Why Music Matters Most More Letters

Fallacious fruit

Editor: Michael Lavorgna's "As We See It" essay in October confuses apples and oranges. He suggests that, just as art lovers don't expect paintings of apples to taste like a MacIntosh, so music lovers should not expect recordings of concerts to sound like, er, the concerts recorded. Pardon?

His analogy is fallacious. I don't view a painting to see how an apple looks (or tastes), but for the artist's interpretation of "appleness." Accordingly, I expect a reproduction of that painting to appear as much like the original picture as possible; after all, reproduction does mean "the act of duplicating." Likewise, I am interested in a certain conductor's interpretation of a composer's score, as performed by a particular orchestra in a particular hall; consequently, I expect a music recording to sound as close to the original performance as technology allows. Although visual and electronic methods of reproduction distort, the closer each comes to faithfully replicating the original work, the happier I am.

Yet I have no quarrel with Mr. Lavorgna for rejecting verisimilitude. An end user may buy and adjust equipment to suit his own musical fancy; he may find intentional distortion of a performance more enjoyable than a duplication. However, to judge their products, audio engineers need objective criteria rather than personal fancy. Otherwise, Mr. Lavorgna and I will spend the rest of our lives tinkering with each recording (although for different reasons).

What better audio standard for the recording engineer than a faithful reproduction of the original performance? Faithfulness allows manufacturers to consistently tailor their signature sound (whether accurate or otherwise) to a variety of recordings. Such faithfulness allows music lovers, in turn, to set their equipment according to personal preference, once and for all. I can assemble gear and adjust controls for the most realistic playback, while others can choose and adjust as they wish. Then we may all sit back and enjoy.

As far as my personal enjoyment goes, faithful reproduction allows me not only to enjoy the present emotional listening experience in my home, as described by Mr. Lavorgna, but also brings the added intellectual pleasure of connecting more closely with the minds of composer, conductor, and performer(s), connecting even with the culture out of which the original composition sprang. With technology's best attempts at faithful reproduction, I get apples and oranges.—Jim Vriesacker, plotinus@me.com

Thank you, Mr. Vriesacker, for your well-considered reply. While I believe Glenn Gould summed it up nicely—"A record is a concert without halls and a museum whose curator is the owner"— I always find it a bit cheeky, not to mention lazy, to leave it at that.

You are not the first, nor do I expect you will be the last, to confuse the mechanical reproduction of a painting with the art contained in music reproduction. I say "confuse" because you'd have to agree that, in music reproduction, the reproduction itself is a work of art with many participants: musicians, producers, engineers, etc. This collaboration transforms the original event(s) into something that heretofore did not exist—and in many instances this is literally the case, as I'm sure you're aware.

Of course we can reference a "live" recording of an acoustic performance, but the choices of microphone, microphone placement, number of microphones, etc., perform the same sort of transformation, rendering the "reproduction" a thing in itself. Therein lies the beauty, in my opinion. For others, therein lies the first of many unavoidable inaccuracies—which makes me wonder, analogously of course, why someone would bemoan the differences between a fruit salad, a postcard, and an original Cezanne.

So while you may delight in the belief that your path is the most realistic and faithful, you are nonetheless, like everyone else, serving up your chosen art, merely and most importantly, according to your taste. Bon appétit.—Michael Lavorgna

Trompe l'oreille?

Editor: Regarding Michael Lavorgna's comparison of music recordings to paintings ("Why Music Matters Most: Enjoyment, Illusion, and the Audiophile," October 2010, p.3), my analogy is slightly but importantly different.

It is not the apple the painter wants you to see; it is his painting of the apple he wants you to see, and there are better and worse copies of his painting available. There are also better and worse lighting conditions and rooms in which to view such copies. I buy museum copies of great paintings. I enjoy looking at exact copies in the same kind of light in which the museum's originals are displayed. I like to see Mondrian's brushstrokes and line corrections, not just the rectangles he was constructing. This is not trompe l'oeil.

In musical copies, I want to hear what the record producer heard in the booth through his monitors when he gave his final approval to the finished product. I believe this standard is applicable to everything from recordings of live, classical performances to multitracked popular-music constructions.

I don't want to hear the actual blackbird singing; I want to hear the prerecorded tweets that Paul McCartney had available in the studio. Not only that, I want to hear the bird sounds the way they sounded after George Martin laid them down on "Blackbird," exactly the way they sounded in Mr. Martin's monitors. Why? Because this is what Messrs. McCartney and Martin made for me to hear. This is not "trompe l'oreille."

