Musical Voices

Wandering through Tower Records the other night, I was struck by the amazing diversity of music available to us. There's music from every part of the globe, for every taste and interest, from "show-me-the-good-parts" compilations of classical highlights to obscure releases by unknown artists. There's music for the ecstatic, music for the angry, music for the straight, the gay, the bent, and the twisted. The subcategories replicate like rabbits, as if in a demographer's nightmare. Genus spawn species, which quickly mutates into subspecies, race, tribe: cult begets subcult.

The rock department is divided into oldies, classic rock, pop rock, and "alternative" (so called to distinguish it from established, Corporate, "dinosaur" rock). Alternative appears to be further subdivided into rave, grunge, goth, thrasher, speed metal, death metal, etc., ad infinitum—each niche full of acts with mock-offensive names, such as Trench Mouth or Public Enema, each niche with its own subgroups of followers.

Nearby, publications with jagged, punchy titles like Edge and Vibe offer support for various rock lifestyles, with lots of garish pictures of ugly models in hideous clothes, and tons of copy telling you what's hip, how to get it if you don't have it, and what to do with it once you've got it. I picked up a copy of Pulse, Tower's house publication; in it I found a piece by an alternative-music taxonomist who tried vainly to separate one category from another—like a religious scholar explaining the differences between a hundred Christian sects. (You can spot Goths—with their Victorian capes, death-white skin, and midnight-black hair—from far away. The others are much more difficult to distinguish. It's easy to see how an insecure 20-year-old might be tempted to try on one of these ready-to-wear cultural uniforms: the simple instinct for self-preservation asserts itself in the presence of option overload.)

But musical fractionalization isn't confined to rock or any of its varieties; it happened in classical and blues, and it's an ongoing process in jazz. As long as there's something new to say or someone new to say it, new juice will be wrung from old idioms, and new idioms will be created when old ones run dry. Change truly is the only constant.

Why do we claim certain musical forms as our own and disavow others? Education and upbringing are important influences, but they pale in comparison to peer approval. For many people, the window of opportunity for new musical experiences is open only while they're young, when music dominates their social context. The combination of peer approval, youthful energy, and emotional vulnerability makes us more open to music then than we are when we're older.

The associations we form in relation to music during this critical period determine to a large extent what we will find appealing or repellent as adults. Once we leave school and enter the workforce, the importance of music fades. It ceases to be a determining influence or daily source of pleasure. For most of us, the window for new music—and new experiences of all kinds—closes sometime in our late 20s. The music of our youth is what we default to for reassurance and relief from stress—it's auditory comfort food.

The prevalence of "narrowcasting" formats on most FM radio stations would seem to support this hypothesis. But is it true for us audionuts, too? I'm not so sure. Those of us for whom the love of music is the driving force behind our involvement with audio—who read the music reviews before the equipment reports—stand apart from the crowd. Many of us are as open now, regardless of age, to the seductions of music as we were in adolescence. What a wonderful form of arrested development! Among my close friends are at least a half-dozen hardcore audiophiles who are also ardent music-lovers. We share a passion for finding and partaking of new musical treasures, passing them around as if we were explorers in a strange land who, having chanced upon delicious fruit, eagerly sample our friends' discoveries. All of us know audiophiles with $50,000 systems and ten recordings "worth playing," but they aren't people we'd care to spend time with. We're too busy seeking new artists, new material from established performers, and new interpretations of old standards.

Some of us have music libraries whose cost approaches the value of our playback equipment. A friend of mine keeps up with the latest developments in electronics, but hasn't bought a piece of hardware in over five years; his zeal is for buying music—most of which you can't hear on the radio or find in mass-market music stores. I respect my friend, because he's far more interested in learning, growing, and nurturing his soul than he is in acquiring trophies. I come away from an evening at his house much more stimulated by and excited about all the great new stuff he played for me than I could possibly be after the same number of hours spent listening to well-worn tunes through a new amplifier. I like to think that my buddies and I are fairly representative of audiophiles in general—that our interests are higher and wider than the norm, that all the listening, thinking, talking, and writing we do is part of a pattern of greater receptivity. I like to think that music is what drives our fascination with audio.

But despite our insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging interests, we each have our own preferences. One of us is an opera nut, another loves blues and gospel, a third is a jazzhead, and a fourth is a rocker. We find ourselves returning to our respective musical preferences, as opposed to exclusive interests, because they are enduring sources of pleasure. It's completely natural to have such preferences—similar to the way we prefer apples to pears, chicken to fish, or rye bread to french. Unlike the self-made prison of an exclusive interest, a preference provides nourishment. Many, many people have musical interests which exclude all but a tightly clustered set of soundalikes. I know a psychiatrist who listens to nothing but Vivaldi, and a carpenter whose taste in music begins and ends with mid-'70s rock. I feel sorry for them, because they deny themselves the wide variety of music the world has to offer. In a restaurant where they can order anything they want, they have cheese for every meal.

