January 24, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
Listening To Other Minds, by Jason Victor Serinus
And Cavi Sounds Sexier than Cables, Too, by Ken Kessler
Hi-Fi Salesman Turns Rock Star! By Ken Kessler

From the News Desk: Listening To Other Minds, by Jason Victor Serinus

A treasure trove of rare performances and reflections from many of America's greatest unconventional composers lies but a click away. RadiOM, the Web radio station of the Other Minds New Music community, offers free access to otherwise unavailable interviews, lectures, music, sound poetry, poetry, documentaries, and videos by and about some of America's finest maverick musical minds.

The genesis of the phrase other minds indicates what lies ahead. Originally chosen as the name of the San Francisco international music festival that musician, jazz presenter, contemporary art curator and collector, and film and television producer Jim Newman launched with Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian in 1993, the name derives from a sentence in an unattributed obituary for John Cage (1912–1992) that appeared in The New Yorker: "His epitaph might read that he composed music in other peoples' minds."

"We focus on innovative people who have changed the medium and often receive less attention than the big blue-chip composers," Amirkhanian told Stereophile. "Our Internet interface enables people to hear tapes of all our live concerts, as well as to access a growing archive."

Since its founding, Other Minds has done much more than present 11 major music festivals. Thanks in large part to Amirkhanian, who became the festival's executive director in 1998, Other Minds commissioned the San Francisco Symphony premiere, in 2001, of Henry Brant's Ice Field, which received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Music. OM has also mounted a unique three-concert New Music Séance in San Francisco's historic Swedenborgian Church; held a three-day movie festival that screened innovative sound design and documentary portraits of such giants of alternative music as Frank Zappa, Lou Harrison, Leon Theremin, Björk, George Antheil, Percy Grainger, John Cage, and the West Coast's 20th-century pioneers; and held monthly music events in such nontraditional venues as the back room of a tavern.

Of utmost importance to audiophiles, Other Minds has made a great effort to preserve priceless archives of America's maverick musical legacy. Amirkhanian was the music director of Pacifica Radio's KPFA-FM in Berkeley from 1969 to 1992, and in those years he and a host of volunteers interviewed many of America's greatest musical geniuses and hosted unique in-studio performances. Archives of more than 4000 hours of these programs, all recorded in broadcast quality, were transferred to Other Minds in 2000.

"St. Paul Sunday Morning and the New York Philharmonic have their place on radio," says Amirkhanian, "and their tapes are preserved, but no one except KPFA saved their tapes of Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley, and others. Pacifica Radio WBAI-FM in New York City also featured some of these composers, but their tapes have been lost."

Other Minds' vantage point is decidedly West Coast. Followers of the contemporary music scene will perhaps recall the time when America's contemporary composers were divided into camps. Those in the intellectual, serialist (12-tone), academic faction disparaged the West Coast composers, who tended to find inspiration in nature, open spaces, psychedelic excursions, chance, and the musics and spiritual practices of Asian and other world cultures. In the end, it was the composers who broke with the postwar serialists who had the greater impact on the course of musical development in the past 50 years.

"The San Francisco view of New Music represented in the KPFA/Other Minds archives dates back to 1949, when Henry Cowell came to the studio to play his own music," says Amirkhanian. "Most of the tapes, however, date from 1969, when the first records of Steve Reich were being released. I began to play Steve's music, along with recordings by myself and others such as Philip Glass that featured obsessively repetitive music. We conducted the first radio interviews with Reich, Laurie Anderson, John Adams, Terry Riley, and Lou Harrison, who at the time was very much out of favor and considered a reactionary.

"It was music that turned away from chromaticism, and that featured a steady pulse and a more overtly beautiful surface. Some was a hybrid influenced by world, jazz, and rock. One could hear improvisation in Riley, rock in Paul Dresher, and get the idea that it's okay to dance. It sounded very different from the pointillistic music of the '60s, which is also documented in this archive."

The OM archive also showcases the early days of electronic music, when Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick were active on the West Coast. Amirkhanian notes with a smile that composers who currently do sampling are still trying to figure out how the electronic composers of the 1960s and '70s did what they did using only tape recorders and recorded environmental sounds.

