Passions run high among music lovers. We vilify "bad" musicians (the ones we dislike), and we elevate marginally functional savants with a couple of 2-minute singles and some album filler under their belts. When it comes to more unique and productive figures like Phil Spector, Jimi Hendrix, Wilhelm Furtwängler, John Cage, or [insert your own heroes and villains here], music fans either revere them as gods or dismiss them as meaningless. Sometimes there are shades in between, but perspective is at a premium.
This tendency to paint things black or white spills over to the equipment we use to play back our favorite recordings. i've seen the cognoscenti dismiss people on the basis of no more information than their choice of power amp, though I suspect few of us are quite so one-dimensional in truth. Anyone with an internet connection can publish broadsides proclaiming their love for equipment and music and aim verbal barrages at their musical "enemies."
Why is this so? Where's the root of this passion for these sounds and this gear?
Music is an art form to which we have unusually free access, right in our own homes. Few of us are in the position of New Yorker Henry Clay Frick, who amassed a collection of paintings so rich that his former home is now a museum. But I know many folks of modest means who have access to months or even years of music listening on their living-room shelves.
Music is also inherently abstract. Even the most didactic protest song has layers of meaning in its structure and melodic organization that transcend the literal message of its lyrics. Other kinds of music are wholly abstract. This forces the listener into a position of active engagement with art, as the mind makes associations between abstract input and concrete thoughts or images. But music also bypasses this active level and stimulates our minds and feelings deeply in our subconscious. How else can we explain the purchase of yet another remastering of Kind of Blue if not by a subconscious, extra-rational impulse?
Our hearing is such a deeply rooted sense, linked so closely to our deepest "ancient brain" functions, that we can't help but he affected by what we hear. I called upon my favorite "brain guy," Steven Hall, who writes about science for the New York Times Magazine, and asked him what this notion suggests to him. He recalled experiments showing how quickly sonic stimuli are assimilated or screened out by the brain, which seems to show that interpretation of sound is a very basic function that takes place at the lowest, reflexive levels of the brain. (I'm reminded of the way some listeners can form a strong, instant opinion upon hearing a new system setup.) Hall pointed out how birds have developed extremely sophisticated processes for evaluating melody and timbre, seeming to indicate that this job doesn't require more complex brain functions than would be available to, say, a barn swallow.
Evolution played a large part in furthering this development in birds, of course, since it's a skill that ensures their survival as a species. So, too, have our brains developed, for humans have needed to evaluate sonic cues swiftly and to respond reflexively in order to survive. "Is that sound a tiger, or a baby, or a tiger eating a baby?" was a question humans needed to answer instantly when we were first fighting for survival.
Hall is also interested in the way hearing (like smell) is a sense that imprints upon our memories and seems to serve as a sort of filing shortcut for information retrieval. The phenomenon of a smell bringing back a vivid long-ago memory is well known, as is the way in which a favorite song can trigger in our mind's eye and ear a recall of an associated time and place. (The fact that some of these memories arc of early sexual experiences doesn't hurt, either.) Both smell and hearing, then, can serve as the tabs on our brain's internal file folders, suggesting that they are accessible in a very direct way.
Music isn't sound, exactly, because there's also the matter of sequencing sounds and tones into melodies and rhythms. Hall theorized that musical rhythm might trigger resonant responses deep in the brain's neural networks, which possess rhythms and pulses of their own. As he suggested this, I thought immediately of the ways different cultures, from Africa's Gold Coast to America's Haight-Ashbury, have participated in similar rituals involving rhythm, music, and altered States of consciousness. I've certainly experienced a higher spiritual plane listening to purely abstract music from the pen of J. S. Bach. And King Sunny Ade, whose verbal language I don't understand, is adept at creating band arrangements whose sonic allusions to Hawaiian, country, soul, rock, and traditional African music I comprehend very well as an expression of a universal spirit. That's not to say this is Ade's conscious expression, but rather the interpretation my mind has applied to the music in an example of active engagement.
So we have easy access, active engagement at the conscious level, and a reflexive emotional response at the deepest levels to music — and often a spiritual message expressed intentionally by the performer or composer. We also have, through the selection and deployment of our playback equipment, control (or perhaps, an illusion of control) of the sound itself. I think this may go a long way toward an explanation of why these inanimate objects trigger such intense possessiveness and jealousy and allegiance. Do we push their buttons, or do they push ours?
For my part, I've elected to do a lot of experimentation and have nearly built my entire audio system myself. This has allowed me to take a different kind of control over the results and to become more intimately involved in the experience of listening. But I'm not sure the way it works in practice is adequately described in these terms. It feels to me like I'm the subject of a psychological experiment: I've received strong positive reinforcement directed at both high and low levels of my brain, not to mention my booty. I've trained myself to enjoy building audio gear, like a rat trained to run a maze. When Hall and I were talking, I said, "If you keep pressing the lever and it keeps delivering the treats, you may fall in love with the lever." He pointed out that there may, in fact, not be any distinction made on a basic level between the lever and the treats themselves. Substitute "audio system" for "lever" and "music" for "treats" and it becomes a little clearer why battles get pitched between the various armies of sound. We are acting out the deep connection between the music that speaks to out very cores and the machines that we have learned will deliver it to us every time we hit the switch.
With this issue we welcome the renowned audio writer Ken Kessler, whose Natural Born Kessler column debuts on page 38. For 17 years I've been proud to call Ken a friend, and now I'm proud to call him a fellow Listener editor.