Auditions, the Audio Press, & Neo-fatalism

Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"

Fatalists believe that the future is inevitable. No one can change what will happen or what they will do; no one has free will to do anything unexpected or unpredictable. That's why the brother's whispered closing shot is the best: "I knew you were going to do that."

If neo-fatalism is on TV, there might as well be some good philosophical conundrums in the audio press, too. I found one in the middle of a speaker review in one of those other magazines. It made me think of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Viennese philosopher who discovered that the big "mysteries" or "unsolved questions" of philosophy are often just generated by language and our ways of speaking. Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes thought they were investigating the very fabric of reality. But they may have been merely lost inside a grammatical house of mirrors. I wonder if some of audio's big questions are like this.

Many think Wittgenstein was a true genius. Derek Jarman was moved to make a film about him (Wittgenstein, 1993), and the last major biography of him is titled Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (footnote 1). But whether Wittgenstein was a genius or not, I've always wondered why he was so miserable. Was it all the money he would inherit (and later give away)? Too many first-class friends who adored him? His talented family (his brother, Paul Wittgenstein, was the one-armed pianist for whom Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand)? Or was it the all-around bore of café life in the city where Freud was inventing psychoanalysis, Schoenberg was reinventing music, and Klimt and Kokoshka were dabbling away on their canvases? Poor old Ludwig.

So why was Wittgenstein a genius? For one thing, he first explored the limits of language. Often, he explained, our language keeps us from understanding things: "We never arrive at fundamental propositions in the course of our investigation; we get to the boundary of language, which stops us from asking further questions. We don't get to the bottom of things, but reach a point where we can go no further, where we cannot ask further questions."

In fact, he later claimed that all of his first major work (a bizarre little book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) was nonsense. If you really understood it, you'd see the futility of his words—you'd "throw away the ladder" they provide and catch a glimpse of the way things are. But you can't describe what you see because you've gone beyond language's domain. "Whereof one cannot speak," he concluded, "thereof one must be silent." (footnote 2)

For someone who advocated silence, Wittgenstein has inspired a lot of commentary. Even pop stars do the Wittgenstein. The Police's "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (Zenyatta Mondata, A&M CD 3720) is self-explanatory. Tom-Tom Club's "Wordy Rappinghood" (Tom-Tom Club, Warner Bros. 3628) keeps asking "What are Words Worth?" My favorite is XTC's crisis in "There is No Language in Our Lungs" (Black Sea, Geffen GEFD-24376):

But nobody can say what they
really mean to say and
the impotency of speech came up
and hit me that day and
I would have made this instrumental
but the words got in the way.

Wittgenstein wrestled with a puzzle audiophiles come up against all the time. How is it possible, he asked, for a sentence to represent, or stand for, a situation or circumstance in the world? It sounds simple, but it's not. Just compare some recording with a review of it. If you know the music well enough, you'll have some idea of what the reviewer's talking about. But if you don't, the printed words can mean almost anything. Many times I've thought, after reading a review, "I think I'd really like this band!" Too often, the CD ends up going straight from my transport to the used record store. Or think of the speakers most reviewers love (ProAcs, Thiels, Magnepans, etc.). They're almost always described with the same adjectives ("liquid," "smooth," "transparent"), and the same rhetorical twists ("detailed, but not too analytic"; "rich, but not boomy"). Yet if you audition these speakers side by side, they'll sound different (if not very different) from each other.

So what are all those words worth? What do they do? How do they work (and not work)?

At first, Wittgenstein thought language was something immaterial and unphysical. Since I can say "pass the Ketchup" in physically different ways—speaking, writing, using semaphore, looking sadly at my dry hamburger—there may be something unphysical ("the proposition") that binds them together. That's how these different sayings would mean the same thing. Each of these different events would be just a frame or receptacle for the same proposition to descend into the material world and do its thing. But how does this happen? What exactly are these links between propositions on the one hand, and facts, situations, and Ketchup bottles on the other?

Eventually, Wittgenstein changed his whole approach. The question was wrong. There is no sharp division between language and the world. They aren't two separate things bound by some mysterious relation. Instead, language is everywhere. The world is dripping with signs, symbols, meanings, and conversations of one sort or another. The painter who never says a word is still talking—with canvas, color, form, gesture. The way you dress, how you drove to work today, how you looked at the Boss—language, language, language.

Even in nature, it's everywhere. For ages, scientists and philosophers insisted (as some still do) that only humans have genuine linguistic capabilities. But animals communicate with each other all the time. You won't hear a couple of wolverines yakking it up about some zebras, as Gary Larson would have it—"Gee, Madge, that big one over there looks tasty." But their jumps, grunts, and yelps are how they organize themselves for a kill. Even some flowers broadcast a message: "Calling all bees!"

So, Wittgenstein offers two ways to think about language. Since music is a language, there are two corresponding ways to think about musical sound. The first is to see it as something immaterial and otherworldly that descends into the world from outside and makes mere noise and acoustic vibration meaningful and emotionally powerful. By the time you hear it, music has made a long journey. It begins with whatever inspired the composer or performer, moves into the world of instruments and air vibrations, and finally arrives at your ears. If you're listening to a recording, of course, this chain is much longer. It continues with microphones, cables, mixers, processors, and recorders, all the way through your equipment and listening room.

This approach leads right to the heart of high-end audio. If you're reading this, then you've read a hundred times that each step in this chain is just another opportunity for noise and distortion to creep in and damage the original signal. Often, one link in this chain is the concert hall in which a recording is made.

This is what the reviewer wrote who made me think of Wittgenstein in the first place: "I've never heard a live concert that sounded 'neutral' in the audiophile sense of the word....Indeed, the whole function of concert halls is to change the balance of sound away from audiophile 'neutral' by enriching color and blending ensemble." (footnote 3)

There are two sounds being spoken of here. First, there's the "neutral" or original sound that belongs to an orchestra or performer. Then there's another sound—the sound as it's heard in a concert hall. Concert halls take the first sound and change it, blend it, enrich it. You may like the first or second sound better. But either way, Dear Audiophile, you sit at the end of a long, destructive process as the music becomes more and more degraded and distorted.

Footnote 1: Ray Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Free Press, 1990. ISBN 0029216702.

Footnote 2: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, 1990. ISBN 041505186X. The first quote is from Monk, p.301; the rest is from the Tractatus, sections 6.54 and 7.

Footnote 3: Jonathan Valin, "The Music Box: The Shun Mook Bella Voce Loudspeaker," Fi, January/February 1997, p.57.