I'm starting to hate computers. They take up all my time. Whether I'm writing, preparing classes to teach, toying with computer-generated music, managing finances, or (too often) upgrading hardware, I'm spending too much time in the computer chair, not enough in the listening chair.
Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"
Art and commerce are butting heads once again, now that England's popular Brit Awards include a category for classical music. Last month's inaugural nominees included some highbrow names (Rachmaninoff, Bryn Terfel), but leaned heavily on such "crossover" artists as Paul McCartney for his orchestral forays, and classical violinist Kennedy (formerly known as Nigel Kennedy) for The Kennedy Experience, his CD inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Classical sales are still down, and record companies, one suspects, are latching onto quasi-classical popular works to boost the sector's profile. For traditionalists, of course, this shows that classical music is falling further into the cultural black hole of all things Madonna, Spice Girls, and McDonald's. They're pissed—in the American sense, that is.
I walked through my local Best Buy recently and didn't see one stereo receiver. Boomboxes, table radios, surround-sound gear, and computer speakers were everywhere. But the hi-fi staple of the 1960s and '70s—the plain-vanilla two-channel receiver—was not to be seen. Even if one or two were lurking there, the fact remains that high-quality two-channel audio is now so disconnected from consumer electronics that it's hardly at the "high end" of anything at all. It's a world unto itself.
Metallica's Lars Ulrich and Creed's Scott Sapp don't get it. But Courtney Love understands, and so does Stereophile's Jon Iverson, who pointed out in the October issue's "As We See It" that the dispute between the RIAA and Napster is more important to audiophiles than it might seem. The Napster-MP3 phenomenon is a crack in the dike that controls music distribution. How the water seeps through that crack now will determine how it will flow when the drip turns into a trickle, the trickle into a stream, the stream into a river. Audiophiles and pop-music fans alike will be in the same boat.
Call me sentimental, but I'm sad to see turntables disappear. They were my original calling. Back in 1973 or so, when a kid from my neighborhood insisted that I see his brother-in-law's "fantastic stereo," I was entranced by a huge Pioneer receiver and walnut AR3a speakers. But most alluring by far was the Marantz turntable. Its brushed stainless-steel controls and gleaming, chromed tonearm made it look like some delicate and expensive scientific instrument. Compared to the all-in-one plastic unit I played my Partridge Family records on, the mere sight of it put me on the audiophile path. (And I mean just the sight of it. We weren't allowed to touch.) Eventually, his brother-in-law played a record for me—Gordon Lightfoot's Endless Wire. Since that day, I can chart the passage of my life according to the turntables I've owned—if it's VPI, this must be Chicago.
Call me naÏve, but I thought the Hi-Fi Wars were merely in-house squabbles. Yes, meter-carrying objectivists and wide-eyed subjectivists can carry on worse than Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But I always figured that once someone cues up Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue, the partisanship subsides as we revel in our common passion for music and sound. C'mon, everybody—group hug! Okay, I exaggerate.
The criticisms are out there. They're in the audio newsgroups on the Internet, even in this magazine's "Letters" section. For years, Cassandras have proclaimed that Stereophile has sold out, gone down the tubes, become a mere lapdog for the big-league manufacturers whose components almost never get panned.
In a dark, smoky office, a desk lamp beams a cone of light onto papers, books, pipes, and notepads. A theoretical physicist hunches over his desk, half-illuminated, visualizing the world inside his equations.