The Fifth Element #4
Let's get our minds out of thinking that we're in the hobby of buying stereo equipment. If we begin thinking of ourselves as being in the hobby of working to create a feeling of connectedness with things larger than ourselves, we might be happier. Wires do fine at connecting pieces of gear, but are less proficient at connecting us. (footnote 2)
Here are specific suggestions for spending $1000 (or thereabouts), or even no money at all, that might be more likely to enhance the feeling of being connected to things larger than ourselves than you'll get from spending a like amount on wire.
A classical guitar and several months of weekly lessons
A very playable classical guitar can be had for less than $400 new; even better ones are available at like prices used. A good, beginner-friendly teacher can be hired for $20-$30/hour. Check your local colleges and ask at music stores. The Guitar Foundation of America has a website.
The guitar has just about the lowest entry costs of any classical instrument. Unlike bowed strings (violin, viola, cello), a guitar requires little acclimation to unusual body postures. Unlike winds (recorder, flute, clarinet), the guitar does not require attention to breathing. Tone production is almost instinctive, and mistakes do not create horrible noises. Best of all, progress to playing recognizable music is rapid.
That doesn't mean Christopher Parkening (footnote 3) should start looking over his shoulder to see if you're gaining on him. But what you'll acquire from the experience should be (at the very least) firsthand, up-close experience with tone production, tone color (a classical guitar has five different middle Cs), frequency range, and tuning—and perhaps even the ability to play some simple Baroque music!
Learning to tune a guitar and then investigating the frequencies and behaviors of harmonics will help you relate the technical claims for and specifications of audio equipment to...how can I say this...reality. Learn to play a bit of Les Jeux Interdits or some other classical chestnut, then find a recording of it that pleases you, and voilè, you have a personal reference. Tant mieux, record your own playing and burn it to a CD-R. That's a real personal reference.
Reading cable reviews: Give it up for Lent. Instead, devote a few months to daily practice, and then you can either part friends with the guitar, grateful for the memories, or keep at it. Either way, the experience will have enriched your life much more than feeding into any audio-equipment anxiety can, regardless of whether your pet neurosis is cables, speakers, amplifiers, or sources.
Music-reading lessons and participation in a community chorus
One of the most elemental of the things larger than ourselves that we have a need to feel connected to is...other people. One of the nicest ways to accomplish this is by participating in a community chorus. Community choruses come in all degrees of seriousness and levels of artistic attainment, from rather casual conglomerations of people who enjoy singing show tunes and nostalgia items, to ensembles whose dedication and discipline in tackling difficult classical and contemporary repertoire puts them on an equal artistic footing with most professional orchestras.
Most choruses require some sort of individual audition. That usually involves singing from a printed score, and in some cases sight-reading an unfamiliar piece. Your local college should be able to refer you to someone who can combine coaching in sight-reading and voice.
Having done both, I can attest that the only thing you can do that surpasses the sense of immersion in the music you get from singing in a chorus is playing in an orchestra. [Also having done both, I enthusiastically agree.—Ed.] Chorus rehearsals will give you weekly exposure to sonic realities and musical masterworks, and score-reading skills can enhance your pleasure in and understanding of recordings, too. If you need leads on singing groups, phone the arts reporter of your local newspaper and get the lowdown (every group of humans has its quirks).
Footnote 1: Both products are imaginary, but if anyone uses either of these names, I want royalties!
Footnote 2: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910.
Footnote 3: For my money, the most soulful classical guitarist. If you don't know his work, his recital with soprano Kathleen Battle, Pleasures of Their Company (EMI Classics 47196), is a great place to start.