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February 2024

Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

 

Occasional Column: The Musical Point Of View
Achieving the artist's intentions of their audio art.
Article By Jules Coleman

 

Occasional Column: The Musical Point Of View Achieving the artist's intentions of their audio art. Article By Jules Coleman

 

Voicing and the Musical Point of View
Within my previous article last month, I argued that modes of communication could themselves be sources or initiators of meaning. An example illustrates the point. An artist paints a portrait of a friend whom he knows well. Through a range of artistic choices pose, color, background, composition, etc. the artist hopes to capture aspects of his friend's character, personality, the life she's lived, and perhaps his friend's self-conception as well. The portrait may or may not do a good job of realizing the artist's intentions, or may succeed in the eyes of some, but not in the eyes of others.

Whatever the artist's or the subject's intention or vision, once complete and available to an audience, viewers are likely to respond to the portrait in the light of their interests in it. Those interests may have little, if anything, in common with the artist's or the subject's goals for the painting. To be sure, some viewers may be interested in understanding the ways in which the portrait conveys the artist's intentions. Others, however, may look for clues the portrait provides about the status of women in the culture or the economics of the day or, perhaps, the strength of religion in everyday life.

In short, while the portrait may reflect the artist's vision, it also stands on its own. Part of what the painting comes to mean and the value it comes to have depend on audience interactions with it, and the conversation that grows up around those interactions.

I also argued that much the same is true of stories, dances, musical performances, and audio systems: all can be, and often are, communicators as well as modalities for communicating someone else's message. Few would doubt that novels, dances, and musical performances are not only tasked with conveying the intentions of the author, choreographer, composer / performer(s) but also serve as sources of meaning and that the meaning they have depends on the interactions of their audiences with them.

 

Contrast
By contrast, my claim that audio systems are a source of musical meaning is anathema to conventional audio wisdom which is that the source material contains the full musical message whereas the task of the audio system is to convert the signal to sound and transmit the message to the listener without leaving an imprint of its own in the process of doing so.

This division of audio labor between the source (message) and audio system (modality of its transmission) is also reflected in designers and manufacturers who see their goal as creating products that 'disappear' and in doing so 'get out of the way' of the music. In this view, when working as they should, audio systems capture, preserve, and speed the flow of musical information. They fail if they get in the way of the musical message, either by adding inauthentic colorations and non-musical information, or by blurring, inadequately sorting, or losing information.

Conventional audio wisdom brings together three ideas whose connections with one another need to be made explicit. The first is that an audio system is a uniquely appropriate modality for conveying the musical content in the source material. This is because audio systems basically convert electronic signals to sound. The second is that the appropriate standard for assessing an audio system is whether it can accomplish this task without leaving its fingerprints. These two claims the first that describes the point of an audio system and the second the standard appropriate to its appraisal ground the third claim which expresses a particular conception of 'fidelity to source,' according to which the sonic output reflects all and only the musical information on the source: nothing added or subtracted.

How might we express more concretely this conception of 'fidelity to the source?' One approach could be to see an audio system as a kind of Google translator. It takes inputs that are expressed in one language (electronic signals) and translates them into another language (sound waves). The former are accessible to an audio system but are not accessible in that form to humans or other listeners. The audio system translates the original content expressed in one language into another language that is accessible to the intended audience. The measure of quality is the accuracy of the translation. Of course, audio systems are imperfect translators, and they can only approach the ideal. All designs should strive to come as close (given time and resource constraints) to the ideal of accurate translation as possible.

Translation from one natural language into another, however, is not a mere technical exercise as anyone who has sent an email to a friend from another country in their native tongue with the use of Google translate only to receive a return email from the friend who professes not to understand what you were trying to say. There is a difference between translating words and conveying meaning. Word-for-word translations can be technically correct yet fail to express a coherent idea. A truly accurate translation gets the meaning across, and that may involve deviating from word-for-word translations. Conveying the meaning requires creativity, depth of understanding of the culture, modes of expression, context, and much more.

Though nearly universally affirmed, almost no one adheres to the conventional view in practice. and for good reason. Component designers and manufacturers are always making changes to their products. To be sure, sometimes the changes in parts, circuits, casements, internal wiring, and the like are best thought of as efforts to make the translation process more accurate. But many changes are lauded by manufacturers, reviewers, and critical listeners alike for making the components more musical, and not just more informative or accurate. Different output tubes, and different transformers (or the absence of transformers altogether) have an enormous impact on the texture, bloom, structure, and weight of the sonic output.

