Monday, December 08, 2008
Words and music: Klein, Deep Listening
One day in the mid-1990s, I remember sitting in the office of then-Philadelphia Inquirer editor Maxwell E.P. King, preparing to discuss my future at the paper. Another editor popped in to exult over a lucrative split in the stock of corporate parent Knight Ridder. When he was gone, I turned to Max, the grandson of legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. "It's a dying profession," I said, with my customary tact. Max looked appalled.You can read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, I was prepared for a similarly funereal atmosphere at a panel I attended this weekend, "Deep Listening: Why Audio Quality Matters." The event was sponsored by the Philoctetes Center, which is an arm of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and as I entered the somber NYPI building on East 82nd Street, I immediately felt some anxiety about locating the right room. Would I wander into some starchy discussion about Little Hans? But no, the room I eventually entered had a record player sitting on a low table in front of the participants. That archaic machine (I speak as the proud owner of a Rega P-1 with the groovy glass platter upgrade) sealed the deal.
Our leaders, even the most gifted of them, failed us; they refused to see what lay ahead. At best, they were practicing denial. The Internet? Not a threat, they said, but an opportunity; giving away our content online would serve to reinforce our brand, to woo new print readers. Did they truly believe that? Another former editor told me recently that he remembers saying the words and knowing they were lies.
At the end of 2000, after 17 years on staff, I took a buyout from the newspaper. It was a painful decision, but by then the trends were clear, and many of us were bailing out. Max, tired of endless cost-cutting demands, was long gone, to a foundation job in Pittsburgh, and so, too, was the editor who’d been toting up his stock profits that day.
At the Inquirer, two more buyouts would follow in quick succession. Soon, it seemed, Philadelphia was populated by ghost journalists, some retired or in new professions. We would meet unexpectedly on street corners and ask, tentatively, "Where are you now?" We might also have said, "Who are you?"
The panelists were an impressive bunch. Greg Calbi, Steve Berkowitz, Kevin Killen, and Craig Street have collectively produced, engineered, mixed, or mastered thousands of records, including more desert island discs than you can shake a palm frond at. Michael Fremer is the kingpin of today's back-to-vinyl movement, as well as a senior contributing editor at Stereophile. And Evan Cornog (who is incidentally the publisher of CJR) was there to represent that chimerical figure, the Listener--more specifically, the audio freak who spends every last dime to ascend the Everest of high fidelity. (For him, Cornog noted, the event was more or less "an intervention.")
And what did they have to say? Calbi, who functioned as the moderator, praised the sensuous and transcendent powers of music, then let the hammer fall on "the alienating and off-putting effects of this age of bad sound." The culprit, of course, was the compressed audio formats favored by the latest generation of listeners. Trading portability for sonic opulence, many may never have heard an LP or even a SACD, with its surfeit of living, breathing, three-dimensional sound. Fremer struck a more optimistic note. He saw vinyl making a comeback among teenagers and college students--a phenomenon I would doubt, if it hadn't been widely noted elsewhere. Whether the shiny, flexible, pop-and-tick-prone platters of my youth will ever become a mass medium again is still an open question. After all, high fidelity was a minority taste even during the golden age of the long player. And Stereophile (to which, mea culpa, I subscribe) often resembles audio porn--a province of wealthy nutters, who think nothing of dropping $32,900 on the ASR Emitter II Exclusive Amplifier, with its sexy, heatsink-capped main chassis.
I should be clear: the thirst for high fidelity is in my blood. When he was a penniless medical student, my father sold his stomach acids to buy his first stereo. A tube up the nose, down the esophagus--all for some extra midrange! I grew up surrounded by high-end components, including a looming pair of KLH Model Nines (now nestling in the vault of some Japanese collector). So I've been spoiled. I listen to compressed files on my iPod and wistfully nod my head, knowing that the air is vibrating between each instrument, that the saliva is rattling around in Ben Webster's mouthpiece and that the famous splice on "Strawberry Fields" is coming up--but that these nuances are seriously muffled by the magic of MP3. Will the expanding storage capacity of portable audio players eventually allow us to carry these nuances around in our pocket? I hope so. Mahler sounds awfully depleted coming through those headphones; it's as if you diverted the Nile through a garden hose.
Later in the conversation, the panelists dwelled on particular benchmark recordings. Killen admitted that the vinyl version of Roxy Music's Avalon was what had first hooked him on music. Berkowitz, who has worked on Miles Davis reissues for the last twenty years, played the opening minute or so of "'Round Midnight"--a very relevant example, since I've always thought that digital remastering was particularly cruel to the sound of Davis's Harmon-muted horn. Deprived of its analog intricacies, that hushed, intimate, breathy sound turns screechy and metallic. (It's like listening to somebody play "Summertime" on a pencil sharpener.) Fremer stumped for Sufjan Stevens, who he called "the Aaron Copland of our era," while Street discussed the no-muss-no-fuss recording techniques he used for Chris Whitley's Dirt Floor: a single stereo ribbon mic hung from the ceiling of a garage with baling wire.
Now Killen was recalling the session for Elvis Costello's "God Give Me Strength." He noted that the song had been conceived for a crappy movie whose title he couldn't remember. At once the image of Illeana Douglas singing the piece (actually she was lip-synching to a version by Kristen Vigard) popped into my head: it was the only memorable moment of the film, which was otherwise redeemed by John Turturro's amusing turn as a faux Phil Spector. "Wasn't that You Light Up My Life?" I called out, instantly realizing I had the title wrong. Folks, it was Grace of My Heart. Cringing with embarrassment, I certainly wasn't going to add that I had some problems with Elvis Costello's own version: the man is a genius, but his latter-day vocal style, with its adenoidal croon and wide, mawkish vibrato, doesn't always work for me. So I kept my mouth shut. Luckily or unluckily my goofy interjection will soon be available on streaming audio and video here. In this case low resolution will do quite nicely, thanks.