Audiophile's Journey

Like most Americans, US audiophiles have little idea how difficult life can be for people in other countries. Imagine facing official censure for possessing some innocuous pop music, or taking 12 years to accumulate the complete works of one of your favorite rock groups. That was life in the old Soviet Union for Stereophile colleague Leonid Korostyshevski, who flew to Istanbul from Moscow on short notice, so we could spend a few days together prior to my embarking on a sailing trip in the eastern Mediterranean. The visit cemented a long-distance friendship established through numberless emails. It was also an in-depth education.

His two-and-a-half hour flight to Istanbul was preceded by a daylong train trip from his home in Saratov, 600 miles southeast of the capital on the Volga river. A university town in a vast agricultural region, Saratov has an airport, of course, but international flights go in and out of Moscow. Once my vacation plans were made, I sent him an email asking if there were any remote chance he might have business in Istanbul during the first week of July. Within a few hours he had booked a plane ticket and a room in the same hotel. "Neighbors at last!" we bounced to each other.

"Lenny" originally had contacted Jon Iverson during the early days of the Stereophile website, seeking advice about cables. Email exchanges grew into a great three-way international friendship, with Leonid supplying insightful reportage about music, audio, movies, video, and copyright issues in a nation where privation and piracy are a combined way of life (see his Dispatches from Saratov 1, 2, 3, 4 ). He also sent us Russian chocolates and compilation CDs, with the desert kingdom of Jordan as a mailing address. My copy of his compilation "Songs from Soviet Times" is treasured.

I came to Istanbul with a stack of favorite tunes for him, a portable CD player to spin them on, and assorted other audiophile gifts. He came with boxes of expensive chocolates, hand-painted trays on which to serve them, exquisite jewelry for the ladies in our lives, and copies of the latest disc from DDT, a favorite Russian rock band. "Not dee-dee-tee," he reminded me, "but deh-deh-teh. Fantastic lyrics." Not an attribute that hooks most Americans, but definitely one of importance to a culture that not so long ago could fill the national stadium for a poetry festival.

Our small hotel, the "Valide Sultan" was on a steep narrow street outside the grounds of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Sultan's Palace—jointly the most-visited site in Istanbul, and pivotal location for an overwhelming number of historical events. On our first day we learned that three days hence would be the first-ever rock concert on the grounds, featuring Turkish and Greek bands, part of a groundswell of reconciliation that may ultimately heal one of the world's longest-running ethnic animosities. (Anecdotal evidence: On a boat tour of the Bosphorous, our guide told us that Turks cheered Greek victories in the World Cup tournament. As part of an assignment for Food Arts, I spent an afternoon at the home of Engin Akin, the Julia Child/Martha Stewart of Turkey; with a Greek colleague, she had just published a Mediterranean cookbook titled "Two Nations at One Table." And a report posted on the website of an Istanbul audio club mentions a diplomatic visit to its counterpart in Athens.)

Lenny and I had discussed perhaps visiting a couple of hi-fi shops just to get a feel for how the business is done in Turkey, but once we began to wander the streets, it became immediately clear that it wasn't going to happen. Here we were with only a few days in Istanbul, city of cognitive dissonance, where the incomprehensibly ancient sits side-by-side with cutting-edge modernity—often, within the same building: a crumbling house whose ground floor has been excavated for a gleaming electronics shop, or a centuries-old stone edifice retro-fitted as an Internet cafè. On the sweltering streets, conservative Islamic women clad head-to-toe in layers of heavy clothing mingle freely with Western types in crop tops and low-rise jeans, without apparent friction. Traffic is a nonstop game of chicken, in which pedestrians are free game. Everywhere blare car horns and the infectious sounds of cheesy pop music—traditional Turkish, Greek, and middle eastern instrumentation and melodic riffs set to a thumping disco beat overlaid with rap vocals. Imagine a cacophonous blend of Shakira's wailing instrumentals, Ricky Martin's visceral rhythms, departed Austrian rapper Falco's stuttering vocals—and five times per day, the wavering calls to prayer from the minarets—and you have some vague notion of the sonic landscape we traversed.

Thanks to Leonid's excellent English, the pocket Russian-English dictionary I brought along came in handy only a few times. As we wandered Istanbul, "English lessons" became a running gag—mostly cueing him in to American idioms: winging it, outside the box, cut to the chase, it's all good. A good-natured teddy bear, Lenny seldom revealed the cynicism that many Russians develop as psychological armor, but walking back from dinner one night, we passed a mound of garbage being dissected by a herd of scrawny cats. "Welcome to Russia," he said with a sweeping gesture.

At dinner he had told us depressing tales of forbidden music. In high school, his military science instructor had discovered in Lenny's shirt pocket a homemade cassette tape of Paul McCartney's London Town. Not exactly a work of revolutionary fervor, the tape nonetheless threw the instructor into a rage. "He danced on it, smashed it to pieces," Lenny recalled. " 'Why?' I asked. 'Because it is restricted.' " Amassing the complete works of Pink Floyd on both LP and CD consumed the better part of 12 years, as did a similar quest for the works of King Crimson.

In post-perestroika Russia, collecting music is no longer an underground activity. The Internet and widespread use of CD burners have given Russian music lovers access to all that was previously unattainable, but the crushing economy prevents most from enjoying their tunes on anything but the most basic equipment. Lenny's audio system—Tannoy speakers, Arcam electronics, and Marantz disc player—are by Russian standards extreme hi-fi. In Saratov, an academic community of more than one million people, the best audio gear available is mass-market Japanese and Korean stuff. True high-end products are found only in the cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. While praising his neighbors' tolerance for his eclectic tastes in music, Lenny acknowledges that his ear already exceeds his system's capabilities. He also knows that better performance probably requires a larger space, a near-impossibility in Russia, and admits without embarrassment that he's "never heard a system worth more than $5000US."

That last gap is one we can certainly fill if we can overcome US State Department objections and get him over here for one of Primedia's Home Entertainment Shows. A partner in his father's engineering firm, he has been invited three times by the US Department of Energy to come to the States to demonstrate the company's hybrid-fuel engine technology, which enables switching from gasoline to compressed natural gas on the fly. Each invitation was accompanied by many letters of recommendation, and each has involved a day-long train trip to Moscow, several hours of standing in line at the US embassy, and a 20-second interview with a dour bureaucrat who refused Lenny's visa application without explanation. Franz Kafka would have appreciated the irony.

Our first night in Istanbul did give him exposure to a device he'd only read about, the Apple iPod. Our traveling companion Joel Makower ("greenbiz" entrepreneur, author, and former NPR commentator) had one, and offered it to Lenny for the night. He admired its sleekness, issued some standard audiophile misgivings about compression schemes and low bit-rates—criticisms comprehensible only to me—and shook his head in dismay that the earbuds weren't labeled "L" and "R." [They are, in hard-to-see white lettering on the white background.—Ed.] The next morning at breakfast he had nothing but praise for the little player, as well as for Joel's taste in music. True music fans see no contradiction whatever in a collection that includes the Beatles, Mose Allison, Radiohead, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and DDT.

Next week: Audiophile's Journey, Part Two.