Hi-Fi Arcana I

Some Stereophile readers will surely remember—some may even have in their collections—Christian Marclay's 1985 vinyl release Record Without a Cover, surely one of the oddest records ever, right up there with the dying-rabbit record and the seven-inch single that's tinted yellow by the band's actual urine.

I had filed away my memory of Record Without a Cover in a brain-slot adjacent to Gary Dahl's pet rock and The Nothing Book, the wordless bestseller from 1974. But then I read an interview between Marclay and musician/scholar David Toop (footnote 1), published in a book I recommend: Arcana III: Musicians on Music (Hips Road, 2008). It's part of the Arcana series, edited by John Zorn, which is now up to its eighth (VIIIth?) volume.

Side A of Record Without a Cover features what sounds like several record players playing at the same time—just surface noise first, gradually increasing, then a slow crescendo of chaotic music and sounds. The B side has no grooves, just words written in a spiral, including the etched admonition to not store the record in a protective package. The goal is precisely to let it get scuffed and dirty so that the sound changes over time. Marclay writes:

"Record Without a Cover changes as it gets damaged and these changes become part of the composition. The needle might skip or loop, or the surface might get so damaged that you can't really listen to it or you'll just hear fragments. . . .

"[Y]ou can even decide to damage the record or care for it more or less, and that's a kind of participation. You get involved with the medium and the composition, you can affect what you're hearing. It's collaborative, even performative, placing the record on the turntable, handling and caring for it, all those audiophile habits are being questioned."

I'm intrigued by the notion of the listener as musical partner, music playback as creative act. It impinges on some basic audiophile questions, such as: Are we duty-bound to pursue transparency, or may we exercise more agency, assembling a system that presents the music just the way we like it, and in so doing, participate in the act of creation? (We are free to take whatever approach we wish, of course, but that doesn't mean that all choices are equally valid.)

It's interesting to consider that no such collaboration would be possible with a compact disc, because as it got scuffed, it would keep playing until it failed completely—and then, probably, get stuck in the player. And you can forget about downloads and streams, which don't really exist. Say what you want about sound quality, vinyl is clearly better as a creative partner, as it responds in more natural and interesting ways to abuse, and to common vinyl-playback rituals such as record-brushing, stylus-cleaning, and zapping it with your Milty. You can manipulate digital, too—think DSP—but you need some kind of synthetic interface. Analog is physical, skin on skin. Digital is drive-by-wire.

Right now, there's a single copy of Record Without a Cover on Discogs, graded Good+—"has scuffs and some surface noise throughout"—listed at $384 (footnote 2). I guess 35 years of active collaboration have been factored into the price.

Compared to musicians, our role as creators is small, but it plays a big part in our pleasure. Every time we reposition a speaker, buy a new preamp, or brush some dust off a record—assuming we do it competently—we get a little closer to musical transcendence.

So far, I've only skimmed Arcana III, but I've found a second essay that's just as resonant. "It never ceased to amaze me how often a visitor to my studio could distinguish between two music examples," writes mastering engineer Scott Hull (not the hi-fi critic, who spells his name with a single t), in "Ramblings about Music from a (Not Quite Yet) Mad Mastering Engineer." "The differences between these samples were theoretically inaudible, but the visitor could easily and routinely distinguish between them."

Hull describes his mastering session with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker for Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. "There was one song that Donald was not content with. . . . [T]he overall sound of the song needed to be a little brighter, as in more 'present' compared to the other tracks on the album. . . . We eventually came to a debate over whether we should add 0.2dB of EQ at 1400Hz or 0.2dB of EQ at 1250Hz. The difference between these two settings would ordinarily be completely inaudible. . . . For Donald, however, who was deeply aware of how his record sounded, the difference was huge. At the first setting one of the shakers in the mix seemed to sound louder and dominated the mix in a way it hadn't before. At the other setting the snare seemed louder, which was the intention, but it was too much." Unfortunately, 0.2dB was the smallest volume increment available in the studio, so they left the song the way it was.

In summing up the story, Hull provides what may be the best advice for any aspiring audio reviewer: "Be very aware of how a piece of music makes you feel."

And trust yourself. "[I]f you feel it, it's in there, whether you can measure it or not."—Jim Austin


Footnote 1: Toop was a member of the Flying Lizards, best known for their robotic 1979 remake of the Motown song "Money" by Barrett Strong.

Footnote 2: Is it coincidence that the price corresponds numerically to the highest sampling rate commonly used in digital audio?

COMMENTS
jimtavegia's picture

From the late Roger Nichols. We never know it all.

http://steelydanreader.com/2000/02/01/give-jitters-case-mysteriously-bad-test-pressing/

PAR's picture

Many thanks for posting such a fascinating link.

downunderman's picture

Zaireeka - As a CD example, there are four disks that can be played separately, or in groups of 2, 3 or 4 with multiple stereos. Between combining the disks and toying with volume, balance, fidelity etc the options are limitless. No two multi disk performances can be repeated...though with a repeat button on the cd player maybe you could.....if the players had exactly the same spec's.

Pretzel Logic's picture

The Feederz 'Ever feel like killing your boss?' from 1984 on the Flaming Banker (ha!) label has 180 grit sandpaper on both sides of the jacket, designed to ruin the sleeves of records next to it.

Drummerman's picture

You write "We are free to take whatever approach we wish, of course, but that doesn't mean that all choices are equally valid" Valid to who? I would argue that does make each approach equally valid.

Jack L's picture

.... some surface noise throughout"—listed at $384"

$384 for a non-listenable "record"? It sounds like a curator, who knows nothing about audio, buying a historic artifact.

As an sorta antique audio collector, I would use this money for a few 1940s AM radiios in good working condition.

"the price corresponds numerically to the highest sampling rate commonly used in digital audio." quoted Jim Austin.

Maybe I missed a lot in digital. I am yet to listen to digital recordings at this highest sampling rate of 384Khz. I only heard up to 192KHz CDs.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Bogolu Haranath's picture

384kHz is not enough ....... $500, Chord Mojo can play back up to 768kHz :-) ........

Jack L's picture

Hi

My question is: do you think you will hear the difference at such super high sample rate?

Not at home environment, my friend.

This is an established case: Young people at their early twenties or younger (sharp hearing) may hear the difference in white noise encoded with such high sampling rates in a dead quiet lab environment, e.g. anechoic chamber. But not MUSIC !!!!!!

So take it easy.

Jack L

T.S. Gnu's picture

"Are we duty-bound to pursue transparency, or may we exercise more agency, assembling a system that presents the music just the way we like it, and in so doing, participate in the act of creation? (We are free to take whatever approach we wish, of course, but that doesn't mean that all choices are equally valid.)

It's interesting to consider that no such collaboration would be possible with a compact disc...."

I’m a bit curious here, Jim. Ever hear about or come across tone controls?

Fluxus's picture

Also related to Zorn in that it was released on his Tzadik label, be sure to check out Yasunao Tone's "Solo for Wounded CD." The concept isn't miles apart from the Marclay LP, except that Tone had to strategically damage CDs himself to create the desired effects (and they generally only worked via playback on very early CD players). He and Marclay discuss the work together in an interview featured in Arcana III.

rosiemax's picture

I had a comedy album,I think Henny Youngman,that would play one set of routines the first time and a different set the second time.Unfortunately it was given away.

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