Whether these differences constitute a more (or less) musical presentation is a matter of judgment or preference, but there is no denying that they are offered and adopted for their musicality, or their way with the music. If one's way with the music is not an impact imparted by audio components, I have no idea what would be. I don't know how anyone could describe the differences between the very best versions of Linn, SME, and Clearaudio turntables for example other than primarily in terms of their way with the music.

 

YouTube?
In the same vein, I recommend a recent YouTube video conversation between Herb Reichert and Steve Guttenberg in which they share their experiences of listening to music with which they are very familiar through high-performance audio systems with which they are less familiar. Both note that it is like listening to new music. Rather than viewing the extent of the differences as a flaw, Herb Reichert and Steve Guttenberg find the experience enjoyable, educational, and occasionally exhilarating. I concur.

And we really shouldn't want it any other way. Apparently, neither would Herb nor Steve.

Interpretations augment the listening experience. They are additive but not because they add details that are not in the source material. They organize the information in the source material and in doing so provide an interpretation of it. Interpretations may add color to the material. Color should not be confused with coloration. Coloration is an inauthentic and non-musical detail, and while it may make a listening experience enjoyable to a particular listener or a larger audience, it is musically undesirable. That's true of box colorations, horn colorations as well as the ringing associated with various metal tweeters.

But color is an altogether different matter. Whereas audio systems that are colored in the first sense are, to the extent they are, unfaithful to the source, audio systems that present the musical information with texture, weight, realistic dynamics, structure, and tonal shadings add color to the presentation and potentially enrich the musical experience thereby.

Audio systems can't help but impact how the musical content is conveyed. But doing so is perfectly compatible with an appropriate conception of 'fidelity to the source' according to which an audio system aims to convey the meaning of the musical content. Audio systems can augment the musical experience in at least two ways. The first is by sorting the information, weaving it together, increasing accessibility to it by eliminating blurring of musical details, securing the stability of the image and conveying the other elements of a musical presentation, and more. The second way in which an audio system's character can be additive is by providing an 'interpretation,' 'reading', or 'rendering' of the source material.

Audio discussions have focused primarily on design goals of the first sort while at the same time denigrating those of the latter sort. My goal is to resurrect or rejuvenate efforts to focus on the latter of these: not because I think the former are unimportant. Quite the contrary. It's just that efforts of the former sort are important primarily because of the importance of the latter. After all, what could show more of a commitment to the ideal of fidelity to the source than trying to extract its meaning from it?

I would add that the meaning of artistic content (and other content as well) depends on the audiences' interactions with it and the conversation that grows up around those interactions. This brings me to two ideas that are central to my 'philosophy of audio.' The first of these is the centrality of the communities in which these conversations take place. The second is the elevation of audio reviewing to a form of art criticism, alongside film, music, and dance criticism.

Part of putting music first is recognizing that most of the time most of us interact with music we do so mediated by one or another kind of audio system device. The device we discuss most in the pages of audio magazines and journals is a full-fledged audio system and I want to be among the champions of the view that we need to take up seriously the way in which audio systems contribute to the meaning that musical content comes to have as well as to the meaning (in a different sense of the term) that music has in our personal and social lives.

 

Being A Communicator
Once we acknowledge that an audio system is itself a potential source of meaning and a communicator of content, we need to think about audio systems as we would anything that communicates, especially anything that communicates an artistic message. And that means thinking about audio systems as something that speaks in a characteristic voice.

Painters have a characteristic voice as do authors. Motherwell and Picasso both eloquently portrayed the horrors of the Spanish Civil War of the mid-20th Century. Motherwell did so in over 100 paintings; Picasso in 1. Their paintings are remarkable, but their voices are quite different. Authors as diverse as Lee Child, Tony Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Umberto Eco write in distinct styles and with a particular voice, and each finds a voice that is apt to the literature they write. It's hard to imagine finding a place for John Reacher in The Name Of The Rose film.

Some might reduce the idea of a voice to a style, but doing so risks confusing voice with fashion. Fashions change. What is 'in style' at a given moment will no doubt fall from grace, perhaps only to re-emerge down the road. Style in the sense of fashion is not enduring. In contrast, a voice is developed, sustained, and enduring. It is a characteristic mode of expression.

 

Authentic
There is more to the ideal of a voicing than a characteristic mode of expression. A voice expresses one's ideas in a way that is authentic and appropriate to the subject matter and genre. All detective novels have formal features. Those features structure the genre, but they are referred to as formal for a reason. They help to identify a novel as work of a certain kind. They have no direct bearing on the character or quality of the work. My brother, and several of his friends, are all well-known mystery / detective novelists. What distinguishes them from one another (other than varying degrees of financial success) is the voice in which each writes. That voice is reflected in the characters they create Jack Reacher in Lee Child's case, and Hieronymus Bosch in Michael Connelly's the lines they write for their characters to speak, the settings in which the stories occur, the backstory, how the narrative unfolds, and the way in which the mystery/crime is solved, if solved at all.

