Eye Anchors: LaserVision Discs

Until recently, I have considered LaserVision video discs as a rather dubious medium for serious music reproduction. The only review I had read about it by a critical listener (Harry Pearson in The Absolute Sound) was I singularly unenthusiastic, and since I had not heard one myself, I was inclined to take his word for it.

I feel now that may have been a mistake. I finally got an opportunity to hear some LaserVision discs of classical music reproduced through a good audio system—in my own home. And while I could easily find things to complain about with the microphoning and mixing (all were multimiked), I have reached the earthshaking conclusion that this is a music medium that must be taken seriously.

The discs I heard were of a ballet (La Fille Mal Gardee), a symphonic work (Dvorak's Slavonic Dances) and two cello concertos (the Dvorak and the Saint-Saens No.1). For the visual part, the ballet recording presented England's Covent Garden troupe, beautifully filmed by the BBC for broadcast. The Slavonic Dances disc showed a few minutes of the musicians at work, then gave us moving picture-postcard scenes of Prague and its environs. On both of these discs there was little if any evidence of creative tampering while recording; the sound was surprisingly like that from good EMI analog discs, but cleaner. But the concerto disc was quite another story.

On that one, the visual images throughout were various and sundry views of the orchestra as a whole and individual players therein, with attention focusing most often, naturellement, on the cello soloist. This sounds like a deadly bore, but thanks to the imaginative and sensitive camera work, it wasn't. The experience, remembered, was in fact so similar to being at an actual concert that, were I never to see that disc again, I might find it difficult to be sure, later on, whether I was recalling a reproduction or an actual in-the-flesh concert.

Yet the sound of that disc was, in audiophile terms, badly flawed. It sounded excellent in every respect but one: there was unmistakable evidence of flagrant gimmickry. Whenever a particular instrument was spotlighted on-camera, so was its sound. Heard with the picture turned off, this sounded like some of the worst mixing excesses of Carnegie Hall concerts over latter-day AM radio. But with the picture turned on, so the eye saw the same spotlighting as the ears were hearing, it didn't sound all that wrong. The mere fact that the eyes confirmed the aural clues stripped them somehow of much of their impropriety.

In short, I found this new dual-media assault on my senses to be immensely exhilarating. I was, in fact, moved to wonder what I had been doing with my eyes for all these decades when I have listened to music without seeing it. Was I rereading the same old jacket notes, or perusing the newspaper, or thumbing idly through a back issue of the Schwann Record Guide?

Perhaps, I mused, this is why so many people, accustomed to the sound-with-images from TV or films; find it difficult to listen attentively to reproduced music—that is, to listen without the distractions of reading, eating, or making out. But then I started noticing other people when groups of us were listening. At least one was always perusing the jacket notes or thumbing through Schwann. Some had their eyes closed, either supplying their own mental images or surreptitiously leaving our company for a quick trip through snoozeland. Some, however, were staring attentively at the bare wall between the loudspeakers, their eyes flicking from side to side as their ears zeroed in on the directional cues that located this instrument or that in the space between the speakers. And I realized as never before why firmness and stability of imaging is so important to many audiophiles; it occupies the eyes when no visual cues, in fact. exist.

Somehow this was never a problem with monophonic reproduction. Like the RCA dog Nipper, of "His Master's Voice" fame, we fixated on the source of the sound, and while that may not have been a terribly interesting visual target, it was at least a tangible one. But good stereo, where the sound comes from everywhere but the loudspeakers, cuts the eyes adrift. Firm imaging is the only ocular target left.

Obviously, I am not the first person to realize that idle eyes are tiring. Gadgets that convert sound signals into meaningless but ever-changing patterns of light have been slow but continuing sellers in stores that cater to low-brow audiophiles, and there have been a few such designs that actually produce rather complex patterns for those willing to pay around $1000 for them. These provide a hitching post for a listener's wandering eyes, but even the most sophisticated of these devices have been definitely limited in their repertoire of patterns. After the novelty wore off, the visuals became as boring as the living-room wallpaper.

Now all that has changed. Video, a field highly scorned by most audiophiles, has filled the gap between the loudspeakers with images that are not only stable, they are often as stimulating as the sound itself. A few of us have sampled this double-barreled sensory experience through so-called simulcasts, where the audio for a video program is broadcast in stereo over a cooperating FM station. But unless the program happens to be an opera or a ballet—visually interesting to begin with—the video part of the simulcast is the Cinderella of the marriage, consisting only of endless shots of the orchestra members busily bowing, blowing, and otherwise doing their respective things. But it is a harbinger of more imaginative things to come.

By far the most creative use of video as an eye-target for listeners can be seen (if you're on cable) on the Music-TV channel, where some of the most sophisticated special effects this side of Star Wars are used to create stunning, and often stunningly effective, visuals to accompany rock music (which is also simulcast via the cable's FM band). The fact that the visuals often seem completely unrelated to the music doesn't seem to faze anyone, but then a feeling for the "eternal fitness of things" has never been a national strong point.

But MTV and the LaserVision discs I saw are clearly the way of the future. The audio part of video can now be good enough to enjoy for its sound as well as its content, and while the fidelity of the TV picture is several orders of magnitude lower than that of the audio, it is (usually) more than capable of holding its own.