When I look over my collection of music, I see almost equal parts rock, jazz, and classical. Metallica, Monk, Mozart—there's room for all at my house o' hi-fi. I also have country, blues, a few operas, some American folk music, and Slavic choral work. I have plenty of film scores and show tunes, a smattering of North African, Brazilian, and Latin American music, a bit of rap, a smidgen of "industrial" (whose practitioners, I assure you, have never swung a hammer professionally), and some uncategorizable art pieces. But a pattern emerges from this musical jigsaw puzzle, because I, too, have a preference—not so much for a category of music as for a trans-category. For me, there exists no instrument more expressive, more potent, and more evocative than the female voice—it opens the door to unfathomable mysteries, and provides clues (but never solutions) to their understanding. The goddess in every woman speaks to me in song.

Women of all kinds populate my music collection like inhabitants of a lawless frontier town in which love, betrayal, regret, and wisdom follow each other like the seasons. In this town, Marianne Faithfull begins life as an angelic schoolgirl and becomes an embittered hag. On a cold night, Buffy St. Marie offers shelter—something the inconsolable Billie Holiday seeks but cannot find. On the wide plain to the north, kathy dawn lang is driving into town in her fabu convertible for a night of fun, while above her, Kathleen Battle sails through the coloratura clouds. Downtown, it's standing room only for The Art of Anger, starring Melissa Etheridge; over at the church, Iris DeMent is breathing new life into the meaning of artlessness. You'll find you can go home again with Naomi and Wynonna Judd, only a few blocks away at the Haymarket; and Julie London, the smoky contralto, seduces nightly at Sin City. Care for a complicated journey through the mind of Laurie Anderson? The tour begins whenever you're ready. Later, we could stop in for gin and downers with Judy Garland, then maybe catch the late show with Janis and Jessye—Joplin and Norman, that is.

The music never stops in this town. Here we can listen to almost anyone you like: Sarah Vaughan, Ellen Foley, Bidu Sayao, Patsy Cline, Karen Akers, Sammi Smith, Sam Phillips, Michelle Shocked, The Shirelles, Victoria de los Angeles, Linda Ronstadt, Peggy Lee, Gabrielle Roth, Dionne Warwick, Loreena McKennitt, Joan Baez, Big Mama Thorton, Lari White, Helen Schneider, Nico, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Carmen McRae, Suzanne Vega, Emmylou Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Kathy Mattea, Mary Wells, Chrissie Hynde, Timi Yuro, Nina Simone, Lene Lovich, Dusty Springfield, Leslie Garrett, Holly Cole, Tori Amos, both Nancy Wilsons, and Kit McClure's entire 17-member big band, to name just a few.

How about Odetta? Hey, wasn't it Dylan who said, "Just listening to her breathe is a religious experience?" What's that you say? No, sorry, can't help you there; Barbra, Whitney, and Mariah are all touring with the Histrionic Hit Parade and won't be coming back. But should the singing grow tiresome, the place is full of women with other kinds of voices: Leona Boyd's guitar, Candy Dulfer's saxophone (Saxuality, indeed), Viktoria Mullova's violin, Ofra Harnoy's cello. They're all in heavy rotation around here.

Some misguided souls believe that the piano, with its subtlety and power, is the greatest instrument. Others say the organ, the violin, or the cello. Many millions believe it's the electric guitar. Infidels, heretics! No other instrument can touch the female voice's emotional range, dynamic impact, or ultrasubtle nuance. It's no accident that human hearing is most sensitive to the 3½ octaves between 500 and 5000Hz—for our protection, nature wisely provided us with the ability to hear snapping twigs, rustling leaves, and, above all else, mother's voice. We come pre-tuned "from the factory" to this range, with an "open channel," and it's incomprehensible that anyone should let it close.

But they do; some audiophiles and music-lovers have no interest at all in vocal music—male or female. Instrumentals alone float their boats (freeing their imaginations from the "tyranny" of language recognition?), and it's discouraging to learn that some of us who do listen to vocal music pay no attention to lyrics. For me, well-sung words (and non-words: I direct your attention to Clare Torry's immortal performance of "The Great Gig in the Sky" on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon) are delights to be lusted after—savored and cherished, even in languages I don't understand.

Female vocals are the first thing I play when trying out a new piece of equipment. This tells me everything about its tonal accuracy, and its ability to convey nuance and communicate emotions. Equipment that faithfully renders the female voice will do likewise with almost any material it's fed. The First Law and Prime Directive for all audio engineers and designers is to get the midrange right—now and always. Gear that fails this test warrants no interest from any audiophile, no matter how deep its soundstage, how dramatic its dynamics, or how bottomless its bottom octave.

We audiophiles talk endlessly about musicality and the emotionally satisfying listening experience, and about what gear or combination of gear yields or doesn't yield it. Such talk often peaks on the subject of The Greatest Thing I Ever Heard—our equivalent of the fisherman's tale about the one that got away. Sometimes I think these discussions are as far off the mark as bottle rockets launched at the moon, because nothing the audio industry has produced yet approaches the rich goodness of real life.