One doesn't have to make detectives sound like cops from Brooklyn to have a crime novel ring true, however. No one in real life speaks the way David Mamet's characters do. His works are intentionally mannered and the dialogue artificial. Mannered speech punctuated by pregnant pauses that one can spot as a Mamet dialogue from miles away. That is part of his essential voice, as are the characters and the circumstances in which he places them. One must admire Mamet's speaking in that voice across so many different genres. It is a risky approach that worked phenomenally well in the Glengarry Glen Ross film yet nearly sunk Heist.

There is a sense in which every system has a voice, but often it is not one that is formed intentionally. It's not that systems are put together haphazardly, though some surely are. An audio system requires a substantial investment not undertaken lightly. Most potential purchasers do reasonable research prior to purchasing. Part of the problem is that most people don't really know what they want. While they read reviews, commentary on forums, and do some listening, they don't have the opportunity to listen critically to as much equipment as they would need to be confident that they know the kind of presentation they prefer. In addition, critical listening is a skill that needs to be cultivated and developed. And all of us need guidance in developing those skills.

 

Various Factors
When one factor in the number of components involved in a system, and the number of different combinations of them that would ostensibly work together satisfactorily, but not optimally, over some period, the costs of learning can get quite high, quickly. Some trial and error is unavoidable, even for those of us who have spent decades listening critically. All of us make mistakes some more costly than others. Too often those of us who are reviewers and have access to lots of equipment and to varied critical listening opportunities forget how difficult it is for others to gain the experience necessary to make confident purchases.

What helps most is to be guided in one's decision-making, and more so, in one's listening, by what I call, a 'musical point of view.'

When I first became attuned to the joys of 'home stereo' in the mid-1970s I was regularly startled by how exciting listening to records in showrooms and at home could be. I was smitten. I was also fortunate as one of my students had a cousin working in R&D at Koss in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We visited their R&D lab regularly and listened to several speakers including those from the Koss project team. My student and I were also able to take equipment home to listen, and eventually to purchase products that we liked when they were available for sale. My student purchased Dalhquist DQ10s and I ended up with a pair of Magneplanar Tympani IA speakers. Not too bad of a place to begin decades of serious listening.

Most of my time in showrooms was spent at Salon I Audio, not too far from Madison, Wisconsin owned by audio veteran, Bruce Jacobs. Salon I was remarkable for the quality of their products and for their unusual program of allowing customers to borrow components for home listening for extended periods of time. Salon I functioned as much like a library as an audio emporium. I was one of many who took advantage of that extraordinary program.

Salon I was also the importer of EHS Loudspeakers which were the result of a research project carried on at the University of Brussels on human hearing. The research project would not be novel these days, but this was a project undertaken in the 1970s. In terms of sheer musicality, the EHS Soprano speakers were among the best I have owned, and I am sorry I ever let them go. I have no idea how they would stack up against the modern competition, but they were my first experience with audio magic.

 

Learning Through Experience
Between the early days of my audio infliction and the mid-1990s when the disease had settled into its chronic stage, I owned and listened to lots of different systems. Many sounded very good; some not so much. But mostly they sounded different and in different ways. I found myself noticing and cataloging the differences and trying to put those differences into words.

The three-panel Tympani IA speakers mated with Audio Research electronics presented music not just as larger than life, but also with a warmth and roundness that felt like a wet kiss between teenagers just beginning to explore youthful sexuality. When my wife, our first son, and I moved to Berkeley, California where rental prices made living in a space that could accommodate the Tympanis impossible, I was forced to replace them first with a pair of BBC / Rogers LS35a and then with the Rogers JR149.

The former was a bit reticent, though capable of rendering the human voice more accurately than any speaker at that time and perhaps since. Compared to the openness of the Magneplanars, they sounded box-constrained, however. Wanting to hold onto the LS3/5a's way with the human voice but without its boxiness, I replaced them with Rogers-designed cylindrical JR149. These were replaced by the EHS Sopranos that moved in and out of my system for 15 years.

It was during this period that I moved beyond cataloging and describing differences in sound presentation to formulating a view about which musical presentations I liked best and why. In retrospect, I realize that I was piecing together the materials from which I would ultimately construct my 'musical point of view.'

 

Musical Point Of View
What is a musical point of view? I'm not sure I know exactly, but it might help to answer this question by answering another one first, which is: what is it to have a point of view of any sort?

