Listening #7

In my column for Stereophile's March issue, I criticized a handful of records for combining very good sound with very bad music. A few readers expressed dismay, wondering what gave me the right to call music good or bad, especially since virtually all music is loved by someone (its mother?). But as far as I know, the magazine received a total of zero letters wondering what gave me the right to call sound good or bad. Hmmm.

Anyway, on re-reading that column, I saw that I'd paid gobs of attention to good recordings of bad music and good recordings of good music, but little to a category that infests and infects the record collections of more audiophiles than any other: good recordings of bad performances of good music.

Since then I've expanded my listening horizons somewhat, and something important has dawned on me: In much the same sense that generous amounts of natural reverb are an immediate and almost subconscious clue that the listener is inside a very large and relatively empty space, so it is that music played badly—even mildly so—has become, for the modern listener, an equally subconscious clue that he or she is in the presence of the real thing.

I don't mean that symphonic musicians have gotten worse over the years; to read the letters of Beethoven is to wonder if such a thing is even possible. Rather, our musical diets have been scrubbed too clean, like our flour, our rice, and our nightly news: We hear recordings of instrumental music almost constantly, depending on where we work, play, and shop, and we've become too used to hearing recordings of those instruments in which human error has been spliced, synthesized, or browbeaten out of existence.

The last time I heard a musical instrument being played live by someone other than myself was a week ago, at our church: I followed the sound of classical music inside to find a trumpeter in the nave rehearsing a Purcell voluntary—to prerecorded accompaniment. (The church has no organ, and please leave all jokes about that outside the door.) The sound system wasn't bad at all, and that actually made the listening experience more surreal: a recorded organ being played quite well in concert with a live trumpet being played quite poorly.

Right off the bat, before I was physically close enough to see the musician and the loudspeakers, that's how I could tell that the trumpet was not a recording: because it was bad.

Dear Reader: I'm not saying you don't hear enough live music. I don't judge audiophiles on that basis, and I don't even think it's an important distinction in the long run. What is important—or at least interesting—is this question: Where do you do most of your live music listening? At Carnegie Hall? At the farmers' market on Saturday morning, where hacks like me play "Forked Deer" and "Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine" until we drool? Or outside your children's bedroom while they practice the violin? For some, the former is closer to true, and for others it's the latter—and right there I've described two kinds of listeners who are calibrated completely differently, and who will respond to even good music-reproduction equipment (eg, Quads) in different ways. Yours truly, Art Dudley.

If you don't believe me, you ought to hear the following good recording of a very slightly iffy performance of good music: Mozart's Symphony 35, K.385 ("Haffner"), played by the New Hampshire Festival Orchestra under the direction of Thomas Nee, released last year (LP, Cisco CLP 7001). No bad notes or horridly ragged entrances were caught on tape that day in 1976, and by "iffy" I mean only that the NHFO players were not in the very first rank when it came to tight ensemble and intonation—that and, yeah, a few entrances do sound as if they were cut with a steak knife instead of a scalpel.

But Nee has a good idea how the piece ought to go, and the performance sounds fresh and colorful from start to finish. I haven't been able to listen to another "Haffner" since I got this one—it sounds wildly real to me. If your listening habits are anything like mine, you might love it, too. Go buy it before they run out.

To round off this part of my column, I nominate the Earl Wild/Arthur Fiedler disc of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F as a good recording of a good performance of bad music, The Band's Islands as a bad recording of a good performance of bad music, and Lou Reed's Transformer as a bad recording of a bad performance of bad music.

I Married a Bee
Woody Allen said it best: Those who can do, do; those who can't do, teach; and those who can't teach, teach gym.

There's a parallel: Those who can play music play music, those who can't play music design loudspeakers, and those who can't even do that become audio reviewers.