Judy Spotheim: Seeing & Hearing The Light Page 4

Scull: When I'd mentioned the Koetsu cartridge to you earlier, did I understand you to say you knew its creator, Sugano-san?

Spotheim: Well, you can say that the old man Sugano knows about me. I've actually received photographs from him. He knew me when I was living in Israel. At that time I hadn't yet designed the SpJ tonearm, and I'd made a tonearm from bamboo...

Scull: What? [laughs] You're so casual about it...

Spotheim: Don't laugh! [laughs] It was a so-called unipivot. It was working fantastic with a...how do you call it, a sewing needle?

Scull: What?

Spotheim: You heard me correctly. I made it myself. It was very delicate to adjust. And at that time I was corresponding with Mr. Koetsu. I sent him pictures of the tonearm, and he sent me one of his first cartridges.

Scull: Amazing...

Spotheim: It fit the bamboo nicely because the body was made of wood, of course. I even have a photo somewhere of Mr. Koetsu holding a photograph of me.

Scull: How did you meet your US distributor, George Cardas?

Spotheim: Oh, that is a very nice story. At the time I almost had the tonearm finished I was using internal armwires from a very old tonearm, nothing special. And I came to a point where I realized I had to try better internal armwires. So—this is true, every word that I'm telling you—I called a very well-known wire manufacturer here in Holland and explained what I was doing. I didn't need much wire, I was just looking for one-and-a-half meters of internal wire, and could he please send it to me? And he asked me quite bluntly if I had a business! I said no, it's not at that stage yet. "So who are you?" he demanded. I said here, you have my name and address, it's not espionage, I'm not trying to steal anything..."Oh, well, we don't know you and we're not going to deal with you!" He was very rude.

Scull: That's unfortunate.

Spotheim: He really brought tears to my eyes. I said to myself, "If that's the way I'm going to be treated by cartridge or wire manufacturers, well, it isn't normal." So around then I saw an advertisement by George Cardas for his wires. And I sat down and wrote a short handwritten letter to him. In it I begged for just a little internal armwire. Well, what do you know, after ten days or so I received from him a big parcel with wires and an encouraging letter.

Scull: Not what you expected.

Spotheim: No, but I was so glad—you know, he even included solder. I said to myself, "This man must be an angel." And he apologized for the wires, which were all black and not color-coded. He gave me the idea to color-code them with little touches of fingernail polish at the end. And I thought, "How deep does he think!"

Scull: [laughs] Yeah, George is deep.

Spotheim: So I took a nice piece of paper and I put dots of different nail-polish colors that I had in my house at the time—red, pink, blue, whatever. And I sent that back to him asking what color he liked! [laughs] I did. And I received another letter from him. He thought the pink was too old, the red too bold...but that's how I came to try his wire.

Also, in parallel with that, I got another manufacturer's wire, which I tried and wasn't very satisfied with. But when I tried the wire from George Cardas I could immediately hear...I can give you an example. I have an original first pressing of an EMI white-label Faust from 1959 with Victoria de los Angeles. It's amazing—they recorded it with two microphones, of course—and on side one you have the offstage chorus as recorded there at the Paris Opera House. I've visited there, so I know how the balconies look, and I knew the girls' chorus was completely off to the left side. When I heard that with the Cardas wires, the sound came really from far, far left, and a little bit back. I was amazed! From the first vowel, you can judge precisely where the performers are on the stage. Then I tried it with the other wires I had in the tonearm...

Scull: At the same time?

Spotheim: Sure, I wired up two sets of armwires in that arm so I could switch by just moving the pins.

Scull: Great idea.

Spotheim: With the other wire I heard the chorus from the left, but it wasn't very clear from where exactly on the left it came. It was a little bit misty, you might say. So I knew the Cardas was the armwire for me. Then George told me he would like to try my tonearm and I sent him one, and that's how we came to know each other.

Scull: Judy, do you have a few reference recordings that you use to judge good sound?

Spotheim: Yes, there's Schubert's "Trout" Quintet on Discophile Français. You know that label?

Scull: I'm afraid not.

Spotheim: It's from the '60s and each album is a treasure.

Scull: What's the recording's number, if you please?

Spotheim: I have it here...DF740010. And there's Decca SET-468A, the Ansermet memorial album with Stravinsky's Firebird, and a second disc, of the rehearsal with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. This Firebird is the early 1916 version, by the way, and listening to the rehearsal in that great hall, you can hear Ansermet yelling at the orchestra and actually hear the record cooking, so to speak. It wasn't intended as an audiophile LP, but to hear the acoustics when he speaks, how natural it sounds...

Scull: Well, I've got a surprise for you, Judy. I have that album. Kathleen is crazy for Ansermet, and we picked it up one night in the East Village for $15. My version is a London ffrr, though, FBD-S-1. As you say, it's astounding.

Spotheim: You have that recording? That's amazing! Of all the people I've talked to around the world about it, you are the only one who actually has it!

Scull: But of course. What other reference discs do you listen to?

Spotheim: Well, London OS 25280, A Christmas Offering with Leontyne Price and Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic, recorded in 1960. All of side two is a marvel.

Scull: Tell me, Judy, do audiophiles in Europe have as hard a time dealing with women as they seem to in America?

Spotheim: No, I don't think so. Frankly, it's more difficult to find willing people on the fabrication side.

Scull: Ah-ha...

Spotheim: Yes, because it was the Netherlands and I didn't speak the language. I would go to various places to have things made and they would just stare at me. Here was a strange lady with strange ideas and very high demands for mechanics, fine metalwork, and so on. It was hard to explain myself to these people. A student who lived in my attic did the first technical blueprints. And, so, of course, I was literally shown the door at most of these establishments. But slowly I found people who were willing to listen and help.

Scull: Who is your customer?

Spotheim: The audiophile who is married and has a wife who won't accept some ugly black coffinlike thing in the corner. And who likes things to have a nice feel, a nice sound, and nice looks.

Scull: You probably keep your customers for a long time, but is there a warranty associated with the turntable?

Spotheim: [laughs] Yes—if you don't throw it on the floor, then you have a warranty!

Scull: Judy, thank you very much for talking with me today.

Spotheim: Jonathan, thank you!