Listening Sessions and Hyperlinks

I'm starting to hate computers. They take up all my time. Whether I'm writing, preparing classes to teach, toying with computer-generated music, managing finances, or (too often) upgrading hardware, I'm spending too much time in the computer chair, not enough in the listening chair.

This has always been a small problem, but the rise of the Internet has made it worse. It's too easy to listen to Radio Deutsche Welle, surf websites, or witness the strange pageantry of newsgroup flamers. It's too much fun to hunt down old, lost friends from high school and use e-mail to make their nightmares come true: "New state regulations have rendered your high school diploma invalid. Mrs. Grumpflug expects you in Algebra class beginning September 7..." But there's a price: Sometimes days go by and the only disc spinning at my house is the one in the hard drive.

Recently I had a very dry spell: I didn't listen to music for two weeks. I know, this is an audio taboo. But I have an excuse, Mrs. Grumpflug. It wasn't my fault—my computer ate my time. I had the time really. And suddenly it was gone. Every day, I meant to devote at least an hour or two to music—and I don't mean just playing it in the background. I mean the beloved staple of audio life: the extended listening session with distractions gone, eyes closed, lights down, and volume up. Yet each night the computer managed to take control and impose its own algebra—just a few minutes checking e-mail and a few more in the newsgroups would somehow add up to hours.

Eventually I hit bottom. While shaving one morning I saw the unavoidable truth staring at me in the mirror: "I know audiophiles," I said; "audiophiles are friends of mine; and you are no audiophile!" That day I put my work on hold and dedicated the afternoon to the care of my audio soul.

Right away, I hit a snag: What to play? Usually I carry around a mental list of recordings to start things off—those I missed the last time, or new pieces of music that I've since thought about. But this time I felt strangely disoriented. I stared blankly at my recordings. The piles of LPs on the floor were a mystery, too—are these sitting here to be cleaned? Are those to be traded-in? Which interconnects am I using now, anyway? Time had taken its toll—my low-level audio memory was lost. I had to press F1, enter setup, and regain my footing.

I almost gave in. The computer was calling me. But I'd caught a whiff of shiny black vinyl, and there was no turning back. I figured out which pile of LPs was my "new-and-not-yet-played" pile, closed my eyes, and pulled out the first one that felt right.

Ah! I'd forgotten about this—an older stereo LP of the Saint-Saëns Symphony 3 (the "Organ Symphony") with Georges Prêtre conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (Angel S 35924), bought for a buck at a secondhand store. Since this chestnut was one of the first that, years ago, turned me on to classical music, and I have several versions of it already, I'd almost passed it by. But here was a pristine blue-label Angel stamped "1A." Perhaps there's a God after all.

Wow! This is a great recording! The performance is a bit slow and relaxed compared to most others, but the strings are intoxicating, and the soundstage is a true S2D4. You can have all those shaded dogs (well, not mine, but you know what I mean)—I'd be happy on a desert island with a pile of old blue- and red-label Angels. (They're the ones with the red vinyl glued over the spines of the record jackets—easy to spot in the bins.)

There's a point near the climax (or, should I say, the second or third climax) of the Saint-Saëns where the lower horns play back and forth off the trumpets. When I heard it, a different piece of music came to mind—an old recording by Pink Floyd in which horns create a similar effect. When the Symphony concluded, I tried to remember which one it was—Meddle? Obscured by Clouds? Ummagumma...?

The cow. That's it! It's on Atom Heart Mother (Harvest SMAS 382), the album with the cow on the cover. Once I opened the gatefold cover, it wasn't vinyl that I smelled. No wonder it's hard to remember exactly which songs are on which Pink Floyd albums.

If you were in New York City some 20 years ago, it was really hip to wear a button that said I hate Pink Floyd. The Clash and The Jam were in; The Wall was out. No matter—I predict future historians of music are going to recognize Pink Floyd as one of the greats. On Atom Heart Mother, Roger Waters had begun leading the band toward the gloominess that would be its trademark. Yes, the recording is primitive if judged by the production standards they later set—Nick Mason's drumkit is sometimes compressed into weightless tissue paper, and you can just about feel the band wishing they had more tracks to record on.

Still, the attempt to combine a brass orchestra and choir with the Floyd's cosmic psychedelia is just pure fun. The album is young, ambitious, and crackles with the excitement of a bunch of art students planning to overthrow orchestral tradition. Besides, audiophiles have to like Pink Floyd. They knew we'd be listening. How is the last song, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," going to work if Alan's sink, cereal bowl, and sizzling bacon don't hover between your speakers in a deep, wide culinary soundstage?

I also love Pink Floyd because of the way they used synthesizers. Like only a handful of others in their day (Pete Townshend and the Beatles come to mind), they used them only to serve the music. Synths weren't thrown in because they were new and far out, man. In fact, I don't think there are any synths on Atom Heart Mother. All those strange sounds seem to be recorded and manipulated the old-fashioned way: splicing tapes, playing voices through Leslie speakers, equalizing the heck out of acoustic pianos, etc.

This do-it-yourself ideology is fueling the current vogue among musicians for analog synthesizers—audiophiles aren't the only ones with an ongoing digital-vs-analog debate. Since anyone can get a cheap digital synthesizer, press a few buttons, and instantly sound like Genesis, Duran Duran, or New Order, the truly hip and creative must take the hard road. You've got to invent your own sounds by wrestling with analog oscillators, filters, and possibly even the tangled patch cords of yore. (I learned this from an Eddie Vedder lookalike who was just thrilled to buy my old Crumar Orchestrator keyboard for 20 bucks. To him, I must have looked like one of those old fools who sell their LPs at flea markets for 10 cents apiece.)