Republished with permission from the author, and from The High Fidelity Report:
The audiophile enthusiasm is a very addicting one because it provides us with a conduit for our music (which we already love), and it presents that music in a particular fashion or style – the “sound” (perceivable character) of certain technologies or formats as it is identifiable from other “sounds” of other technologies or formats. In this fashion we get to play with and appreciate the different manners of presentation of the music as well as the music itself.
As an easy example one can cite the difference in sonic characteristics between an iPod playing a commercially-produced MP3 vs. a record player playing a vinyl LP. And while this particular example may be very obvious and easy to spot, there are far more nuanced and refined, miniscule-yet-critical differences to be noticed and noted. Drilling down several hundred (or more) levels, we are talking about noticing and noting apparent sonic-differences between such infinitesimally small things such as the various stylus profiles of a phonograph cartridge (and smaller!).
Ever since the audio hobby gained mainstream popularity (probably mid-1950’s, coinciding with Edgar Villchur’s invention of the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker), there has been a desire and need for professional evaluation to help guide the consumer toward “good” products and away from “bad” products. As a consequence various critical journals have been published addressing the growing demand for this kind of evaluation. And just as the technology evolved historically, so have the approaches to evaluation evolved, engraving history as they went.
This history isn’t necessarily interesting on its own in any broad/mainstream sense, and I therefore couldn’t in good conscience recommend as page-turners books like “Sound Bites” or “Bang & Olufsen” to folks who are not already predisposed to the subject. However, there is an aspect about this history, heretofore unexamined (to my knowledge), that should be interesting to everyone: As the approaches to critical evaluation evolved, and as the language used to describe evaluated performance developed, the enthusiast reading the criticism increased their own awareness of various performance attributes and began to notice more and finer apparent aspects of performance than ever before.
This ability of language to interact with and effect perception has always been utterly fascinating to me, and it is why I’ve decided to write these introductory remarks before delving into the actual history I’ve chosen to discuss.
I was first alerted to this “hypnotic effect” that language has by the strangely fascinating writings of Robert Anton Wilson, who deftly delved into the very messy world that blossoms in the nexus between philosophy, science, psychology, mysticism, and politics. Among those writings that were early influences on the development of my emerging personal philosophy counted several of his books, not the least of which were “Prometheus Rising” and “Quantum Psychology,” but for those who knew-me-back-when, the roller-coaster-ride of his “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” inspired me such that I named my first company: Illuminati (a name which still rings familiar bells for a handful of oldtimers but has otherwise been lost to the relentless abrasion of time).
During that ca: 1993-era I was also engaged in some writing. My first article for Positive-Feedback (“The Journal Of The Oregon Triode Society”) was published in their Vol.4, No.2 issue and was merely a “designer’s notes” article wherein I was graciously given the space to talk about my nascent company and its single (and singular) product: the “Datastream” 75 Ohm digital cable. In the same issue I also ran a full-page advert for the company on page 1, replete with foreboding “eye-in-the-triangle” mystical symbolism (inspired by Wilson’s book-covers, of course), technical claims for the Datastream itself, and some contact information.
It was also in those hallowed pages that I became familiar with the writing of Mr. Clark Johnsen and, thanks to an introduction/prodding by editor and dear friend Dr. David Robinson, many long and really interesting telephone conversations were had with Clark. During that time I recall faxing to Clark the text of an article that I wanted to submit to the magazine, as I wanted him to evaluate it from an editor’s perspective. A subsequent telephone call from him helped me to identify what amounted to a fairly chronic problem in my writing: the word “is”
I won’t try to recall the conversation itself except to note that it was during this particular round of editorial counseling that he hipped me to the work of Alfred Korzybki as founder of General Semantics and inspiration for the invention of E-Prime by D. David Bourland. E-Prime was, at its simplest, the English language without any forms of the verb “to be” – codifying the purpose of clarifying or delineating the differences between opinion and fact with an overarching semantic “rule” of sorts.
