—is just about the most noxiously dangerous idea in the history of the world. In my 49 years I've played music in biker bars and roadhouses, joined protest marches for unpopular causes, visited an inpatient in a mental hospital, and taught sixth grade. Yet, by far, the most pathetic paroxysms of anger I've ever had to endure as an adult have come my way since I began writing about hi-fi, and mostly in direct response to my suggestions that fun beats fidelity 10 times out of 10. There are so many genuinely nasty things in the world—things that truly ought to get our dander up (drunk drivers? drunk voters?)—that the idea of any person of any age getting apoplectic about listening to records just boggles my middle-aged mind.
I used to let other people's anger set me off—sort of like feeling my gorge rise when I see someone else throw up. But now I don't even go that far, and it's all thanks to The Anger Habit: Proven Principles to Calm the Stormy Mind (Writer's Showcase Press, 2000). This sensible guide to controlling your emotions, written by Carl Semmelroth and Donald E.P. Smith (I can only guess what the "E.P." stands for), is now available in paperback, at a popular price. With chapters like "Struggling for Control" and "Communicating Without Effect," it's obvious that this book was not only written with audiophiles in mind, but audiophiles whose relationships with Stereophile are causing them distress. Highly recommended to some of you right now. Don't wait for the (you'll pardon the expression) audio version.
Until then, I prescribe the usual: Get out. Go for a walk. Hug your children. Call your mom. Go bird-watching. Give a lot of money to someone you think really needs it (use your imagination). Buy a Zane Grey novel, take it to a nursing home, and read from it to the first patient you find there. (Old people love Zane Grey.) Go to a pet store and look at the bunnies. Smile more. Lose a little weight. Go to the library and read a biography of your favorite composer. Shovel someone's sidewalk. Hug your children again.
Any of those things will serve the dual purpose of making you less angry, and giving you something more to bring to music the next time you approach it.