The Fifth Element #3 Page 2

This notion of controlled connectedness might be useful in thinking about why we feel compelled to spend serious money on a stereo—money that others might spend on a bass boat or a red convertible or a foreign vacation. I think if we have deeper insights into the valid reasons for doing what we do, perhaps we can do a smarter and better job of doing it. I could brush my teeth for five minutes using the electrons that have arrived here bearing anguished cries for help from people torn between choosing the Coriolis Effect Deluxe Rev.3.2 Power Cord and the Shamelessly Hosing Neither Balanced Nor Unbalanced Tofu-Filled Mystical Interconnect as the more suitable destination for their thousand bucks. In nearly every case, that's asking the wrong question.

I've never met anyone who really wanted to spend a thousand bucks on a power cord or set of interconnects. I've only met people who wanted to be happy.

Please read those last two sentences again, then pause to think about them.

Thank you for doing that. Now: There may be limited circumstances in which spending a thousand bucks on a power cord will not only make someone happy, it might also be the single most optimally cost-effective thing to do. Though possible, this is unlikely, because it's usually the result of confusing means and ends.

Do we want to buy a drill bit or do we want to put a hole in something?

Once we get our minds out of thinking that we're in the hobby of buying stereo equipment and begin thinking about ourselves as being in the hobby of working to create a feeling of connectedness with things that are larger than ourselves, our horizons are suddenly a lot wider than: I have decided to buy this power cord rather than that interconnect. It's also a more interesting world, and it costs less to play in.

These ruminations shall continue...

Elemental Reading

A Pattern Language, cited above (Oxford University Press, 1977), is Christopher Alexander's attempt to systematically catalog vernacular, or home-grown, architectural forms and elements from around the world in order to make them applicable to a range of uses, from city planning to interior design. Much of Alexander's effort has been expended in putting into thought and word his insights into why so many features of the pre-industrial English and Welsh villages, homes, and rooms he studied still seem so self-evidently "right." His achievement lies in not mistaking exterior style for intrinsic function, and his explanations as to why something works never stray far from his conviction that buildings should be built for people to live in or use.

Even if you have no immediate need for architectural inspiration, A Pattern Language is so filled with gentle flashes of illumination that opening it at random is a pleasure you should not deny yourself. And if the relevance is not yet clear, ponder this: Two of the world's three best-sounding concert halls were built along vernacular lines, decades before the calculus was successfully applied to acoustics. (And despite all the higher math, the third hall ended up a virtual clone of the first two.)

One of the few attempts to apply the precepts of A Pattern Language to contemporary residential design is Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 1998). Some of the rooms look as though they might sound quite good, while others look like home-audio purgatories. If Ms. Susanka hears about this, she can give me a jingle; I might be able to give her some helpful suggestions.

Elemental Recordings
Bass is good, and room-filling sound is good, but natural reproduction of the human voice is an absolute necessity if a stereo system is to give long-term enjoyment—and multiple voices up the ante. But most of my favorite choral recordings consist of great music and great singing and "eh, let's not talk about it" sound.

Here, culled from the general onslaught, are five all-around great choral recordings that you should own (in addition to the previously recommended Telarc recording of Brahms's German Requiem, Robert Shaw conducting), so you can use them to evaluate a new component or unfamiliar system:

Heinrich Isaac, Missa de Apostolis, The Tallis Scholars (Gimell CDGIM 023): The original New Age music, so to speak. Entrancing singing, with great stage depth and acoustical envelopment.

Grex Vocalis, Renessanse for kor (Kiku FXCD 39): Creamy, seamless tonal production and a warmly wonderful recording job. A more immediate recording, and lighter in texture and tone than the Tallis Scholars, this may be the best all-round unaccompanied chamber-choir album that can be had. A desert-island favorite of mine, as well as of Bob Ludwig and Arturo Delmoni. Available from Audio Advancements, (973) 875-8705.

Cunfraterna di a pieve di a Serra, Laude (Albiana & Casa CDAL 009): Time-capsule 12th-Century lay Franciscan chant from Corsica. The voices are about what you'd expect from village men chosen for their piety and willingness to work together in passing along a tradition, but music-making seldom gets more authentic.

Arvo Pärt, Te Deum (ECM 1505): Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for March 1994 is a work of uncompromising austerity and immense seriousness, but also totally lacking the hollow self-importance and confrontational ugliness that undercuts so much contemporary music. A milestone—don't miss it.

Geoffrey Burgon, Cathedral Music (Hyperion CDA66123): Contemporary neo-Anglican cathedral music of uncommon melodic and harmonic subtlety. Burgon's Nunc Dimittis for choir with organ and trumpet is deservedly a modern classic.

Questions? Comments?