To this end, I think there is a real, absolute, best possible result. Of course, the only way to confirm it would be to have George Martin come to my house. In the meantime, I'll just sit back and imagine (and light up a cigar!).—Charles Mitchell, Fairfield, CT, mitchellx100e@gmail.com

Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful response, Mr. Mitchell, but isn't "exact copies of great paintings" an oxymoron? Even with an exact copy, you are not seeing "brushstrokes" but a representation of same, which in a sense is trompe l'oeil—especially if you call them brushstrokes. In any case, there's no need for Piet Mondrian to pop over and point out that my exact museum copy of his Broadway Boogie Woogie doesn't measure 50" by 50" and isn't even made of paint!

My point, in reference to music and reproduction, was and remains: With recordings of music, we are buying and experiencing the originals. The job of our hi-fi of choice is to allow us to enjoy that experience, and the exact form of this enjoyment varies from person to person, according to personal preference. I believe this is one reason people are so vested in their hi-fis, and that it helps explain why we don't all own and listen to nearfield monitors. It also helps explain some of the passion enthusiasts exhibit in discussing their choice of hi-fi.

The entire thing is really a production, if you will—no re- required. There's no need for Sir George Martin to pop over and ordain our tweets. We simply need to be able to enjoy them.—Michael Lavorgna

Through a glass, foggily

Editor: Re: Michael Lavorgna's "As We See It" in October 2010: Think of the audio system as the medium by which the message, the recording, is conveyed, not as the message itself. Think of the audio system as the museum where you see those pictures of apples. Would you want the museum to put those paintings behind a foggy, distorted piece of glass? Yes, the result may look good to some eyes, but the artists' intents, those things that ultimately make the art "art," become compromised. The different pictures lose some of their detail, some of their individuality.

Think of the accurate audio system as the fair forum through which the artist's work is most effectively realized—whether the artist's intent is fiction or nonfiction, and whether the artist's intent is to fool the ear into thinking there's something real there, or to create something that could never exist in the real world.—E. Morris, Sherman Oaks, CA, edcyn@sbcglobal.net

Thank you, Mr. Morris, for your courteous and thought-provoking response. I like to think of the act of listening to music on the hi-fi as being analogous to the act of looking at a work of art. With hi-fi, our home becomes the museum.

In terms of the quality of the experience, sure, I want the view into my art of choice to be as unobstructed as possible. But in my opinion, the largest obstruction to the enjoyment of art is to hold it to an unrealistic and unobtainable ideal. The word accuracy implies an objective ideal, yet accuracy isn't the final goal of listening to music, or of looking at a painting. Accuracy is a quality attributed to aspects of the experience.

If accuracy isn't the goal, what is? To get closer to the music? To the musicians' intent? Does an accurate system allow this to happen, whereas a less accurate system doesn't? How do we know when a system is so inaccurate that it isn't worth listening to? I'd say when we don't want to listen to it. After all, if we love listening to music through our hi-fi, how can this possibly be a problem? Because we'd enjoy it more if it were a more accurate experience?

Here's the thing(s): I've enjoyed recordings in my car, and through lo-fi, mid-fi, hi-fi, and six-figure systems. I've never dismissed a record review because of the reviewer's hi-fi. (I rarely, if ever, know what a music reviewer listens through, let alone what his or her room looks like, which are probably good things.) I've read about hordes of musicians, from the age of the 78rpm disc to the present, who were inspired to create because they heard another musician's record, and I never once thought, "I wonder what hi-fi they were using? Well, if it wasn't accurate, they must not have got their inspiration straight."

What is our ultimate goal in listening to music on a hi-fi? I believe it's to connect to the music with such intensity that all other things disappear, and we are simply listening. Further, when art touches us deeply, it also does so personally. Which helps explain why we each have our favorite paintings, our favorite records, and even our favorite hi-fi. That last one is very much like the others in that we know it's our favorite—not because it's accurate, but because we listen through it as much as we possibly can.—Michael Lavorgna

JBLMVBC's picture

"Objective criteria are meaningless in determining personal enjoyment. If the point of listening to music on a hi-fi is enjoyment (and if it isn't, you and I have nothing to discuss), and if music is art, the more meaningful experience comes about through our increased knowledge and enjoyment of music, not our increased knowledge of and fascination with hi-fi's ability to fool the ear. Trompe l'oreille?"



That's why professional studios do not care at all about the speakers they mix their products with... /sarc