The Joy of Music

"The whole band was in the hot tub. As water frothed over my bare breasts in the moonlight..."

Any book in which a chapter begins with words like the above gives a certain impression of where, and on what, it's going to focus. Yet once you get past the sensationalist aspects of oboist Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music (Grove Press, 2006, ISBN 0802142532)—"Tindall sleeps her way to the bottom [where] we learn more than we probably need to about the sex lives of some more or less prominent American musicians," said the New Yorker—it is actually a depressing but impressively well-researched, -argued, and -written look at both the roles of musical education and the classical-music business in the US. Too many graduating classical musicians chasing too few poorly remunerated jobs with too many orchestras who pay their conductors and managers way too much, and who chase too little in the way of funding for too-small, increasingly graying audiences, is Ms. Tindall's conclusion, and it's hard to argue with her logic or her occasionally florid prose.

I began reading Mozart in the Jungle on the long flight home from the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show and couldn't put it down. (You can find our live CES coverage here; Mikey Fremer also comments on the show in this issue's "Analog Corner," starting on p.29.) Although Tindall's conclusions are depressing, and some echo the problems facing the high-end audio industry, she hasn't forgotten what got her into a performing career in the first place (footnote 1). Writing about her Carnegie Hall debut as a soloist in 1991, she describes the experience as "filled with joy and experience...I felt a physical sensation that I'd only experienced a few times before, when everything was going right. I'd never known it to happen in any other situation and believed it might be specific to making music....Anyone who has felt it knows it's addictive as a drug."

In my performing-musician days, I, too, felt that sensation: Time's pace slows, so that even the fastest, most difficult passagework becomes fluidly easy; your ego is transcended, even to the point where you feel you are standing outside yourself; and you feel a part of something far larger than anything you could achieve alone. That joy is indeed addictive. But catching that high happened on way too few occasions when I was performing full-time, and almost never now that I play in public only a few times each year. (Sadly, my attention these days is focused on the how to play rather than on the what to play and when to play it.) However, listening to music on a fine-tuned high-end audio system, when everything is on song, does occasionally let me catch a glimpse of a shadow of that joy. And it does so often enough that I seek out the components and the tweaks that make it happen more often, as I have done for the past 30 years.

Which is why I was saddened to receive Ben Causey's letter ("Letters," p.9). Mr. Causey describes his feeling of betrayal after he performed comparisons between his Denon 2910 universal player and Oppo Digital's $150 DV-970HD model, and between his Unison Unico integrated amplifier and an inexpensive Onkyo surround receiver, using Magnepan MG1.6 speakers. "I can't describe the amount of anger and self-loathing I felt when I heard the Onkyo sound exactly the same as the Unico," he writes. "I wish so much that I had done some comparisons before I spent all that money."

Mr. Causey had been prompted to perform his listening tests by the writings of Peter Aczel, onetime Madison Avenue ad-copy writer and editor and publisher of the magazine The Audio Critic, which was published very sporadically between 1976 and 2005 and is now a webzine. Paradoxically, it was Aczel's early writings on audio, along with those of Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt and The Abso!ute Sound's Harry Pearson, that had inspired me as a budding audiophile in the 1970s. These days, however, Aczel spends more time attacking his peers than writing about the joy that awaits audiophiles in their recordings. As Art Dudley wrote so perceptively last August, about the "woodies" who inhabit the Internet, there are those who put down the experiences and thoughts of others yet offer nothing of value themselves. Mr. Causey has fallen into one of the "woodies" 's favorite snares.

Mr. Causey offers no detail about his comparisons—about whether they were performed blind or not, or with levels matched or not. But I will note that it is trivially easy to organize a formal test that produces a null result even when real differences exist (footnote 2). Back in the 1970s, for example, I took part in a blind comparison test, the results of which "proved" that Scotch, cognac, and Bourbon could not be distinguished by taste and smell. I have no experience myself of the products Mr. Causey auditioned (though Wes Phillips is working on a review of the Oppo DVD-970HD, to appear next month), but do his test results mean that the products sound the same, or that the more expensive offers no sonic advantage? No, for as I wrote in July 2005's "As We See It", my experience has been that the very act of such testing appears to minimize the listener's detection of things that can be disturbingly audible under more relaxed conditions. Too often, it is as if the listener is being asked to distinguish between subtle color casts on photographic prints while a bright light is shone in his eyes.

Why should that be? I can offer only the thoughts of someone who thinks much more deeply than I. Art Dudley wrote last August that he doubts "very much that an activity based on switching rapidly back and forth between different components has even the slightest relevance, if only because I don't listen to music that way. Might I be able to detect sonic differences between components in that way? I suppose so. Could I detect musical differences—differences in timing, pitch, intensity, momentum, those sorts of things—between samples using that method? Probably not." And as reader Matthew Posillico wrote in the September 2005 issue's "Letters," in response to my July '05 "As We See It," "the auditory faculties deployed to discern distinctions between hardware are not the same as those deployed when one seeks delightful immersion in the musical experience. As such, while I readily concede my own inability to make correct and consistent judgments during blind tests, I experience no dissonance maintaining a clear preference for one piece of hardware over another after spending ample time engrossed in music that stirs my soul."

Stirring the soul. That's why we do what we do in search of the joy of music, Mr. Causey, and that's why I'm sure you will find your way back to the path leading to that joy.

Footnote 1: Audiophiles may be familiar with Blair Tindall's oboe chops through her appearance on Jon Faddis' Remembrances (CD, Chesky JD166; 24/96 DVD, Chesky CHDVD176).

Footnote 2: Hence my writing back in the December 1996 issue's "Letters" (p.23) that I "regard 'double-blind comparative listening tests' as the last refuge of the agenda-driven scoundrel," a statement that got Mr. Aczel sorely vexed.