Audiophiles have a choice of formats for Web streaming the Other Minds archives, and a simple way to find the highest-quality files. First, head to www.radiOM.org, where you'll find lists and pull-down menus of all files available for download or streaming. Then head to archive.org, where the files are actually stored. Type the composer's name in "Search" and pull up the file from there. You'll be offered a choice of formats, from MP3 and high-quality MP3 all the way up to WAV.

You can also try searching the entire Other Minds archive at http://archive.org. Simple searches will find you anything from Michael Nyman playing live at the 2005 Other Minds Festival to a spectacular recording of Steve Reich at the 1970 opening of the Berkeley Art Museum. By summer 2006, the radiOM site will have undergone a thorough redesign that will permit cross-referencing. While one can currently find programs and music devoted to Steve Reich, for example, it will soon be possible to find mentions of Reich in interviews with other composers, as well as find composers Reich mentions in his own interview. Due to copyright issues, however, only some performances can be downloaded; the rest are available for streaming.

Other Minds also produces a weekly hour-long radio program hosted by Richard Friedman, Music from Other Minds, Fridays at 11pm PST on San Francisco's KALW-FM, which can be streamed via a link on the station's homepage.

Amirkhanian is using an unprecedented $180,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to preserve the KPFA tapes before they degrade, and to make more of them available on the Web. The grant, from the Department of the Interior's Save America's Treasures program, is designed to preserve national monuments and treasures, including intellectual properties. To receive the grant, Other Minds must match every penny of it with a combination of in-kind volunteer work and donations from individuals and other foundations.

Other Minds is also seeking grants to preserve and rerelease the original analog tapes of Conlon Nancarrow's compositions for player piano, which Amirkhanian recorded with the composer in Mexico City in 1977 and released on the 1750 Arch Records label. Audiophiles familiar with Nancarrow's 1986 digital recordings, released on Wergo, will be painfully aware that many were played on a piano with a very biting, metallic sound. It seems that Nancarrow's technician was unable to work on the instruments, and no one was available to fix the mellower instrument for which some of the pieces were written. Releasing the earlier recordings on CD will enable us to hear Nancarrow's player-piano compositions as they were intended to sound.

And Cavi Sounds Sexier than Cables, Too, by Ken Kessler

Despite my avowed hatred of cables (see the August 23, 2005, eNewsletter), it is my duty as your faithful reporter to alert you to new wires of interest. Throw in such words as hand-made, affordable, and chic, and you can see why my interest was piqued in the new and terribly named Yter Audio Cables. And if I tell you that these cables are Italian, you'll understand that the use of chic may not be so farfetched. There are two other words to consider: credibility and heritage, for—surprisingly—this all-new cable possesses both.

Because one would assume that credibility and heritage are acquired only as byproducts of long experience and the passage of time, it should be revealed at the outset that the Yter cables (I won't even ask what Yter means) come from an impeccable source: Franco Serblin, of Sonus Faber fame. As I learned at Milan's TOP Audio show in September, Serblin is now in a state of semiretirement, having concluded his life's work with the sublime Stradivari Homage loudspeaker for Sonus Faber. While still connected to the firm, he has decided to branch out into another field, this time with his other son-in-law, Massimiliano Favella. (Cesare Bevilacqua, president of Sonus Faber, is also married to one of Franco's daughters.)

Favella's background is in metallurgy, Serblin's in audio. You know what happened next. Serblin had been experimenting with wire for some time, and Favella's knowledge has helped him realize the wiring he's always wanted to employ over a quarter-century of designing speakers. As it turns out, Serblin's last great speaker design (which is not to say that he's given up speakers entirely) used internal wiring that so captivated him, he tried it outside the speaker.

"While designing the Stradivari Homage, I wanted to use internal wiring which was not merely derived from the telecommunication industry, solutions based on radio-frequency theory. Instead, I wanted wiring designed to handle wide-bandwidth frequencies and high power levels. So Massimiliano and I sought a new conductor based on this premise: the transfer of the audio signal from amplifier to speaker, especially at extremely low levels, depends more on the physical structure of the metal than on the absolute value of conductivity in the wire."