Clark introduced me to Korzybski’s writings, and Korzybski taught me about the effect of language upon perception:
One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he interrupted the lesson suddenly in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think,” said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. Then he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies.” The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to vomit, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. “You see,” Korzybski remarked, “I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.”
The Map Is Not The Territory
The Menu Is Not The Meal
From these basics I began to understand a fundamental and pervasive aspect of all language, including mathematics and music:
These are invented systems of abstractions that we, as a species, use to create representative approximations of phenomena that we imperfectly encounter through sense-perceptions –
– that, as a bad habit, we tend to confuse these essentially-symbolic abstractions (“useful models”) for something we dare to call “The Truth” – a quality or condition that we are otherwise unprepared and ill-equipped to approach in actuality.
More simply stated: We have no access to The Whole Truth – so we pretend that our abstractions and linguistic modeling are sufficient proxies.
Without getting too, too esoteric and airy-fairy I relate this for two reasons:
First: to confess, as it were, sombunall of the influences that have affected my thinking about my thinking (and writing)
Second: as a somewhat of a demonstration that the evolution of the evaluative philosophy and language that was developed and employed by the most influential journalists in our industry may have directly catalyzed the development of capacities in the enthusiast/reader, enabling them to listen more sensitively and deeply.
This latter part has the potential to be important to the reader who wasn’t previously aware of the history, or aware of the writings of those scribes who founded those critical tangents (and who are probably the reason that you might use words like “warm” or “liquid” or “stringent” or “steely” when describing the sound of an audio component).
The nature of our enthusiasm for things-audio seems to subdivide psychologically and philosophically into approaches that reviewers – and also, hobbyists – adopt when approaching the task of rendering an opinion about some audio “thing” they might be evaluating. As major philosophical emphases I believe these three are abundantly evident:
So : Venn Diagram, above. You can see the major emphases in the major sets, the intersection of areas, and that little portion in the middle where I suspect that most of us actually move around. One day or hour or moment you might be strictly in the middle, other days/hours/moments you might be leaning more toward an emphasis.
Examining each of these philosophies, at least as I tend to think of them :
The 20th Century: No philosophical obsession seems more entrenched as a matter fundamental to its emblematic compulsive-intellectualism (and its Cartesian anxiety) as Objectivism. Though popularized as a political and moral philosophy by Ayn Rand, it remains ostensibly a byproduct of a mechanistic-materialism that arose as a result of the methods that had been developed, evolved, and adapted out of (mostly) dispassionate 17th Century “scientific” inquiry and discipline. At its core, it demands that humans can only interact with portions of “Objective Reality” through imperfect sense-perceptions, and that knowledge about Objective Reality can only be arrived at, piecemeal, through a system of inquiry that is based upon empirical data gathering, methodical testing, and inductive logic.
Namely: Scientific Method
Among the most extreme adherents of Audio Objectivism you might find the particular philosophy emerge: If it can’t be measured, it can’t be heard.
Superbly reasonable, really – especially when dealing with feats of engineering such as amplifiers, loudspeakers, and (good Lord!) cables. After all, these things are designed and built with certain rules in mind and do behave predictably according to those rules. The most extreme adherents dogmatically insist as an article of faith (irony!), that if two devices of the same sort measure identically … they will perform identically. And because “The Rules” are known, and because the designers and engineers subject their devices to “The Rules,” there must be very little purpose spending one’s money on the more expensive of two similar options if they measure identically.
This stems from a notion pregnant within this philosophy that audio equipment of all sorts are intended to fulfill a strict purpose: to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the signal traveling from one end of the chain to the other. And because the signal is defined by and limited to the framework set forth by The Rules, measurement according to The Rules and its approved metrics are all that would be needed to determine the “fidelity” of the device under test. Very tidy little system there.
