Why Music Matters Most Even More Letters

Bordering on the absurd?

Editor: Sorry but I could not disagree more with this column. While I do agree that all of this stuff is subjective, to merely state that this subjectivity abolishes all objectivity borders on the absurd. Hi-fi is merely the art of finding components that one "likes"? Why bother having reviews or magazines like Stereophile at all? In Lavorgna's opinion, it's all just a matter of taste anyways.

Hi-fi components are borne of science and technology, they are most definitely not works of art. A painting is an artist's interpretation of reality which often encompasses some creative distortion of said reality. A hi-fi component exists solely to reproduce a recording with the highest fidelity possible. Comparing the two is ridiculous, in my humble opinion.

In order to review or evaluate a component, system or recording there has to be an accepted gold standard...and in our case that gold standard has to be live music. Of course this hobby, like any other hobby, is all about personal enjoyment...but to truly call oneself an audiophile, this enjoyment necessarily comes from the recreation of a live musical event.—Howard Fischer, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, hfisher3380@me.com

"Sorry but I could not disagree more with this column."

I am surprised to learn that you'd agree with me more, Mr. Fischer, if I put forth the proposition that the ultimate goal of hi-fi is to make an oboe smell like an octopus. We bother with reviews and magazines like Stereophile because they help guide us through the myriad mazes of possibility toward enjoyment.

"A painting is an artist's interpretation of reality which often encompasses some creative distortion of said reality."

Hmm. I'll just point out that some, including Plato and a few other notable thinkers throughout the intervening Centuries who've spent volumes exploring this topic would beg to differ but let's not allow trifles to stand in the way of your pointed inquiry into what constitutes the ridiculous. Hi-fi components are born of a love of music. While science and technology are important tools in the hi-fi manufacturer's tool belt, they remain in the service of a more meaningful master, namely Art. Otherwise there'd be no difference between preamplifiers and precision-guided munitions.

"In order to review or evaluate a component, system or recording there has to be an accepted gold standard."

The acceptance of a "gold standard" has historically proven to be as malleable and opportunistic as our preferences in hi-fi. Point well taken!

". . . but to truly call oneself an audiophile, this enjoyment necessarily comes from the recreation of a live musical event."

Oh my. Does that mean one can't enjoy studio recordings and be an audiophile? I'm afraid we've crossed bordering on the absurd and taken up permanent residence.—Michael Lavorgna

Examine in more detail

Michael, it appears that you and I have completely different philosophies and outlooks on a hobby we both love. Here are my thoughts on your reply:

"I am surprised to learn that you'd agree with me more, Mr. Fischer, if I put forth the proposition that the ultimate goal of hi-fi is to make an oboe smell like an octopus."

Examine what I said in more detail. I just said that I could not disagree with you more...so it could be that I disagree with you just as much as if you had said that bit about the octopus—and actually yes, to me the two assertions are equally nonsensical!

"I'll just point out that some, including Plato and a few other notable thinkers throughout the intervening Centuries who've spent volumes exploring this topic would beg to differ but let's not allow trifles to stand in the way of your pointed inquiry into what constitutes the ridiculous."

I'm not familiar with these "notable thinkers" to whom you are referring but Plato lived in a very different time, before photographs existed which now allow us to recreate an image with far greater accuracy than any artist could. In Plato's time it wouldn't surprise me if the "best artists" were those who rendered the most realistic paintings or sculptures which absolutely captured everything about their subject. A photograph was not a possibility, the artist was all there was in terms of attaining this realistic depiction of the world and its subjects. In more recent times, however, accuracy is obviously no longer the goal of artists. You would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that most of Picasso's portraits bear any resemblance to the true liking of his subjects. Heck, I know I don't want my hifi components to distort the source like that!! Do you??

"While science and technology are important tools in the hi-fi manufacturer's tool belt, they remain in the service of a more meaningful master, namely Art."

I think you are getting confused here between the original piece of music (or perhaps its interpretation) and a piece of hi-fi gear. The original piece is absolutely a creative work of art and the performer's interpretation is as well. However the gear that is used to recreate the performance in my listening room? I would be very careful about ascribing supernatural, magical, mystical powers to that (I'd be even more careful about capitalizing the "A"—makes it seem like you're referring to some god-like being—and by that I don't mean Art Dudley)! The actual electronic component is completely scientific in nature—a collection of wires, capacitors, gain stages, speaker drivers, etc, etc, etc. Yes I suppose there is some "art" in the way the builder selects materials and puts them together...but pure science determines how it sounds. After all, what is more scientific than the actual physical properties of matter (including its acoustic properties)?

"Otherwise there'd be no difference between preamplifiers and precision-guided munitions."

Again, I would argue that this assertion is ridiculous. Are you suggesting that because televisions, hair dryers, dishwashers and jumbo jets all do radically different things they cannot all be works of science? Which of these is work of art?

"'but to truly call oneself an audiophile, this enjoyment necessarily comes from the recreation of a live musical event.' Oh my. Does that mean one can't enjoy studio recordings and be an audiophile? I'm afraid we've crossed bordering on the absurd and taken up permanent residence."

Since when can a live musical event not take place in a studio? Many such events have taken place in my basement studio so I'm quite sure it's possible! By "live musical event", of course what I mean is recreating an actual musical event right before me—including the ambience from the venue in which it was recorded (that "venue" often being a studio of course). I'm actually surprised that I have to take the time to clarify this with you—I would think it's kind of obvious!

