What Music Means to Me
It is 1968. I am 6 years old. My dad's Dynaco Stereo system with a Thorens turntable and homemade Jensen-driver speakers resides in the basement. It had been in the extra bedroom upstairs when I was very young, but then my brother Michael was born, and down it went. The room in the basement where the system and my parent's record collection reside is locked to prevent curious boys from causing havoc. During dinner, my dad tells us that when we finish, we need to go downstairs to hear a new album he bought. I am excited because Dad is my hero.
The album is "The Mason Williams Phonograph Record". Once we descend to the basement, he plays the song he heard on the radio. It is "Classical Gas". What is this? Up until that time all I had heard in my house was classical music, movie/musical soundtracks, and Disney songs. Rock-and-roll has yet to penetrate the oh-so-square Schumann house. But at this moment, I am swept away by the excitement of this song. The drums are so loud and the beat is undeniable. I feel my body move with the music. It may not be true rock and roll, but it's darn close. And like that, a new fire is lit in my belly.
It is 1970. I am keenly aware that I am missing out on a lot of music that is not getting played at my house. But what is an eight-year-old to do? Luckily for me, the Scows live across the street. Kelly, the second-to-youngest daughter, is my best friend. She has three older sisters. Older siblings are the gateway. I'm over there all the time, so I hear what they're playing. One day I'm visiting and I hear "I Want to Hold Your Hand". Who are these guys? "That's the Beatles silly", teases Kelly. I feel so square, but I am hooked. The next time I go shopping with my Mom, I bring my allowance money with me and buy "Meet the Beatles". I listen to it over and over. They're amazing!
My parents are amused by this. Later on, when Christmas comes, I open up a package from my Uncle Bill and Aunt Susan. It is "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Attached to it is a note. It says that they found out how much I loved the Beatles and they think this is their best album. After we open all the presents and have Christmas breakfast, I excitedly go to my room and start listening to my Heathkit record player. I am still not allowed to listen to the big system in the basement by myself. It is unlike anything I've ever heard. It's like music from another planet had just beamed into my little room. I feel grown up listening to this music. As soon as I finish with the second side, I flip it over and listen to it again. I start playing with the projector I also got as a present and shine psychedelic images on my bedroom wall. The worm has turned for me.
It is 1974. I am in junior high now and spending a lot of time in the basement. It has become my escape from the world. Many of the kids in school are mean and nasty. All that's showing on the TV are the Watergate hearings. When I'm down there I work on projects. Sometimes it might be a simple electrical kit like a crystal radio. Or I make something with my Erector Set. Mostly I work on plastic models. I'm not any good, but I like making them. While I work on these, I listen to music. Now that I am older, I am allowed to listen to my parent's record collection with the big system. I delve deep into Dad's classical collection. One record that catches my ear is "Stokowski Encores".
It is a collection of short pieces that Leopold arranged for the symphony orchestra. It is unabashedly romantic and I am entranced. After a tough day in the 7th grade (weren't they all though?), I go down to the basement to escape. This album helps me through it. I would never admit my listening habits to anyone at school. That would be suicide. I'm already a big enough geek. But the beauty of this music is undeniable. It stirs feelings I've never felt before. I listen to it hiding in my basement during those cold, overcast upstate New York winter afternoons. Then one evening, as I am getting ready to go upstairs for dinner, my Dad comes down and tells me Leopold Stokowski just died. I am stunned. I am listening to the last music he recorded. Now he's gone. I don't cry about it. I never knew the man. But a melancholy creeps into my soul at the irony.
Now it is 1977. I am a junior at Roy C. Ketcham High School. I am starting to make a set of friends from a bunch of guys I know on the track team. Most of them have known each other since elementary school. I am the new kid and I want to fit in. They listen to bands I've never heard of before like Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson. But the band that is everyone's favorite is Yes. I hear snippets of their music on the bus on our way to track meets, but very little of it gets played on the local album-rock radio station. So, on cold dreary Saturday in November, I go with my Dad to Sears determined to buy some Yes.