These were very compelling arguments to make, especially in the 1950’s when there was much more of a general interest and hopefulness about Science-as-Savior, creating an interesting opportunity for Julian Hirsch (together with Gladden Houck) to establish a new journalistic model: laboratory testing as the arbiter of quality. They founded the Audio League, a partnership which later morphed into the now-legendary Hirsch-Houck Laboratories, out of which reviews were generated for some of the magazines of the time. Julian gained particular notoriety for his work at Stereo Review, and his philosophy and methods gradually infused somewhat of an industry-wide morality that was, perhaps, most baldly-stated by High Fidelity’s Michael Riggs when, fatwa-like, he declared:
… laboratory testing (properly done) can tell us pretty much everything we need to know about the performance of a typical piece of electronics…We know what the important characteristics are, how to measure them, and how to interpret the results. ~ Julian Hirsch
Rebelliously – if someone were to insist that there exist perceptible differences in sonic performance between components that measured the same – this would not be casually dismissed as a modest error. It would likely have been considered an outrage, an insult against the Crown, and deserving of a heretic’s fate.
One heretic in particular decided to flee the compound and establish a magazine for himself, based upon a principle alien to the high-priests bearing witness to the Objectivist Canon:
That rebel was J. Gordon Holt and his magazine was named Stereophile.
No discussion about the Subjectivist school in the audio industry can be launched without paying homage to Gordon, who in 1962 established Stereophile after parting ways with Objectivist (and advert-driven) High-Fidelity Magazine.
Gordon’s approach was a major departure from the lab-centric OCD-world that he left behind: he tested and judged audio components based upon the way that they sounded in his audio system and listening environment. At the time this was probably seen as quite radical, and Gordon used his own bully-pulpit to demonstrate an important point about emphasis: Although measurements with machines could be used to demonstrate how something behaved according to the accepted engineering principles of the time, review-emphasis more properly belonged upon the listening experience itself, because that is what the vast majority of consumers do. He shifted focus from the soullessness of the mechanistic priority (“to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the signal”) to the humanistic priority: to communicate, as convincingly as possible, the illusion of live sound. Not one to be airy-fairy, though, Gordon also embraced ABX (double-blind) testing as a means of also testing the human being … a practice looked upon with baleful eyes and no shortage of deep skepticism.
His writing was concise, marrying his technical experience with his finely-honed listening skills. As his style evolved, so did the lexicon of words that he used to describe what it was he heard. He later penned The Audio Glossary for Stereophile to clarify his usage of language in the context of his evaluations. To call J. Gordon Holt “The Father of High End Audio” bears witness, correctly in my opinion, that his radical shift in emphasis from prioritizing measured performance to prioritizing apparent performance was the major legitimizing force that helped little-known companies later become the doyens of the industry and emblems of the new Faith. So great was Stereophile’s influence and so compelling was Gordon’s style and vision that a legendary, rival magazine was inspired and launched.
The Abso!ute Sound
As with Gordon, no examination of the subjectivist school of audio reviewing could possibly be complete without mention of Harry Pearson Jr. and the magazine that he had first published in 1973: The Abso!ute Sound (“TAS”). If J. Gordon Holt was a Martin Luther to Julian Hirsch’s Pope Leo X, then – as a matter of contextual comparison – Harry Pearson Jr. was a Carl Jung (or, perhaps, an Aleister Crowley).
Harry was a wordsmith who was very careful about his craft, and as a result his reviews could often flow almost poetically without a wasted word to be found. However, it isn’t necessarily for his manicured prose that he is best known, but rather for his credo and guiding philosophy: That the sole purpose of an audio system in the home is to faithfully recreate the illusion of live, unamplified acoustic instruments playing in a real acoustic space – a Musical Event. A shift in emphasis – slight, but critical – had occurred at Harry’s Sea Cliff, NY listening-laboratory, but you could be forgiven if you missed it:
Harry’s evaluations were very serious, methodical examinations of MUSIC, as projected via the sound of those objects collectively-termed “audio system” – and this emphasis, or focus-shift on music and “musicality” distinguished Harry from his subjectivist-peers who seemed to regard music as sound and, thereby, for the purposes of reviewing, interchangeable with sounds of all kinds (trains, planes, automobiles, ad nauseam). Harry’s focus on “musicality” sought the artistry, communication, and meaning emanating from the music perhaps more than it sought the individual sonic elements that assembled the sonic-gestalt.
