Random Noise 35: Monastic Cell, but Comfy

Mike Silverton

[November 2012.]

Music lover, audiophile, discophile — yessiree! But in what order? I shuffle my aesthetics in clouds of ambiguity. To illustrate: Your correspondent, a fastidious sound freak, finds pleasure in canned music under crummy conditions: in his old Buick, prepping and cooking, in his workroom. Modest FMs, all. I listen, for the most part happily, to program directors’ choices. Dropping into the middle of something acts as a memory test. (I fail more than succeed.) Maine Public Radio and my area’s commercial all-classical station share an aversion to the 20th and present century’s music, apart from the reliably squishy. I’m told that these apparatchiks test recordings of anything composed after 1900 in the presence of a skittish colt. If the animal remains untroubled, the music’s deemed fit for genteel consumption.

I like to think of myself as a man of (tenuously connected) parts. When I put on my audiophile face — eyebrows arched, lips pursed — and seat myself in the inner sanctum, I operate under loftier standards. Music that elsewhere pleases doesn’t. My tastes are more austere, not to say insufferable. And why that should be I cannot explain, except perhaps to observe that some of my best-sounding discs crowd the zero-interest side of the scale — which, to repeat, explains little. Our skittish colt would kick the room to smithereens.

bmgricordi_crmcd1015 kairos_0012022kai

On a recent visit with Salvatore Sciarrino, the Italian modernist (it had been a while), I began with Vanitas, Natura morta in un atto per voce, violoncello e pianoforte. The Ricordi CD (CRMCD 1015), issued in 1991, features Sonia Turchetta, mezzo; Rocco Filippino, cello; and Andrea Pestalozza, piano. I haven’t listened to many Ricordi discs; those I’ve heard disappoint. I grew weary of Vanitas as much for the shabby sound as the music’s wearying repetitiveness.

Infinito nero, a Kairos CD issued in 1999 (0012022KAI), offers Sciarrino’s Gesualdo transcriptions (all or some, not sure), with narration of Tasso complaining of this and that, along with the quite remarkable title work, Infinito nero, Estasi di un alto, music and texts by Sciarrino based on the rapid-fire gibberish of one obviously insane Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, a nun later canonized. (It helps to know a pope.) Infinito nero is a largely understated piece that puts me happily in mind of Holliger’s Scardanelli Cycle. Mezzo Sonia Turchetta and ensemble recherche perform. Nicely recorded, utterly engaging. Hand in glove.

“Nicely recorded, utterly engaging.” This is not to suggest that a well-produced whatever forever delights. One has one’s standards. Nevertheless, the truly avid discophile, willing, as if by diktat, to embrace atrocious sound in achieving communion with the beloved, is suspicious of audiophiles, not to say disdainful. I hesitate to mount a defense.

But will try. As a photograph captures an image, a recording captures a performance, the doing of which involves technology and a medium (CD, LP, etc.). Consider for closer example a reproduction of an artwork on paper or cloth, or a reproduced sculpture in fake stone or bronze, etc. One’s response has much to do with the reproduction’s quality, which is to say, how closely it resembles the work it mimics. A crude lithograph of a familiar masterpiece rarely raises gooseflesh. Hackles, maybe.

Attached to my dentist’s ceiling is a dingy print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. When the chair tips back and the dentist dents, the dented contemplates a philistine vulgarity. Had the dentist sprung for a finer reproduction would one be better pleased…? The dented hesitates to say. Further, the sight-sound analog has its limitations. We spend brief moments looking at reproductions (except in my dentist’s chair). As domestic décor, all the less. We linger longer listening to music. Having taken exquisite pains in the acquisition of one’s hardware and caring about production values — if, in short, how something sounds is of utmost importance, the obsessive in question is an audiophile. It’s a state of mind that has, or should have, nothing to do with musical tastes. The audiophile’s enthusiasms look to a totality.

So there.