When I get to the record department, on prominent display is their new album, "Going for the One". The cover looks weird. There are a bunch of jumbled skyscrapers and a naked man on it. I set my doubt aside, and buy the record, trusting my newly-acquired friends. When I get home, I listen to it in my room. Now I have an all-in-one stereo. I have my Radio Shack headphones so I won't bug my parents with my music. This music sounds strange to me. I'm not sure I even like it. But I keep listening. I listen to it every day for a week. Then I realize something. Now I love this music. I am now a prog rocker.
It is the fall of 1979. I am about to become a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. It's a long way from home. I can only bring with me what I fit in a suitcase. But I have a plan. I record most of my music on cassette tapes over the summer using a friend's tape deck. Before I travel to Austin, my whole family flies to Houston, where my parents grew up. I still have some graduation money saved, so I go to an audio store and buy a Pioneer CT-550 cassette deck. It is the first audio component I've ever bought.
During the same shopping trip, I buy a cassette of "Selling England by the Pound" by Genesis. That evening, as I nervously try to go to sleep in my grandparent's home, I listen to it with my new deck and my Radio Shack headphones. The only light in the room is from the Pioneer. The dB meters wave back and forth wildly. The majesty of the music carries me away. The next day my parents will be driving me to Austin to drop me off and start a new chapter in my life. I am scared out of my wits. At least I'll have my music with me.
It is the spring of 1982. I am in my fourth year of college. I am sharing an apartment with my friend Curt. My audio system has grown. I've inherited my Dad's Dynaco gear. I now have a turntable. The Dynaco ST-70 is hooked to ADS L620 speakers. It sounds better than any of my friend's systems. Curt and I have been becoming good friends and expanding each other's musical horizons. I've introduced him to prog rock and classical; he has introduced me to Rush and Fleetwood Mac. Together, with our friends Pete, Bill, Gary, Kevin, and Steve we have fallen in love with Steely Dan and Pat Metheny. Curt and I have started a new routine. When one of us buys a new album, we sit down and listen to it the first time together, then discuss it.
On a warm spring day, Curt comes in with a new album. It's "Security" by Peter Gabriel. I am a little bit jealous. I am a huge Peter Gabriel fan and I didn't know he put out a new album. We sit down and listen to both sides. The sounds and sonics are preternatural. The songwriting is brilliant. I have an idea. There is an audio store in town where I recently bought a new cartridge. They sell tube gear by Conrad-Johnson. It's the first time I've seen valve stuff for sale anywhere. They mentioned to me if I ever want to bring in some music to listen to, they'd play it for me. I tell Curt we need to take his album there.
The next day we walk into the store and I say, "You've got to listen to this!". They lead us to the back room where there are a brand new Conrad Johnson Premier One amplifier and a PV2AR preamplifier. The monstrous Premier One is hooked up to some large Snell speakers and the front end is an Oracle turntable with a Grado cartridge. The salesperson turns everything on, places the record on the turntable, screws on the clamp, and carefully lowers the needle. Peter's voice emerges from the darkness expanding to a full-throated howl, followed by a powerful synth chord and massed drums.
John Day's homebrew system with modded VOTTs.
Simultaneously, all three of us turn our heads to look at each other, our eyes wide as saucers. The look says it all. Did you just hear that? As "Rhythm of the Heat" continues to play, the salesperson slides open the glass door and announces to the rest of the staff, "Guys, you have to come in here". It's a slow weekday afternoon, so one by one the staff enter in. We are all hypnotized. We listen in silence to both sides. I'd never heard anything like it before. As we leave that store I realize something. Someday, I want a system like that.
It is now 2001. I am married with three little kids. My wife and I share a love of music. Since the beginning, we have enjoyed listening to music together. Now the kids enjoy listening with us. During dinner in the dining room, I will play light classical music. The kids love it and my heart fills with joy. After living in Knoxville, TN, and St. Paul, MN, we are back in Austin. My audio system has been upgraded. The Dynaco stuff has died and has been replaced by a Jolida integrated. The ADS speakers have been replaced by the Thiel CS1.5s. I am writing reviews for Soundstage. I get asked to review a pair of speakers from Silverline Audio. In their literature, they claim that these speakers are well suited for low-power SET amps. I'm intrigued.