Whereas Gordon seemed the clinician after a fashion, totemizing a laundry list of sonic performance attributes with nary a mention of the particular music he used to make his evaluations, Harry adopted a different tone and manner: making the music central to the evaluation from a connoisseur’s perspective was key to parsing the nuances of performance. The reviewer’s dispassionate distance from the subject would no longer be tolerated, and the subject wasn’t audio gear per se, it was music – and music was art. Audio gear was in service to the art. Who but a practiced lover of art could truly appreciate and evaluate the sound of a stereo?
THE NEW STANDARD
The performance of an audio system had to be compared to the sound of live, un-amplified music in a real performance space, and its emotional effect of the music on the listener also became an important element of the overall evaluation. Between Gordon and Harry, Stereophile and The Abso!ute Sound, a phalanx against the Empire of Objectivists was formed, and the case was successfully made for evaluating components from the POV of the listener. The Stereophile/TAS standard, in its various iterations, seems to have stood as the dominant arbiter for more than four decades.
To state it plainly as regards our enthusiasm for audio and music, the Hedonist simply demands that – regardless of the objectively acquired measurements, and despite the opinions of professional reviewers as to how well a piece of gear contributes to illusion of “live music in a real space” – if the listener isn’t enjoying the experience, what’s the point?
And while this may seem suspiciously facile to some, there seems an almost impenetrable grace to its selfishness. Audio is considered a luxury with an aesthetic task to perform, and it will rank in importance or desirability according to the pleasure it evokes. Given the vast numbers of musicians plying their craft in the studio with virtual-instruments/synthesizers/computers (and, therefore, decidedly not “acoustic” in any way), the argument favoring the primacy of individual pleasure over any kind of broadly-applied standard can easily find sympathy, and indeed has found a few cautious champions in reviewing circles: the more recent writings from TAS’ Executive Editor Jonathan Valin seem to be an effort to legitimize the hedonic-aesthetic principle as one of several ways to approach judgement and opinion for audio gear. The Hedonic-Aesthetic Principle is the New Heresy, and the Subjectivists are now the ones that cast the shadows of old dominions.
Everything significant is baptized in music.
As I reflect on over 20 years as a professional in this industry, and longer as an enthusiast, I can find in my history articulation points that guided me toward one emphasis or another. I’ve spent time in various of the extremes in that color-happy Venn Diagram presented in the last installment, and as I’ve grown older, and hopefully wiser, I’ve discovered that a strict philosophy of any kind seems as foolishness, weakness and laziness. It takes effort to be flexible, and I have found that fluidity and balance insure against the tempting sclerosis of Doctrine. That is, of course, when I can remember to remain flexible and balanced – it becomes a discipline, at least for me, and I do sometimes fail.
In my opinion and for my purposes, I regard Science as a tool and a method by which we inquire into the nature of Objective Reality by removing as much of the human apparatus (bias) from the metric as possible. As a matter of the language I choose to describe the purpose and product of Science, I distance myself from the tenacity of its pedagogues – an important departure from the demands of the Faith: Science does not arrive at Truth, but merely constructs functional approximations (“Useful Models”) based upon the best information it has at its disposal at the time. The future will doubtlessly alter, modify, and replace those models. Therefore I choose not to think of the output-product of Science as Truth (which I consider to be an an immutably constant ideal), but rather as a temporarily useful approximation.
Measurements made to audio gear are only meaningful within the context of the most modern accepted principles that seem to govern their activity and operation, at the time of their measurement. As regards the Objective school, therefore, I assume (cautiously) that the engineers designing the equipment know their way around these accepted principles, and that measurements would only demonstrate that they’ve more or less obeyed The Rules.
In John Atkinson’s 1989 examination and obituary for the (then) recently-defunct “High Fidelity” magazine he states:
… measurements do have their role. They provide an underlying framework for a report based on the effect of a component on the music, though what is heard will always be more important than what is measured. ~ John Atkinson
I’m not on board with the use of “underlying framework” in that sentiment, because it seems to superimpose a context onto the mission of the reviewer based upon what I believe to be an utterly false priority. The reader will probably not care to measure the component for themselves – they care to listen – so therefore the conclusion, “what is heard will always be more important than what is measured,” obviates the need to publish measurements. That said, the measurements can add dimension and entertainment for those with certain proclivities (vivsectionists come to mind …).