Serblin and Favella have developed the Well-Tempered Argentum Alloy to fulfill their desire to "intervene at a metallurgic level to obtain order and homogeneity of the conductor's crystalline structure, thus providing greater compliance of the music signal within the signal path." It combines the elements silver and palladium through a new three-phase process of fusion and melting, and the resultant wire has no sharp edges and a "Gaussian" shape. The company controls every stage of the wire's manufacture, from melting to drawing to, finally, construction. All wires are entirely handmade by Massimiliano Favella at the Yter Laboratorium.

So far, only two Yter cable models are offered, and neither Serblin nor Favella suggests that new models will follow in the foreseeable future, due to the laws of supply and demand: Favella can make only so many per week. The speaker wire is available in standard lengths of 3m (about 10') and 5m (about 16'). Its single silver-palladium conductor is encased in a high-density polymer dielectric and terminated with banana plugs of the same alloy. The matching interconnect, in a standard 1m (39") length, is constructed identically but terminated in silver phono connectors made by WBT.

While I want to avoid turning this into a quasi-review, suffice it to say that I was entirely seduced: Sonus Faber users will recognize the firm's finesse and delicacy. Physically, the cables are highly flexible, eschewing the whole naval-hawser macho bullshit. I loved that, too. They're positively svelte. And when I learned that the prices were, at worst, manageable—hundreds of euros rather than thousands—I decided to add them to my review system.

Franco Serblin said that talks were underway with a US distributor, still to be appointed at press time. If you want a pedigreed cable at a sane price that doesn't require a stevedore to bend it into position, investigate the Yters.

I almost forgot the chic part: The Yter wires come supplied in utterly gorgeous, black leather portfolios that are so Italian it hurts. The best surprise of all emerged from a third, tiny wallet: a set of Yter's fabulous silver banana-to-spade converters, which come with a special tool for spreading the banana's socket end if it's too loose. They've thought of everything. I guess we have to look on the Yter wires as the Armani suit of the cable world.

Hi-Fi Salesman Turns Rock Star! By Ken Kessler

When I first heard the name of the hot, new band Hard-Fi, I hoped beyond hope that "Fi" had something—anything—to do with our beloved pursuit. Something told me that, surely, there had to have been a rocker somewhere with a background in audio. You know the pitch: "I'm only selling hi-fi/waiting tables/parking cars/serving burgers until my big break as a singer/actor/whatever." Could this be the one?

Word is out that one member of Hard-Fi was, indeed, a hi-fi salesperson. Ross Phillips used to be a salesman for one of British hi-fi's better-known chain of stores, Sevenoaks Sound & Vision. As the story goes, a young man was going to the Sevenoaks in Staines to audition equipment. It turned out that he was actually attempting to hear his latest demo tracks on decent systems—a nice bit of lateral thinking. Said freeloader was budding musician Richard Archer. He and Phillips hit it off, and Phillips, a talented guitarist, joined Archer's then-fledgling band, Hard-Fi. Phillips retired from the noble art of selling hi-fi at the beginning of 2005.

One year on, and Hard-Fi have opened for the Kaiser Chiefs and the Bravery, joining the current wave of slick indie Britrock acts exemplified by Franz Ferdinand, the Libertines, and other post-Oasis outfits who blessedly seem more concerned with music than with poncing about like petulant rock stars. Success has come swiftly: their debut album, Stars of CCTV (Necessary/Atlantic), went gold on its release in July.

That album was recorded in a disused mini-cab office—we'll have to wait for Hard-Fi's second disc to learn if Phillips' ear for good sound will have any effect on the sonic quality of the band's studio work. In the meantime, Hard-Fi has undertaken a sellout touring schedule, playing in the US, Japan, France, and Ireland, as well as the UK. They're signed, too, for the NME Shockwave tour in February.

Apparently, Ross Phillips still visits his former place of employment in Staines, to catch up on the latest in the world of audio. "Ross is a really nice chap and was a great salesman to boot," says store manager Phil Beeston. "There'll always be a job for him here if he ever wants it!"

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