There is this new wave of audio enthusiasts that claim that high-efficiency speakers married to these flea-powered amps are the true path pioneered by the Japanese audiophiles. But when I looked at the price of these amps online, the cost is stratospheric. I wrote it off as an unachievable fantasy. Then one day when I was in the music store and I saw a new audio magazine, Sound Practices. I bought it and read it cover to cover. The message was, you can build this stuff yourself.
When the Silverlines arrive, I do something foolhardy. I e-mail Joe Roberts, who is here in Austin, and ask him if I could try these speakers I'm reviewing with a SET amp. He refers me to his friend John, who is willing to help. I talk to John on the phone and he asks me to bring my Jolida for an exchange of amps and record of my choice. At the appointed time, I grab my amp and vinyl of Brahms's Fourth Symphony conducted by Bruno Walter.
When I arrive, John leads me back to the listening room of his modest home. We talk a little bit about why I am there. While we are talking, I look at his system, asking questions. All of the electronics in his system are homebrew, from the phono stage to the preamp, to an exotic SET single 6C33C-B tube amplifier. The front end is a Dual turntable and hooked up to the amp are some modest-sized Altec VOTTs.
He takes my record and tells me to sit down and listen and we can talk more after. As he starts to play the record, I hear something. It's Maestro Walter's handpicked Columbia Symphony Orchestra in the studio. As a group, they lean forward in their chairs as Walter raises his hands, and then they start to play. I hear them as they breathe, shift back and forth, and turn the pages of the music. I can hear the size of the studio. It is the most hyper-real experience I've had in my life.
I start to sweat and have the urge to cry. Instead of just listening to music, I'm transported back to that recording session. After I finish listening, I have a million questions. I feel like a complete idiot. I realize I know nothing about audio systems and I am in the presence of a true master. I bring my in amp and he lets me leave with one of his preamps and a fi X-amp. When I use them at home they sound sweet, but nothing compared to what I heard before. I decided that I, too, will build my own audio SET audio system. Only a few months later, I get laid off from my job as an Environmental Consultant and those dreams evaporate.
It is 2017. I am a science teacher now. My Dad and I have season tickets to the Austin Symphony Orchestra. I have been expanding my musical horizons. I explore the music of Imogen Heap and Gotye, but I feel like my classical horizons are stuck. My dad gives me a collection of Prokofiev concertos. This music differs from what I've heard from him before. It is, in many places, turbulent and dissonant and I find it upsetting. At first, I can barely listen to one disc all the way through. But something keeps calling me back. Each time I listen, I enjoy them more. But one concerto resists being loved. It is the Second Piano Concerto.
I listen to it at least once a week over several months. Then I realize something. It is now my favorite. Now when I listen to these concertos, I embrace their complexity and angularity. That seems to unlock the door. Soon I'm listening to Bartok, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Walton, Lutoslawski, Rautavaara, and Tippet. I listen to more jazz. Bjork's more experimental music is now more interesting. At 55 I realize I may never find all the music that can bring me joy. But man, I'm going to try.
It is 2020. I have been writing for Enjoy the Music.com for nearly three years. I've been aware of this website well before that. I can't remember when I first started reading the reviews, but two early ones I remember were of the Avantgarde Trio Horns and the Hammer Dynamics Super 12s. It impressed me that they were reviewing equipment that other people considered on the fringe. Now that I am reviewing for Enjoy the Music.com, I'm able to use equipment in my home that could only dream about in the past.
After many fits and starts, I have finally built my own pieces of audio equipment: a pair of full-range-driver Super Pensil 12s. While the equipment is cool, it is still all about the music. I remain listening to modern classical; Salonen's three concertos are current favorites. I am currently digging deep into Mehldau's "Art of the Trio" collection. I was late to get on board the Radiohead train, but I caught up quickly. I am even making forays in to pop with Billie Eilish and The 1975. The beauty of music is that we choose it sometimes, but sometimes it chooses us. Either way, it becomes part of the soundtrack of our lives.
This is turning out to be one hell of a year. Live music is taking a real hit. My dad and I will not be going to the symphony this season. At least we still have recorded music to keep us sane. With the internet, like-minded music lovers can stay connected. I can't predict much of what will happen in the future, but I know I will still be searching for new musical horizons. God willing, I will be able to continue to share my love of music with the readers of Enjoy the Music.com.