Do Musicophiles Enjoy Audio?

Paul Gowan's letter in the October 1989 Stereophile hinted that, whether or not audiophiles enjoy music, it should be true that the emotional experience we derive from music is what really matters. There, barefaced, lies the problem: who are "we"? A well-known Latin epigram affirms that in matters of taste there is no point in discussion. And a Greek epigram (coined in fact by Max Beerbohm in his Oxford novel Zuleika Dobson) suggests that "for people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like."

In the January 1990 Stereophile Melvin Elliot supported Gowan's viewpoint by stating that "the system should be [merely] the means to an's the music that counts!" All very well if you are a musician—but what if you happen to be an audiophile? In a letter printed right after Elliot's, Ralph Gordon shines light on another facet of this argument by proposing that "perhaps audiophiles are would-be engineers who enjoy learning about equipment," but he insists that he still gets excited about the music. Can you be both an audiophile and a musician? It's a bit like politics—can you be a square and a circle at the same time?

In a reckless attempt to pour water on troubled oils, I emptied out my audiophile and riffled through the floppies in order to find out all I could about this vexing matter, drawing at the same time on my own quaint experience, such as it is.

Put briefly, I reviewed records for 12 years (The Gramophone), conducted and produced records for 35 years (overlapping the previously-mentioned activity), and am now reviewing again (footnote 1). So I should be able to see both sides of the question, except that my recording equipment would have made a high-ender's hair stand high on end, consisting as it did of a prehistoric stereo mike intravenously fed into a wind-up tape machine running—when it ran at all—at (more or less) 7½ips. But the "master" (or, better, mistress) tapes delivered to top-ranking international record companies were not only made into commercial LPs, but were usually reviewed with unqualified praise. So I must have been doing something right. My elder son, who helped considerably while humoring father's foibles, was actually a genuine audiophile and is now chief engineer of a New York City sound-studio whose equipment somewhat resembles the flight deck of a Concorde.

Incidentally, a recent TV program on "Why Planes Crash" made it quite clear that too much attention to the means can sometimes mess up the end. A black box subsequently retrieved from strewn wreckage proved that, during a landing approach when a noncritical cockpit light wouldn't come on, the entire crew fell busy trying to make it function, completely ignoring the altimeter which, beeping madly, indicated an uncomfortably rapid descent to ground level.

This is comparable, in a way that is artistically rather than personally disastrous, to a record company which spends a fortune on a complete set of Schubert symphonies. They hire a competent conductor and orchestra. They supply incredibly sophisticated and expensive sound equipment. The producer gets a printed credit. (Walter Legge of EMI, who produced some of the finest records ever made, remained for the most part anonymous.) So much for the means. But what of the end?

Well, to begin with, the musical text used for the symphonies was faulty. (This recording really took place and is currently available.) I mean, actual wrong notes! When the scores were first edited just over a century ago, none other than Johannes Brahms straightened out quite a few obvious errors and inconsistencies. His text—or rather, that of Eusebius Mandyczewski, the responsible editor—was not perfect, but it was musical in the Schubertian sense. Yet three years ago an unskilled person was hired to undo (yes, undo!) all that good work, and in consequence the entire set, notwithstanding all the digital dexterity involved, is more or less useless.

Listen to the voice of Walt Whitman, a marvelous poet who also knew and loved music:

I hear not the volumes of sound merely,
I am moved by the exquisite meanings,

I listen to the different voices winding in
and out, striving,
contending with fiery vehemence to excel
each other in emotion...

You see, he understood in a way that we don't. He heard "not the volumes of sound merely" but was "moved by the exquisite meanings." Do audiophiles, their ears blocked by their own finite impulse responses, ever ask themselves about the meanings? They could try studying music along with audio, and refine their perceptions way beyond the conventional so that they can distinguish between a good and a poor performance, or a musical text vs a phony one. With so little music taught in schools, and less in colleges, how can they hope to understand? Their approach to life, far from being humanistic, is totally technological.

And they will argue "we don't have the time—it's as much as we can do to keep up with the built-in obsolescence of sound-systems." My answer: then get back into shape! All you have to do is exercise—be kind to your mind, train your brain. Discover the exquisite meanings! Buy and read the best books on music and composers. Shut off the other senses when you listen to a magnificent performance of great music. Put the lights out. Relax in your favorite chair. Don't fiddle with magazines. Leave the 'fridge alone. Quit smoking (if you haven't done so already). Refuse all conversation. Concentrate.

You'll hear ten times as much as you did before. And you'll feel better!

There is a parallel to audiophilia in automobilia. As with the struggle for superlative audio equipment, so with the automobile. How to make it more reliable, more responsive, more economic—and quieter. You can buy cars of all nationalities. There is also the Rolls-Royce (if you can afford to insure it), and if you own one you will have a precision-built machine whose engine runs at such comparatively low revs and is so well insulated that when you sit at the wheel and turn on the ignition, you won't hear a thing.