As a matter of aesthetic utility, the Objectivist approach is relegated to play an ancillary role, if it is to have a role in reviewing at all.
While I embrace, philosophically, the need to emphasize the aesthetic performance of gear as primary, I recognize that – just as another person cannot eat my food for me or kiss my wife for me – they cannot also judge the effect that a piece of gear will have on my perception of music in my system. There are far too many variables, both in the machines that make up my audio-system and in my own sensorium – as opposed to the machines and sensorium of a reviewer – for a subjective review to be more than a mere diary of someone else’s life. A broad variety of reviews of the same component in differing contexts and systems might help to reveal certain characteristics that seem “resident” to the component, but none of that really delivers the kind of meaningful context that I am able to experience in my own system, in my own house, in my own time.
It nevertheless seems useful to “listen vicariously” through someone else’s experienced ears by reading their evaluations and trying to establish a connection with their observations. Subjective reviewing has proven to be a means to discover new attention-paths, language to describe, and to develop insight. Its invented and re-purposed vocabulary has likely been a catalyst for the development or awakening of capacities and sensitivities in the audiophile readership. Audiophiles have become more sophisticated listeners thanks to the concerted efforts of the Subjectivists to call attention to subtle, yet meaningful aspects of performance.
Seeking begets finding, but it sometimes helps to have a rough idea what one is looking for prior to embarking. Sometimes maps can be useful, even if they are not the actual territory.
As regards Hedonism, then, it seems redolent of adolescence. To pretend and posture that one’s own opinion is paramount is to believe that one has reached the height of their development and capacity. Pure pleasure seems fine, but to what end? How is it that one finds the next plateau when the present one loses its luster? It’s not merely enough to seek new heights haphazardly – one might easily wind up making only lateral moves at best – or working backwards at worst. “If a little salt improves the taste, just think of what a LOT of salt can do!”
Reading well-crafted opinions and listening to the experiences of others lends greater potential for identifying new exquisite experiences. The purely Hedonistic approach seems naturally just a facet of Narcissism, and therefore will have extremely limited utility when judiciously employed.
From the perspective of an evaluation Hedonism can offer a useful finishing touch when applied sparingly: does it wiggle my willie enough to make me want to buy it? A reviewer must sometimes try to sympathize with the consumer’s needs if they are to be useful as anything more than a diarist in a one-sided epistolary relationship with the reader.
“Close your eyes. Fall in love. Stay there.”
Around 1995 I recall being at my parents’ house and seeing part of a PBS special with Bill Moyers, and he was interviewing poet and scholar Coleman Barks as part of the second episode in a series on poetry that was called “The Language of Life.” Barks is a scholar of Persian poetry noted particularly for his beautiful translations of the poems of 13th Century Sufi mystic, Jalaleddin Rumi. His words were more than captivating, beyond mesmerizing .. they rang a bell in my heart that could not be un-rung. It must have been around the time of my birthday, because I recall that my mother asked me what I would like for gifts and I told her that ‘d like some books on Rumi. That began a process of discovery for me, about the Persian poet and others like him, and about the nature or purpose of poetry: To Evoke
Likewise, great music isn’t an intellectual exercise. Though it can be picked apart mathematically, measured and quantified – it is far greater than the sum of its parts. Though it behaves according to rules that are understood, and made according to conventions that are accepted – it is far greater than the frameworks within which it operates. Great music has a deep effect upon the listener, drawing out more than just raw emotion. It can lift veils and offer glimpses between worlds, like a magic carpet ride or a time machine, as you transcend the mundane in exchange for the ineffably extraordinary.
In light of the Audio History I’ve recounted, this has influenced my thinking about the challenge of communicating the nuances of exquisite impressions. Language becomes a problem. You can no more usefully describe a color than you can describe an orgasm to someone who hasn’t had either sensation to begin with. How much more difficult can it be to describe much finer and nuanced sensations? No amount of language can suffice.