I guess we can argue about this until we're both blue in the face (or in the fingers in this case) but nobody will every be able to convince me that the recreation of a true musical event is not the ultimate goal of high end stereo equipment—or that designers of electronic components are artists dabbling in the supernatural.—Howard Fischer, hfisher3380@me.com

Have you heard the story about someone commenting to Picasso that Gertrude Stein didn't look like her portrait? Picasso answered "She Will."

Even the "best" Greek sculptors couldn't capture "everything about their subject" unless their subject was Greek sculpture. For one thing, people move, most speak and they all smell. One thing we need to keep in mind with photography (and listening to music on the hi-fi) is the fact that it is not solely mimetic. A photograph differs physically from its subject and also from the way we perceive; for example a photograph is flat while what it captures typically isn't and we see motion in motion. No matter how "accurate" we perceive it to be, a photograph is still first and foremost a photograph.

Of greater importance is the fact that photographs contain a point of view which can reveal things the eye does not see. This helps explain why we revere some photographs as Art (not Dudley) and some photographers as Artists. While I'm on the quote kick, here's one from Walter Benjamin who wrote an influential essay (originally published in 1935) titled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—"All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation."

My point regarding the art, science and technology in hi-fi was not to suggest that the hi-fi component is a work of art, although I see this as a distinct possibility, rather a hi-fi's job is to convincingly convey a work of art, Music, which is a very subjective endeavor (especially the convincing part). This is a very different job from that of a household appliance and to my way of thinking helps explain why we have subjective reviews of hi-fi gear and not of hairdryers and dishwashers. It also helps explain why people (and I'll include hi-fi reviewers ;-), even those with like-budgets, do not all own the exact same gear.

"By "live musical event", of course what I mean is recreating an actual musical event right before me—including the ambience from the venue in which it was recorded (that "venue" often being a studio of course). I'm actually surprised that I have to take the time to clarify this with you—I would think it's kind of obvious!"

Ha! The obvious is not always so obvious. Every recording, like every work of art or photograph, not only differs physically from the original but it also contains a point of view. As such a recording can never be an exact copy. There are many choices involved in even the most basic recordings which effect our perception of the recorded event. These include microphone choice, number of, placement and any 'studio' processing including and especially the attempt to capture the 'ambience from the venue'. In other words, capturing a 'live' musical event is also not strictly a matter of technology and mechanics (although they obviously play a part) rather there's Art (not Dudley) in the recording process. Evan Eisenberg explores this exact topic in his book "The Recording Angel" which John Atkinson originally mentioned to me and I'd recommend it as well if you're interested in exploring this subject. I'd also recommend this essay of JA's.

Yes, we are coming at this wonderful hobby from different, nearly opposing places yet ending up it seems at the same place. I'd say there's something magical about that.—Michael Lavorgna

The ultimate goal?

Michael. Of course there are subjective reviews of hairdryers and dishwashers. Ever read Consumer Reports? I think you and I agree that the difference is that hi-fi gear is attempting to convey a work of art—no doubt about that. Of course there will be a huge amount of subjectivity and difference of opinion in hi-fi gear vs a dishwasher because of the nature of what each "component" is attempting to do. I just feel that many (including you, in my humble opinion) tend to ascribe the same artistic principles to the hi-fi component as the original source—thus blurring the distinction. For example, calling a hi-fi component "musical"—this has never made any sense to me whatsoever. A performance of a piece of music can certainly subjectively be called "musical" but a component? Nonsense, in my opinion.

Of course any painting, sculpture or photograph can never completely capture a subject with 100% accuracy—my point was merely that in the dawn of the photographic age, non-photographic art turned to different goals which moved away from accuracy—and I think that the danger in calling hifi manufacturers "artists" rather than "scientists" is that they can be let off the hook for building components with a heavy sonic signature. As in..."hey, they're artists and this is their interpretation of music." In my opinion these components should be at the service of the music, not the other way around. These are intended to be components that replicate, not create.

Regarding photographs and photographers—would you also suggest that the camera and all the digital or film production machinery are works of art?

In terms of recording technology—that is an entirely different matter. I am below amateur when it comes to my abilities there—it is merely a hobby in which I indulge in my basement, mostly to record my band. But I would say the same principles hold—the recording engineer's goal should be to replicate the original musical instrument with as much fidelity as possible. If it is somehow possible to have a recording with zero distortion of any type played through a hi-fi system which is completely neutral and free of distortion then what we hear should be no different from the original event. With current technology this is absolutely unattainable and indeed this goal will likely never be achieved. However, I just cannot see how this cannot be the ultimate goal of any musical reproduction—and of any audiophile or music lover.—Howard Fischer, hfisher3380@me.com

"If it is somehow possible to have a recording with zero distortion of any type played through a hi-fi system which is completely neutral and free of distortion then what we hear should be no different from the original event. With current technology this is absolutely unattainable and indeed this goal will likely never be achieved. However, I just cannot see how this cannot be the ultimate goal of any musical reproduction—and of any audiophile or music lover."

Howard, I prefer to deal in actualities rather than ideals when it comes to the enjoyment of Art (including Dudley).—Michael Lavorgna

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JBLMVBC's picture
Career justification...

"Objective criteria are meaningless in determining personal enjoyment. If the point of listening to music on a hi-fi is enjoyment (and if it isn't, you and I have nothing to discuss), and if music is art, the more meaningful experience comes about through our increased knowledge and enjoyment of music, not our increased knowledge of and fascination with hi-fi's ability to fool the ear. Trompe l'oreille?"

LOL

 

That's why professional studios do not care at all about the speakers they mix their products with... /sarc

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