God is in the Nuances Page 9

In my estimation, the writing style that prevails in current hi-fi journalism is an attempt to describe the sonic presentation as an abstraction from the listening experience, in an attempt to produce results that do not depend on a certain kind of music, but can be related to the perceived requirements of a given style of music. If a review states that a speaker has abrasive highs, it matters little if this observation was made while listening to massed violins or to a rock guitar. The assumption is that the reader then translates this observation to his own listening experience and decides if this particular aspect of music reproduction is important to his enjoyment of music or not.

But how do we know this assumption is true?

The way forward?
This article would be pretty pointless if it didn't at least try to find a way out of the dilemma we have brought upon ourselves. A magazine, after all, has to be useful (and entertaining) to its readers if it wants to survive. Here's the question we have to answer: Are there aspects of sound that are more important for emotional appreciation than others, and if so, which? It's clear that, however much I have derided sound per se up to now, somehow emotional response must be related to the waveform of the sound reaching our ears. There is no secret medium other than sound emanating from our speakers.

Let me introduce you to the thinking of another searcher for a new direction: Jean-Marie Piel, a 45-year-old journalist living in Paris, France. At the age of 15 Piel built his first hi-fi chain, consisting of a tube amp and Supravox speakers with a single chassis per channel. After earning his baccalaureat, the French equivalent of a high school diploma, he began to study literature and philosophy. He taught himself how to play the flute, which he taught for 13 years---beginning at age 23---at the Conservatoire de Fontainebleau. From the age of 20 he also worked as a journalist for hi-fi and music magazines, among other achievements writing and editing the "Arts Sonores" section of L'audiophile, the influential French underground magazine. Since 1985 he has been responsible for the sound section of Diapason, the largest music and sound magazine in France, as a joint editor-in-chief. He also writes regularly for Paris-Match. Jean-Marie Piel receives and listens to practically every CD that is offered in the French market, selecting two to four of these each month as musically and sonically outstanding. His knowledge of music, instruments, and musicians is encyclopaedic. He can eloquently explain the differences between instruments of different periods and why they evolved in a specific way. He writes (footnote 13):

"With his familiar ironic humor, Paul Valéry once said that 'the vice begins when one gives up the whole for the part'---a sentence that could be applied to a lot of hi-fi enthusiasts and that well [describes] the perversity that grips us when we take our pleasure by listening to music with those devices called loudspeakers. Modern miking techniques, which have a tendency to run amok on technology and to favor the detail at the expense of the ensemble, further push us in this direction: that of fragmented listening, even if one has to guard against overgeneralizations. But the fact is, if 20 microphones are used for recording an orchestra, there is little chance for the cohesion of the ensemble to survive. We are then reduced to hearing details, to take interest in nothing else. But the music escapes the detail; if the detail takes precedence, it is nothing but sound, a piece of sound. The music passes through it---if you stop to examine the detail, the music has already moved on. Of course, sound is the necessary medium for music. It's the sound that makes the music, not the notes. Still, by a mysterious paradox, fidelity to sound does not always coincide with fidelity to the emotion, which is the soul itself of music.

"Therein lies the rub: If one wants to judge a hi-fi system, one tends to erroneously concentrate on purely sonic details---are the lower mids good and are the extreme highs easy on the ear? As if one would ask such questions in a concert. In a concert, there is no woofer, no tweeter, there are only musicians playing. When listening to a hi-fi system, it is they and only they one should be listening to. It is true that a lot of components, in all price brackets, do not invite us to do this, and direct attention to the sound. We then have every occasion to think that the invisible link between notes that gives them musical meaning is not being reproduced. There's no necklace, just pearls . . . they may be beautiful, just as sounds made by certain sophisticated systems, which reproduce sounds superbly and with a certain implacable coldness, yet miss the soul of music, can be beautiful.

"All the difficulty lies in analyzing what is missing in the sound when living music is not happening. For the beginning of an answer we may turn our attention to certain chains, sometimes somewhat colored, missing the bottom or the top octave, which nevertheless reproduce the life and magic of musical movement. A certain timbral fidelity may be missing, but in a broad midrange where the essence of musical energy is concentrated (between about 200Hz and 4kHz), they are capable of perfectly reproducing nuances: ie, the intensity interrelations between sounds; or, to be more precise, the fluctuations of intensity within a single sound. This is where the life is. It's enough to analyze a note held by a musician to gain consciousness of this fact. You know that this held note comes from a musician and not a machine because there are infinitely small instabilities. The sound does not have a constant intensity. Sure, the variations are very small, but they exist. In the ability to reproduce these infinitely small nuances is the answer to the question of whether a chain will let through the life, without which, evidently, the music is just dead notes.

"Another example: Listen to the way a violinist like Salvatore Accardo lets sounds develop in the Beethoven Concerto. He attacks certain notes hard, with a broad vibrato (variations in pitch and volume), then progressively reduces the intensity, tying the whole down (which in itself creates several levels of nuance) until he flirts with silence. The way he lets the note finish, or die, is so subtly progressive that one doesn't quite know where the note ends and the silence begins. From this uncertainty, which makes us listen hard to save this fascinating passage from nothingness, arises a strong emotion. If superficiality enters into the reproduction---a kind of oversimplification in the rendition of nuances that gives the impression that the note, instead of dying away imperceptibly, is brutally cut off---the interpretation's magic is immediately destroyed. The artist leaves us indifferent because he doesn't force us to train our ears to the outer limits of audibility.

Footnote 13: Quoted with Jean-Marie Piel's permission; translation by Markus Sauer.

dcrowe's picture

Markus Saur's article lists several effects that I have noticed myself.

1. Increased accuracy, lower distortion, and increased speed do not assure increased enjoyment of music for many listeners. Hearing things never heard before in the music is considered a sign of superior audio equipment performance [I agree with that myself], but the new things may be distractions to some listeners. My teenage son, who is a musician as well as a brilliant computer and science student, prefers the sound of his game grade headphones to my high end audiophile headphones. It is the sound he expects and it masks the limitations of the rest of the sound system he is using. I am reminded of people who prefer McDonald's to gourmet food. [my son is not one of those, he is a gourmet cook himself].
2. The sound of one Watt class triode amplifiers is preferred by some. I wonder if the electron cloud saturation of these amplifiers compresses the dynamic range so that quiet components in the music are more prominent without turning the peak sound level up to the threshold of pain.
3. I happen to prefer highly accurate playback. It enhances my enjoyment. For example, the distortions caused by wear and mis-tracking on vinyl discs irritates me. I prefer high quality digital sources. I also prefer amplifiers that have power in reserve. So I may be in a minority camp, but in that camp accuracy is in, distortion and compression are out. I can hear the forest AND the trees simultaneously, and am displeased with equipment that falls short of giving me both.