Drive off and there's still silence, provided the windows are rolled up. But what on earth can you do with silence? Some drivers like to think, or converse with a companion, but there are many not-so-scrupulous citizens who enjoy VROOM, and as if that's not enough they convert their vroom-boxes into boom-boxes to the dire distress of all those within half-a-mile radius who may like a little peace and quiet. John Atkinson had some pertinent remarks about this in January's "As We See It." I almost wish they'd been impertinent! Once again we are up against a matter of taste, which could be allied to good manners and consideration for others.

Not to mention the spirit of the age. Britain and America, both democratic in outlook, view certain problems in slightly different ways. For instance, in Britain all broadcasting used to be a monopoly, financially supported by a license (that cost far less than a road license) and additional revenue from the advertisements in BBC publications. The ads were never broadcast! They still aren't. In America, the laudable idea was to sell via audio (later video) advertising, which brought about a coitus interruptus kind of entertainment in which concentration for more than ten minutes was virtually impossible. In order to pull in as many buyers as possible, program standards were dipped. On the other side of the pond, the BBC's Director-General Lord Reith was saying: "We know precisely what the British public wants, and by God they're not going to get it!" He wouldn't have lasted long in New York City.

In the long run, people do get what they want. That is why most things are 90% junk, ardently desired (apparently) by 90% of the world's population. Narrowing the matter down to a smallish area, J. Gordon Holt (in a letter following directly on Ralph Gordon's in the January issue) states that "the vast majority of rock music is unmitigated garbage...all the way back to before Hildegard of Bingen." She, by the way, was a poetress, authoress, and composeress who lived from 1098 until 1179. Her problem was that she never recorded anything 24 tracks in and 96 tracks out on 6" tape. She had to sing with her own unamplified voice. No company offered her a contract, and no agency would sign her up for a tour, so she had to fall back on the Almighty, which was really tough. More or less the same happened to Bach, Mozart, Wagner, and others. They upped and died before they could even reach out for their royalties. So they are not very highly regarded, whereas the Purple Hereafter and comparable groups have a hundred million fans who, perhaps unknowingly, keep their idols in conditions of unbelievable wealth and luxury. JGH refers to these in his strictures on a "trend-driven, marginally literate public."

Never mind: Memorex sound-cassettes have it all wrapped up. On their Korean-made products a revealing blurb appears in both French and English. "Formule à haut rendement donne une reproduction claire comme en direct pour tous les types de musique." I translate: "High-output formula provides a reproduction clear as the original for all kinds of music." And I assume that "all kinds" includes everything from Hildegard onward, via Palestrina's rolling polyphony Tu es Petrus ("Thou art the rock") all the way up to Frank Zappa, who once said "People wouldn't know what music is if it came up and bit them on the ass." But wait! You haven't heard Memorex's English version yet! "Special formula provides clear-life reproduction of your favorite rock, pop, jazz, or country music."

Aha! So now we know! Like the Old Testament idols, "having eyes they see not; having ears they hear not." Which might well be applied to many record producers unfortunately active today. In the past year alone I have listened to CDs with unbelievable and ineradicable faults. For instance: a Purcell masque which omits one of the published verses and a vital piece of incidental music, while the notes never outline the plot; a Charpentier oratorio in which a quartet of trombones is supplanted by a quartet of bass viols; several sets of 18th-century concertos with no organ to back up the orchestra—only a harpsichord; string quartets recorded with a ubiquitous and distressing vibrato; an otherwise good recording of Elgar's The Kingdom with solo vocalists doing the same, and about 12 seconds of total dropout; a DIY set of Monteverdi Vespers for St. John the Baptist bringing in works he didn't write but omitting one that he did (Fuge anima mea mundum); and so on and so forth.

Dear friends, you possess magnificent equipment, and it cost a great deal of money. But you could spend ONE MILLION DOLLARS on equipment and it still wouldn't restore Purcell's missing musical items; it could never cause viols to sound like trombones (or sackbuts, if you like); it can't put the necessary organ sound into a texture from which it was willfully excluded; it would not be able to straighten out vibrato; and it couldn't possibly put Monteverdi's motet on St. John the Baptist back where it belongs.

It is not the clarity of sound that counts, nor its purity, sanitation, or sheer volume. WHAT IS VERY IMPORTANT is to start with a proper musical text—and there's only a handful of people who even begin to understand what this is all about. Not musicologists, please! They are the worst of all! Musicians are slightly preferable, although as Frédéric Louis Ritter, the Vassar College professor, wrote in his History of Music published more than a century ago, "Their whole attention is directed, in most instances, towards the technical side of musical art." This observation is still largely true, for it cannot be said that musical taste has been improved in large measure by either musicians or musicologists. We are still faced with 90% garbage, and since it is now frequently amplified beyond the threshold of pain, everyone must endure it.

"At many performances of the Requiem I have seen one man listening in terror, shaken to the very depths of his soul, while his neighbor could not catch a single idea, though trying with all his might to do so." That was Hector Berlioz writing on 25 May 1858. We have an origination of sound, and a human being on the receiving end. If either of the two is out of joint, the message is lost. And the music of the moon—as in Tennyson's words—"sleeps in the plain eggs of the nightingale."

Footnote 1: A musician, musicologist, producer, broadcaster, educator, and an occasional Stereophile contributor, Denis Stevens CBE passed away in April 2004, at the age of 82. You can find obituaries here and here.—John Atkinson