Accentuate the Positive?

"You'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent."

A classic.

"Mmm mmm good. Mmm mmm good. That's what Campbell's soups are, mmm mmm good."

An immortal line.

"A little dab'll do ya."

I wish I'd written that! Any college graduate can write well-constructed prose, with a beginning and an end, sometimes even with meaning, but the ability to produce copy that hits the listener or reader—any listener and reader—on the most basic level is a rare talent indeed. You may remember Alfred Bester's classic SF novel The Demolished Man, where the hero blocks out esp peeping by silently reciting a verse supplied by a jingle writer: "Tenser said the Tensor. Tenser said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun."

The pattern of rhyming nonsense syllables seems to excite a lingual resonance that persists to the point of obliterating rational, structured thought. Arthur C. Clarke, of 2001, etc. fame, developed this theme further in a 1956 short story in which a computer was programmed to keep reiterating the composing process until it produced "The Ultimate Melody," a sequence of notes that exactly mimicked the fundamental flow of information in the listener's brain. It would thus blank out all external stimuli, producing a state of nirvana (experienced from the inside) or coma (witnessed from the outside). I was reminded of this story on a recent trip to Disneyland where, in order to placate wife and six-year-old daughter for having forced them to accompany me on the mind-blowing "Star Tours" ride, I accompanied them on "It's a Small World."

Have you been on the "Small World" ride? Do you remember that tune?

I'm sorry. I'd almost forgotten it too. Try muttering "A little dab'll do ya," over and over again while you continue reading this issue. (Digifreaks try "A little DAT'll do ya.")

In "The Ultimate Melody," Mr. Clarke conjectured that all earthly tunes are but dimly heard shadows of the ideal Platonic melody. (The idea that "man is the measure of all things" seems too small-minded to be a true description of reality, hence my sympathy for the Platonic philosophy.) And when a sequence of notes or syllables has that resonant effect, it is because, just for a moment, the composer or writer has almost achieved, in some limited manner, what by definition is unachievable. It is like the quest a fellow bass guitarist, Gordon Goodwin, undertook in the late '60s to find the ultimate riff: the pattern that a bass player could lock into, riding the groove with the drummer, until the end of time. I looked for it too, finding hints in James Brown and echoes in Tito Puente, but for all I know, Gordon (a man who believed that the best loudspeaker was constructed from a concrete column with the drive-unit firing up into a reflector) is looking still.

I have to say, however, that after hearing the Andreas Vollenweider group live on the Dancing with the Lion tour—a majestic if overbright live sound that makes the Columbia CD (CK 45154) sound anemic—the Swiss harpist has got a lot further down the road in that quest than either Gordon or I ever did. "New Age," you say? Since when did New Age music have whatever is the Schweizdeutsch for cojones? Considering he has to sit down to play, Herr Vollenweider sure knows how to boogie. And in the title track on the Lion album, he almost makes you think he's found that perfect riff.

But only almost.

(How are you doing? "A little dab'll do ya, A little dab'll do ya..." I don't suppose you'd want to know that Telarc has released an album of Disney favorites with "It's a Small World After All" prominently featured.)

Similarly with high-end hi-fi, the sound of your system can only be an approximation of the ideal, heard through a glass dully. The audiophile is like my friend Gordon, who, with each riff he discovered, realized that even when it cooked, it still wasn't the riff. No matter how good a system can make the music sound—and with the best components, it can sound magical—there is always that last vestige of electronic origin, that mechanical blemish that says "It's still only a record, fella."

As I tried to develop in an earlier essay, however (footnote 1), the listener who experiences as much live acoustic music as possible will have an innate sense of what that paradigm is. You'll be left in no doubt when that resonance hits: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Gordon would know his riff when he heard it! And to paraphrase Ivor Tiefenbrun, "If your feet don't tap, you ain't hearing it."

So what has this got to do with "accentuating the positive," the title of the piece?

An essay by tube maven David Carpe, posted on The Audiophile Network bulletin board (footnote 2) in the Fall, included in a rather frantic critique of high-end magazines and reviewers the statement that while a reviewer has a duty to protect his or her readers against fraud and rip-off products, "A negative review can be absolutely devastating to a high-end manufacturer, many of which are run essentially by audiophiles in their basement or garage. These people are doing it for the sheer love of music and the chance of possibly scratching out a living doing something they love. The 'consumer advocate' reviewer who writes a scathing review on the basis of perceived minor deficiencies in sound quality alone can potentially destroy these small businesses, which may well have something to contribute to the 'art.'"

Footnote 1: "The Chicken & the Egg," Vol.12 No.3, March 1989, p.5.

Footnote 2: The Audiophile Network, which was in operation through the late 1980s to the 1990s, was the best of the pre-Web bulletin boards. Its correspondents included Corey Greenberg, Jonathan Scull, Kalman Rubinson, Rick Rosen, and Lonnie Brownell, all of whom were to become better-known as audio writers.—John Atkinson