We often find ourselves in the position of assessing the actions of others and our own as right or wrong, fair or unfair. In deciding what course of conduct to take, we need to ask whether the action we contemplate taking is morally mandatory, prohibited, or permissible. And we should determine for ourselves individually and collectively whether the institutions that exercise authority over us are just or unjust.

How do we determine the considerations that bear on these judgments?

Consider some cases. Is it permissible to take preemptive measures in self-defense? Wouldn't we need to know how imminent the danger is, what the exact danger is, whether one can take evasive action instead of defensive action, and so on. What if the person is not threatening you, but someone else? What if that someone else is a family member? If you can save five people by killing one, are you required to let five people die if the only way to save them is to kill another, and it's wrong to kill? What if it's a thousand or a million people who can be saved by killing one? What if the person you would have to kill is a bad human being? What if that person is a family member?

 

Attitudes And Your Belief System
Arguably, points of view are attitudes. Attitudes are directed toward their (logical) objects. I can feel pride for my achievements and regret for my failings. In the first case, pride is the attitude and achievements of its object. In the second case, regret is the attitude and failings of its object. Attitudes are normally understood in terms of behavior. Here's an example. Belief is an attitude one has toward a proposition or statement. The belief is expressed in terms of behavior. If you believe a statement to be true, you express that by asserting and defending its truth as best you can, for example, by offering whatever evidence you might have in support of it.

Anger and shame are also attitudes. One can have anger towards others and guilt for the wrongs one has perpetrated. One who feels anger towards another would express that in behavior that is appropriate towards those with whom one is angry. Appropriate behavior depends on what the source of the anger is, the extent of the anger one feels, and the degree to which it is warranted. We would ask similar questions about guilt, shame, remorse, and all the other attitudes and their objects.

A moral point of view is the attitude one takes toward morality. What would it be to have an attitude toward morality? What behavior would appropriately express that attitude? The answers to these questions depend on the meaning or scope of morality. I would suggest that the appropriate attitude toward morality is respect for what it calls upon us to do; and that the behavior that expresses that attitude is rational compliance with morality's demands.

In order to comply with morality's demands, one would need to know what morality calls upon one to do. Therefore, we would need to determine what factors count morally, determine the weight they deserve, and devise a standard for taking these considerations appropriately into account. Only then could we give morality its due, that is, comply with its demands when rational to do so, and weigh its rational force correctly when faced with a conflict between what morality calls for and what we might otherwise prefer to do or are compelled to do by other considerations?

For example, morality may prohibit actions that others who are blackmailing us or are holding a gun to our heads demand that we do. Can we really be blamed morally for doing what we can to stay alive or must we sacrifice our lives at the altar of morality? Can morality be that demanding of us? I am pretty sure we aren't angels either and sometimes living a normal human life means departing from morality's demands to fulfill ordinary human desires. Morality may have its limits, and different moral points of view will locate its boundaries differently. There is clearly room for differences among moral points of view.

We can now take this understanding of what it is to have a point of view and apply it to the music mediated by an audio system: a distinctive kind of musical point of view. A musical point of view is an attitude toward music. What would that attitude consist of and what behavior would express it? I don't know the answers to these questions. Think of me as in the investigative stage of inquiry. But the following seems like a reasonable start. Music is an art form and a source of entertainment (and more). In the context of listening to music through an audio system music is a source of enjoyment (that's why we call our site, Enjoy the Music!). So the attitude appropriate to a musical point of view is, at first blush, those appropriate to artistic sources of enjoyment.

Many listeners have a sense of what they like or what they listen for, but they are unlikely to distinguish between what they like because it matters musically from what they like because it contributes to an enjoyable experience. The difference is important, however.

Even if the goal of an audio system is listener enjoyment, it matters that there are different sources of enjoyment those that are the result of the musical experience, those that may arise from a system's ability to create non-musical artifacts, not to mention the many social pleasures that can result from enjoying music with others. In this way, listening to music through one's audio system is not much different from enjoying a music concert. The music and the experience of it in any circumstances are varied and all can contribute to one's enjoyment of the experience.

Musical points of view are personal. A composer who values being able to listen deeply into a presentation and follow individual lines throughout the performance is likely to value a very low noise floor more than others might. I am drawn to audio presentations that are fully resolved what I think of as whole, complete and integrated. A useful analog of what I have in mind is painting. Viewing a painting and studying it are different activities. I rarely take the time to study a painting, partly because I am only modestly skilled at doing so. Compared to my wife, who is an art historian by academic training, I am a novice.