Because language can be used to evoke feelings that seem to effervesce, illuminate, and radiate from within – it becomes possible to aim that light toward a more subtle target. To first create a sympathetic resonance and then apply it to a subject, transforming the subject with the kind meaning that can only be felt.
I believe that great music sparks a light in our hearts that allows us to catch fleeting glimpses of subtle, ineffable qualities. I believe that great music ennobles our souls by stripping us free of artifice and laying us bare in trickling streams and rushing torrents. In this virtual space we’re drenched in the overwhelming namelessness of beauty. It seems an impossible task to bring even the merest portion of that radiance back to the ordinary world, to try to express it in words – and yet that’s precisely what great poetry seems to be able to do, and sometimes in very few words.
Haiku – the minimalist poetic discipline from Japan – constrains the poet to an extreme: a single stanza, three lines, seventeen syllables in all: five for the first line, seven for the second, and five for the third and final line. Yet, much like music, the greatest examples can evoke whole worlds of experience in the sensitive reader from within the confines of extreme restriction.
I suspect that beyond the objectivist, subjectivist, and hedonist emphases lies another potential approach to evaluation. The “Evocative” approach. It intends to strike sympathetic resonances in the reader such that they may be able to relate to experiences that might otherwise evade expression. I’m not proposing a “school” of evaluation, though. As I’ve discussed above, I think each approach has its benefits and pitfalls. I’ve also discussed the benefits of remaining fluid and not painting oneself into the corner of a philosophical “-ism” … and that would include Evocatism. Rather, we have another tool in the box with which to chisel and polish in service to the reader, for whom the reviewer has somehow got to relate a personal experience that unfolds partly as an internal matter.
Close your eyes. Fall in love. Stay there.
In fewer words and syllables than even a Haiku, Rumi reveals a key … to what? The intellect is not equipped to parse these things. Attempting to describe the infinity that lays outside the Framework in the language and grammar of the Framework is a fool’s errand … but that language is all we have, and so it takes a fool to make the attempt. To quote Rumi again, “None but the fool can hold wisdom dear …“
As I see it, this task is a very strange one. In my opinion, the Objectivists missed the mark entirely by operating on a false premise: that these devices have a strict and mundane purpose of preserving a quantifiable “input” as precisely as possible through to its ultimate “output” – and if we accept that premise, then quality can be determined without ever having to listen. But because the human-being has been banished from this model, it becomes almost entirely useless to the consumer who doesn’t listen to measurements, or even to sound, but rather to the music that they love and relate to. Music is an abstract aesthetic, unquantifiable by any fungibly standard measure. Because “music” is the output that matters, the quality of the output cannot be judged except from within the domain of the human experience of it.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
This is as true for audio gear as it is for pudding, and the reason is simple – these things are not made to be consumed by machines, they are made to be consumed by people. Though various and sundry rules are followed to make a workable amplifier or an edible pudding, and each behaves within a context of behaviors that are understood well enough to produce them, none of that will determine how well it is going to be received by the person actually consuming it. That is a matter left entirely to the function of perception by the human being, alone.
The Subjectivists seem to have approached much more closely to a desirable philosophy when they established their purpose. By making the human-experience the arbiter of quality, they put the reviewer in the consumer’s place as they tried to parse aspects of performance that were noticed. In the first stages of Subjectivism, these aspects were somewhat totemized and compartmentalized: bass, midrange, treble, dynamics, imaging, soundstaging, etc. They were beginning to understand and explore the purpose for audio devices: as conduits for sounds that must ultimately be consumed by the ears of the human apparatus. Let’s call this subset of Subjectivism the Apparency Doctrine – essentially the systematic noticing and noting of sound effects, the nuanced differences of which are considered to be indicative of the quality of the devices through which the sound-effects are projected.
