The Restorative Power of Music

It was an unusually fine day for a New York September. The W train crept from the subway tunnel into the sunlight of the Manhattan Bridge—"My God, the World Trade Center's on fire!" came the voice of the woman driving the train. I vividly remember what I did the rest of that day—the day the world terribly changed.

The train continued on its way. I didn't know passenger planes had been flown into the Twin Towers until I arrived at the Stereophile office, near Union Square. My fundamental optimism remained intact until the first Tower collapsed before my eyes. I tried to contact the rest of the magazine's New York-based staff and writers. I answered e-mails until the connection to the company's Los Angeles-based mail server, courtesy of a "Ground Zero"-based ISP, went down.

The news continued to come in—the plane crash in Pennsylvania, more on the Pentagon attack. With no way of getting back to Brooklyn, I put together the November issue's "Industry Update." Friends and relatives called from across the US and across the Atlantic. I did some work on the Stereophile website. As I did when I was once mugged, I kept replaying the day's events in my mind. "What could have been done differently?" "Why?"

Around 4pm, the radio announced that subway trains were running again. I walked as far south as I could to find an open station and got on an E train, the only one heading Brooklynwards, and took it as far it went. I stood on the bridge over the fuel-filmed Gowanus Canal crying, staring at the cavity in the sky. My wife, Laura, drove to meet me in her Toyota. And when I got home, for the first time in 33 years, I could not listen to music.

Throughout my adult life, music has lain at the core of my being. I am not a religious person—it has been music that has connected me to something bigger than just my identity, something wider than just my concerns.

I had components to audition, a review to write, an issue of Stereophile to get to the printer. Yet for the next 10 days, the act of listening to music seemed a selfish distraction. Since the 1960s I have tried to serve the music I love with systems of increasing fidelity, but in the days that followed September 11, everything other than the NPR news was irrelevant.

I was not alone in this feeling. Robert Baird examines it in this month's "Aural Robert" and erstwhile Stereophile staffer Wes Phillips gets to its heart in an on-line essay. And on September 17, reader Darryl Warren opened an online discussion on this website with the words "We all came together for a moment in time last Tuesday and shared a tragedy that will affect us all in different ways. I'm writing this on Friday night, because it suddenly occurred to me that I have not turned on my audio system once since that morning."

As I was to read in a response from Pete Bilderback to Mr. Warren's comments, the inability to enjoy those things that formerly brought one pleasure is a symptom of depression. New Yorkers were mugged on September 11, and depression is a normal reaction to being mugged.

As did many others, I found my way back from depression with Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem—in my case, the classic 1962 performance from Otto Klemperer, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (EMI Classics CDC 7 47238 2). That journey—from the somber beginning, "Blessed are they that mourn," which ideally matched the despair from which I could not shake myself free, through the triumphant ending of the third movement, "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them," the vocal lines intertwining over a held pedal, to the sweet setting of Psalm 74—finally succeeded in reconvincing me that music was not peripheral to life, to be discarded in the bad times, but that music was the key to life. Which is, I suppose, why the Taliban was so quick to ban music when they took control of Afghanistan.

As we are all finding, life slowly pulls back to something resembling normalcy, and in October I took a road trip. I planned a sweep through Utah, visiting speaker manufacturers Talon, Wilson, and RBH; through New Mexico to hang out with Stereophile writer Brian Damkroger, Stereophile copy editor Richard Lehnert, ex-Stereophile publisher Larry Archibald, and my sister-in-law Helené; to amplifier manufacturer Ayre Acoustics, in Colorado; and to Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem, in Kansas. The outgoing legs of the trip were by plane—it was reassuring to see the increased security—the return legs by car, my 31-year-old Mercedes sedan taking the 2300 miles of America in stride (after some restorative maintenance from Larry).

I threw myself into a lot of music on a lot of systems on the trip. Richard's Vandersteen 2Ce-based system reaffirmed my memories of how effectively these modest speakers communicate musical meaning. Larry's Krell-driven, nine-year-old Thiel CS5is sounded better than I remembered, giving rise to the thought that the High End's biggest competitors for its new products are the outstanding products it sold in the past. The Impact Airfoils in Brian's system were intriguing, given that I don't see how their planar drivers can produce sound at all! The legendary WAMMs in Dave Wilson's living room, driven by Mark Levinson monoblocks and an Audio Research preamp, were simply astounding—unlimited headroom, an enormous sound, no sense that the source was the resolution-limited 16-bit CD: total musical communication.

I experienced some of the same qualities, but on a smaller scale, at Ayre, with Charlie Hansen's Avalon Eclipses horizontally biamped by a four-channel V6 amp and the K1X preamp. It was Charlie's words when he outlined Ayre's corporate goal that stuck in my mind during the long drive back to Brooklyn: "to build sound systems for people who love music [so that] the limitations of recorded sound will disappear and the restorative power of music will be a part of daily life."

I had lost sight of that restorative power in the dreadful days following September 11. I shall not lose sight of it again.

I had originally planned to use this space to address issues raised by Seth Godin in this month's "Letters." But I am tired of the carping, Mr. Godin? This magazine is put together by a team of writers, editors, and administrative, publishing, and sales staff with whom I am honored to work. I don't question their commitment to what the magazine does and why it does it. I write editorials like September's, the one that had Mr. Godin sighing, because I don't see the point in being any less than honest and direct with Stereophile's readers—you are the reason for this magazine's existence, and I shall not lose sight of that either.