Thoreau And Melville
Article By Bob Neill
A friend of mine and I both love the sound of music but we are two different kinds of audiophiles. He knows that if there is too much equipment that costs too much money, it will create expectations that will literally get between him and the music, the cruelest irony of
audiophillia. He is correct, of course. If you spend enough money, you are very likely to spend the rest of your life trying not to hear the equipment. If you spend enough, you want to hear the equipment, grow restless when you stop hearing it. So he studiously - though not ruthlessly - simplifies. Of course, by audiophile standards, that still means a (retail) expenditure of around $10K. I could cut another $2K from his system without doing much damage but I'll leave him alone. He has a big room to fill, he knows what he's doing, and none of us is pure. Because his system does not plumb the depths, ascend to the ultra-sonic, uncover the lowest level detail, image like a bandit, or load his room, he has nothing to pay attention to but Mingus and
Marais. His system is a skillfully constructed means to an end. He and his wife listen to music, more attentively and regularly than anyone I know. I envy them that. The truth that inspires my friend - he quotes Thoreau to me whenever an appropriate occasion presents itself - is "Simplify, simplify."
But I stand here today to speak plenitude to the face of simplicity. Yes, yes, the more you spend, the higher your expectations soar; but if you spend it wisely and creatively, the equipment is out there to take you closer and closer to what is, in fact, the absolute sound. All you stand to lose is your money, your spouse's uncritical admiration, and your pride in frugality, of which fortunately I have none. Frugality, say I, is the name the man of limited means gives to his limited means to make it bearable. Now my version of plenitude, by the standards of 'Upstairs TAS,' is pretty modest. But it has a few rich pockets. The interconnects, speaker cable, and power cords alone, at retail prices, are equivalent to just under 20% of my annual income. What I weigh against this economic obscenity and the more serious threat of not being able not to attend constantly to my material investment, is the fact that as I put each of these pieces of wire into my system, I could hear the music become more and more present and real. It was exhilarating! It was more exhilarating than it was obscene. More exhilarating than burdensome. "He has eternity in his eye." Moby Dick is more exhilarating than Walden.
Puritans and Cavaliers
Clearly, it takes a cavalier rather than a puritan mind to experience such exhilaration without misgivings. But the truth is that plenitude - more and more, better and better, more and more complete - is the only possible route to the Absolute. Not to greater and greater resolution. Not to a more and more breathtakingly holographic soundstage. But to the Whole that transcends these merely constituent effects. The best digital front end can deliver a level of natural clarity that is awesomely self-effacing. The best electronics and only the best, can render that natural clarity, with ebullience, delicacy, and majesty, across the entire bandwidth. And the best speakers can literally make it manifest before you. And if your cables can meet the near impossibly high standards these components set, you can in fact enter that select drawing room where Couperin's musicians play. Which ain't no Cabin in Concord.
The cruel conclusion that I am slogging toward is that while it is impossible for many of us to both own an 'Upstairs' music system and enjoy it, it is impossible for some of us to take sufficient satisfaction from a modest music system. (And I think those who are in-between are either moving in one direction or the other, kidding themselves, or miserable.) There is a satisfaction in achieving a reasonable level of musical realism at modest cost that is very real, especially when, as in some of the best Thoreauvian systems, the ground covered is so superbly covered it can make us forget what is missing. Walden is a beguiling book and Thoreau has got his hands on an essential truth about us. We seem to be able to take an odd and self-satisfying pleasure in at least the idea of simplicity: of being able to see all four walls of our existence and carry all that we own on our backs. But it is also true that simplicity and purity are at bottom simply negative words having to do with getting rid of things; that in fact, we have made a virtue out of loss, perhaps played a joke on ourselves - or had one played on us. In which case, the sturdy satisfaction of being sane and sensible as we stand in our handsome and plain little cabins must be its own reward. And it must compete with the rich, complex, and variegated exhilaration of standing in an extraordinary and richly carved and decorated renaissance cathedral, where the scale and color alone is...well, exhilarating.
"A Terrible Beauty is Born."
Last night, in one of my ritual culling sessions, I put the Decca cd of Quartet #10 of the
Fitzwilliams' Shostakovich box set on my fairly opulent music system. This is a recording I've owned long enough to have heard it on several systems that Henry David would have found acceptably modest - and it is one that in previous listening I'd decided had never quite made it through from analogue to digital intact. Decent but forgettable, no match for either the Borodins or the
Emersons. Culling time. And then everything changed. The next hour or so turned into one of the most stirring musical experiences of my life. Powerful, rosined and almost raw, dynamics sawing through my living room beautifully - ravishingly real violins, viola, and cello, on the edge of the unbearably brutal. And then, in the midst of this powerful cacophony - spatially distinct - a plaintive ribbon of violin sound (must have been the second violin), a voice that in all previous hearings had been nearly buried in the mix. Here, it was both separate and inseparable from the violent song storming around it.
This - all of it - was my first experience of the 'terrible beauty' of Shostakovich and I will never forget it. And it was a musical experience that I'm sure is beyond the ken of Thoreau, and absolutely beyond the capability of any modest, sensible sound system to communicate. It was pure Melville in the midst of the Pacific Cathedral.