The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.
Vivid speakers change the game. But first a great piano recording: Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan (CD, IPO IPOC1004), from the late Sir Roland Hanna (his title was an honorary knighthood granted by Liberia). I missed this wonderfully crafted solo-piano recording when it first came out in 2003, and still would not have known about it today except that a publicist sent me an e-mail saying that he was cleaning out his shelves of leftover promotional copies. I quickly sent back a request, in large part because one of my Desert Island recordings is Jim Hall's Concierto, originally released in 1975 on the CTI label, and on which Hanna had played. Concierto has since been reissued in digital form many times, most successfully, as far as I can tell, by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab on an SACD (UDSACD 2012) that includes new tracks, as well as alternate takes of tunes on the original release.
Of course, the Latinists among my readers (all three of them) already know that the ancient Romans would have carved this column's title "PUERNATUSEST." (Not that the Romans gave a fig about that particular puer until much later . . . ) All in capital letters, because lower-case (ie, minuscule) letters were not invented until scribes in the Middle Ages wanted to write faster by not having to lift their pens so often between strokes. Spaces between words also came after Roman times.
I was of two minds about requesting the loan of the B-1s. First, at $15,000/pair, they're above my usual price range. More important, I was concerned that, given the greater complexity of a three-way crossover, the larger speaker, with tweeter, midrange, and woofers front and rear would not sound as beguilingly coherent as the two-way V-1.5, with its simpler crossover. I am delighted to report that I was quite wrong, and in more than one respect.
This month I am writing about the Loudness Wars! But first a DVD, They Came to Play. The quest, or the hero's journey, has been a major theme of literature for as long as there has been literature. From the epic of Gilgamesh to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Moby-Dick to The Lord of the Rings, the quest's plot trajectory has remained pretty much consistent: be confronted by a challenge; leave home; bond with a new friend; survive climactic showdown; discover true self.
That last one is the payoff. Great literature allows us to benefit vicariously from the hero's hard-won self-knowledge. But without question, the thrills and chills and the cliff-hanging moments are what have put the fannies in the theater seats, from ancient Athens to your local megaplex.
Getting on two years ago, in an effort to identify the best bargains for music lovers on a budget, I wrote a series of columns exploring the field of affordable loudspeakers and CD receivers. I hadn't planned to revisiting that topic so soon, but two developments have convinced me to: first, my encounter with one of the most idiosyncratic budget loudspeakers ever to grace my listening space, and in some ways is a new benchmark for performance vs price, especially for classical-music fans; and second, the advent of a new product category: Affordable Internet-Radio-Capable CD Receivers with Built-in WiFi and USB Connectivity.
But now that I have your attention, I'll first tell you about some great recordings you should check out. Then come the loudspeakers and, in my next column, the new CD receivers.
I think any newish company launching yet another expensive (ie, anything over $2000) digital-to-analog converter on the roiling waters of the audiophile marketplace needs at least two things: a truly great product, and a good story to tell. I think Bricasti Design Ltd., of Medford, Massachusetts, has both.
In large part because I was fascinated by the potential of Direct Acoustics' Silent Speaker II loudspeaker ($748/pair) in affordable systems (see my columns in the June 2011 and August 2011 issues), I rounded up three CD receivers that are network- and Internet Radioready and cost under $1000: one each from TEAC, Marantz, and Denon. These models are functionally and cosmetically more similar than different, and, it turned out, sounded more alike than not.
I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.
Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) is acknowledged as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She is additionally accorded the rare (especially for a mystic) distinction of recognition as a "Doctor" of the Faith. On a somewhat less exalted level, but perhaps resonating even more clearly with the truth of common human experience, Teresa (who had Jewish ancestry; why is that not surprising?) is credited with coining the phrase "Be careful what you pray for, you might get it."