When I do study a painting, however, I find myself noting a difference between those that strike me as unfinished or incompletely resolved and those that seem fully resolved. Works that are unresolved or incomplete (unintentionally so) are, to that extent, incapable of expressing a narrative. Their meaning is incomplete or in the extreme, they are incapable of having or expressing meaning. They are like putative sentences lacking a subject or a predicate, or formulas in math or logic that are not 'well-formed.'

 

What Your Ears Hear
Turning from listeners to designers, I am struck by the fact that to my ears most audio systems these days sound much more alike than different. (I anticipate having more to say about this in the future.) Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is that design goals for many audio components are not drawn from the designer's 'musical point of view.' To be sure most designers have attributes they believe components should possess. They should reduce the noise floor, be transparent, fast, extended, image well, provide a convincing sound stage, be dynamic, and so on. These features all matter experientially. Whether they matter musically, how and why they do if they do depends on one's musical point of view.

I would add, that in the early growth days of home audio, most designers came from a musical place, not an engineering place. Designers had to hire engineers to see their visions through to a viable product. What counts as progress these days is much more the result of engineering and manufacturing prowess than musical insight, knowledge, or motivation.

No surprise then that audio systems sound far more alike than different. Some might draw a 'positive' inference from this convergence: namely, audio manufacturing has progressed to the point that we are getting closer and closer to creating the sound of real music in the home.

I demur.

If all novels in particular genres were to converge in their presentations, I doubt that we would think of this as a form of artistic progress. Quite the contrary in fact. More likely, convergence signals that we have flattened the genre; and rendered it one-dimensional. We would never pursue that outcome in writing novels. Why would we aspire to that outcome when it comes to audio systems?

 

Audiobooks
Have those of you who listen to audiobooks noticed the difference a particular narrator makes? I was gripped by the narration of Don Winslow's Cartel while I was lulled nearly to sleep (dangerously, given that I was driving at the time) by the narrations of other works. Narration is an interpretive activity, and not simply a matter of reading lines. Similarly, actors are chosen for their roles in large measure because of the way they deliver lines at a reading. To be sure, it helps to read the lines clearly, without distracting 'ums'. But the decision is based ultimately on whether the audition shows a capacity to bring the character to life. Why would we seek less in an audio system?

A smaller relative number of audio products these days are designed by those who voice their components to reflect a musical point of view who take a stance on what matters musically, to what extent, how, and why it does. Some, like Shindo-san designed the full range of audio components from sources to speakers to reflect his voice and present it in a unified fashion, while allowing for variations within that voice through the many different amplifiers he created. Some focus on electronics and sources, like Fredrik Lejonklou and the folks at Jadis; others focus on sources, especially turntables like the folks at Linn, and others on speakers, like those at Magnepan, Sound Lab, and JM Reynaud.

 

Discovering The Designer's Intensions
My claim is not that these designers can fully or even partially articulate their 'musical points of view.' Rather, I am inclined to view the components they design as expressions of that point of view and through which we can discover the point of view (whether fully formed or not) that drives the design. Those are the products I want to review and why I want to do so. Fortunately for me, there are more than enough components and designers to keep me busy as an audio critic.

Those familiar with my academic work know that I am much less interested in advancing and defending a thesis than in seeing if I genuinely understand the nature and depth of a problem of interest to me, and with luck, of philosophical and in rare cases practical import. I have offered solutions to various issues, but largely in the spirit of testing a hypothesis that would reveal, in the discussion that followed, the extent to which my understanding of the problem is flawed or incomplete. Answers to problems whose complexity we don't fully understand are useful only if they lead us to more fully understand the true nature of the underlying problem.

I may only have realized it recently, but my intellectual interest in audio has largely been to understand the musical point of view. At this point, I figure the best way to continue investigating and deepening my understanding is to listen critically to audio components and systems designed to express a distinctive musical point of view.

In doing so, I do not see myself as judging success or failure. While many audio reviewers are comfortable in passing judgment and confident about the recommendations they make, I am not one of them. I am, as I always have been, investigating features of the social, moral, political, and aesthetic domains that interest me hoping to understand their nature through the challenges and opportunities it creates and the problems it presents. In this case, I am exploring an aspect of the audio arts through engagement with products that contribute to its development.

The ones that I am most interested in, therefore, are those that are designed around an awareness of the underlying aesthetic appropriate to the audio arts. I want to learn, if I can, what different creative minds think is musically significant, that deserves to be brought out and conveyed to the listener, why, and how they have designed their components in an effort to do so.

The floor is open for conversation. Until next time.

 

Jules Coleman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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