Refining the notion even more the Subjectivists shifted the emphasis from a laundry-list of sound effects to the presentation of music as filtered through these devices. The identity of the purpose had changed: an audio system was neither tasked with the goal of preserving a quantifiable “signal,” nor was it intended to stitch together a collection of sound-effects into a Frankenstein’s Monster – outwardly “human,” but obviously not. The purpose was to project musical Art, through the medium of sound, through the conduit of an electrical and electromechanical “system” of devices.
Although this Art is packaged electrically, projected through streams of vibrating air that are received by the ear, and transduced biomechanically in order to release neurotransmitters to the brain (aka: the mechanistic determinism of the Objectivist’s world) … Art is not experienced or understood by the ear any more than great cuisine is understood by the tongue. To the lover of Art, meaning and meaningfulness in Art are not mere abstractions; they are subtle and intuitive emanations that are experienced in the exquisite, the nuanced, the very fine. From the Apparency Doctrine we move toward the Apparency-Immanency Doctrine – whereby the parsing of meaning pregnant within a projected art form is also indicative of the quality of the projecting devices themselves, in conjunction with the systematic noticing and noting of sound-effects.
But because the reviewer should ultimately be attempting to share the depth of a meaningful internal experience of Art in a manner that will somehow allow the reader to vicariously taste it for themselves, I believe that an effort to evoke must be made. The Hedonic-Aesthetic approach skirts the boundaries of this but, as mentioned, seems only to be Narcissism in disguise. Selfish pleasure can be delightful, but – at best – it’s only an indicator of something greater. Rumi shares, “Fool’s gold exists because there is real Gold” – suggesting that something greater lies beyond the coarseness of mere corporeal and earthly pleasure (or treasure) – an ineffable infinity that might only be accessed through selflessness, surrender, and annihilation; sentiments as alien to Hedonism as Art is alien to Objectivism.
I believe that the near–future of evaluation in our field will be invested in the reviewer’s ability to evoke a palpable empathy within the reader such that they might grasp and experience a taste of something subtle and fine. Banished are the quanta of “laboratorism” with its soulless-scrying through the windows of machines. Gone are the days of the emotionally-distant and totemistic “laundry-list” review recounting the minutia of sound-effects deemed important. The reviewer’s craft has evolved beyond these in order to address the experience of Art more personally and meaningfully – delving into the musicality of presentation and, more recently, into the satisfactions of guilty-pleasures.
But what of the Ecstatic and the Transcendent?
Years ago, in those same hallowed pages of Positive-Feedback (as well as in the pages of several other of our audio-tomes of the day) lived a fool of the most delightful variety, and through his writings and also the few conversations we had together in 1995 and 1996, I became aware of the emergence of an Ecstatic philosophy that – for me – represents the closest approach to what I hope will become the New Heresy.(Dec. 7, 1941 – July 16, 2001)
He was a shaman disguised as a hedonist, disguised as a shaman (… and we need more of these sorts).
I would say “God rest your soul, Gizmo” but there seems nothing about the essence of Harvey that had anything to do with “rest” !
Gizmo’s writing was Hedonic on the surface, but as you dig deeper you might find, as I did, that it served as the landmark of an outlier who tried, as the great poets do, to bridge the gap between the mundane and the superlative, between the emanation and the ideal, and to illuminate some very important aspects of our enthusiasm that otherwise seemed to go unspoken and under-appreciated.
At Harvey’s grave-site service, an excerpt from his book “The Search For Musical Ecstacy” was read:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning
— from “Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot
The day will finally arrive. It may come early in life or it may be the last day of your life, but sooner or later you will ask some very simple questions, to wit— What does my life mean? Why am I the way I am?
When we ask those questions we are pondering the essential mystery of life, and the more we probe that question, the more insightful and perceptive we become, and the more mysterious and full of faith our answers become. Ponder these questions long enough, and when you arrive at the most cogent answers, do not be surprised to find music defining your essential being. Be warned— only the fool will try to define himself only with words. Music is at the center of everyone’s soul.
Can there be ecstasy without confronting death?
Is it a dream? Is the world a great complex machine that is constantly renewing and destroying itself and music the lubricant that keeps the machine going? The harder the machine works, the tighter the gears get, and the more lubricant is needed to keep the machine going.
I was just born and am in my mother’s arms. Her singing voice falls warmly over me as she rocks back and forth.
She was lovingly, gently weaving me into the eternal musical blanket. Here is my first moment of musical ecstasy. I was being musically imprinted just like every child. Every newborn, pudgy, leaky, hungry body is “musiced” upon, and imprinted for its entire life with potential for musical ecstasy. Parents make sure that every new member of the tribe is woven into the musical blanket so that later in life there will be an economic, infinitely variable, ever-present, perfect loving security blanket we can rely upon. When the going gets tough, all you gotta do is turn on the stereo.
Watching someone die brings us to the ultimate vulgarity. In the end, we are nothing more than a pile of quivering flesh. Coughing, rasping, gasping, smelling, twitching; the frail blotted flesh, the last touch of hands, the meeting of eyes, and it is all over. You look upon a vacant body and you wonder where it all went. What happened to that person you once loved? This vacancy is terrifying because it shall soon be mine. Who wants to be a lifeless mound of worm fodder?
I’ve known since I was a little boy that the grim reaper is playing by my side. Time is running out for me. While I may not have the courage to keep this reality before me most of the time, every molecule of my heart knows this. What is the best way to insure that “death shall have no dominion” and how best can I “rage, rage against the dying of the light”? Answer: Celebrate life and myself with music. May I suggest that this, our final vulgarity, is the creator of ecstasy?
May I ask your pardon for once again suggesting that the impulse to create musical ecstasy in our homes is the purest expression of our nobility, of our desire to amplify the life force that rises and falls with each breath we take? Can you not see that the fussing with all those audio gizmos is the price we pay for entering that special dimension of testicular beaudacity? It is our ability to conjure up the courage to say, “This is what my life stands for–the beauty and mystery of life matters “
That is why we are born to it and will be buried with it. Everything significant is baptized in music.
As I stand over my mother’s grave and throw a handful of dirt on her coffin I hear the Rabbi sing an archaic Hebrew farewell prayer. His voice is rocking back and forth weaving through time the endless rhythm of life and death, decay and renewal. As I say good-bye for the last time I feel her holding me in her arms, smiling-singing lullabies. We are bathing together in music. I am glad this is how our last moment is spent. It was our first moment. And it shall be our eternal ecstasy and I shall soon be lying next to her in the bed of dirt, the worms nibbling at my toes.
And death shall have no dominion,
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion. rise
– from “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by, Dylan Thomas
I have just adjusted the VTA of my tonearm, and the harmonics are now perfect. I am engulfed by Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste,” and the absurdity of this fool’s life now seems quite majestic – I am blessed.
There was an effortlessness to his depth, a palpability to his annihilation, a calm ecstacy to his surrender. In writing a Kaddish for his mother he writes it for himself … so beautifully and simply vulnerable.
That quality of vulnerability is missing from the reviewer’s voice, in my opinion; hip-checked by the braggadocio of the reviewer’s traditionally-adopted expertise. But there are a few young voices up and coming that more naturally explore that kind of honest vulnerability that creates meaningful connections between the writer and the reader. Michael Mercer (Positive-Feedback, The Daily Swarm, Part Time Audiophile, Enjoy The Music) and Stephen Mejias (Stereophile) come easily to mind, though I’m sure there will be others to follow.In remembering Gizmo through his writing we have a torch with which to light the path away from the ordinary and toward the ecstatic and transcendent. He gently prods us to ask the uncomfortable questions about why we are involved in this hobby at all. Is it for the worship of gear? The stimulation of sound-effects? The appreciation of musical art? Or is it for a glimpse of those dimensions beyond the merely mundane … the ecstatic/transcendent?
If you’ve ever been moved to tears or lulled into a timeless trance, stripped of all identity and washed over with pure music … you already know what you’re looking for. It’s not another box, or another demo-disc showing off “imaging” and “soundstaging” and “liquid midrange” … it’s not even for the sake of the art as an end in itself.
You’re looking for that hidden doorway back into that timeless world where “you” disappeared and there was only Music.
I hope to see you on the other side …