Random Noise 4: Picking Nits and Winners

[These Random Noise columns appear in La Folia by kind permission of the publishers and editor of OnSoundandMusic.com. M.S.]

Random Noise 4: Picking Nits and Winners

Mike Silverton

[December 2003.]

How about we pick a few nits? (Nit: the egg or the young of a head louse, ergo, nitwit, with the brains of a baby head louse, or worse yet, with the brains of a head louse’s egg. Those were the days when picking nits substituted for shampooing and rinsing with a hair conditioner, except that we normally launder our own hair and would have picked nits from another’s, but I wander.)

To return to the figurative, these are nits I’ve picked before, as an exercise in hobby-horsemanship. One has to remain in shape. The Sweet-Spot Derby is not quite so wussy an activity as it appears. We’re off!

And rounding the first turn…. When the compact disc went public, its reception among audiophiles was other than warm. (Perhaps you are old enough or curious enough to remember that digital technology predated the silver disc. LPs of material originally recorded digitally had been around for several years, and these too garnered little affection.) The complaints are reducible to a simple declarative: As a medium for high-quality sound, the compact disc stinks. Critics characterized the CD as a crass corporate affront to the audio nobility’s sensibilities. The term “mass market” got a lot of play, as did that perfectly silly slogan “Perfect Sound Forever!” to derisive snickers. As a younger and even more foolish fellow, I declined to join the naysaying chorus, thus endangering my standing as a bona fide audiophile.

Before I became an OS&M contributor, I was covering high-end audio hardware for a SoundStage! entity, UltraAudio.com, and am still at it. This much I can say without violating my contract. In writing largely about audio add-ons of a particular kind, I’ve arrived at a discovery. A good deal of the harshness and glare we attribute to certain recordings may originate not in the production but rather in a local affliction. To put that another way, we really may not know how good our components are. I’ll explain.

Mine is (so far) a CD-only system. A pair of mono Mark Levinson No.33H amplifiers and a Mark Levinson No.390S CD player upgraded from a No.39 comprise the essential electronics. The player has its own good analog volume control, so no preamp. The speakers are Wilson WATT / Puppy Sixes; the cabling, Nordost Valhalla to the speakers and one pair of RS Audio Pure Palladium balanced interconnects. A fourth electronic piece, a Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 Line Stabilizer, utilizes Bill Stierhout’s QRT (Quantum Resonance Technology) along with Harmonix’s own proprietary noise-suppressing technology. I’m using two Harmonix Studio Master power cords with the Reimyo, one from the 390S to the line conditioner, the other from the line conditioner to the wall. The amps’ hard-wired power cords plug directly into their own dedicated outlets. A pair of Walker Audio Ultimate High Definition Links attach to the WATTs’ binding posts. As for mechanical isolation, the three Mark Levinson pieces sit on Silent Running Audio’s VR Series platforms, the Reimyo ALS-777 on an SRA Tremor/Less platform. (The more expensive VR Series is component-specific, the Tremor/Less generic.)

Of the gear I’m now using, the SRA VR platforms are first in seniority. I acquired these pieces when my wife and I were still living in Brooklyn, NY. We’ve since moved to an old (1842) house in a small coastal town in Maine. In 1858, Jefferson Davis spent a night or two in one of our bedrooms. As Secretary of War at the time, he’d come North as a son of the South on a goodwill mission. Didn’t work out. The front parlor with its excellent acoustics is my listening room. Next to appear are the Reimyo line conditioner, Walker UHD Links and the two Harmonix Studio Master power cords, which Kazuo Kiuchi designed to operate with his Reimyo ALS-777. I mention the relationship of power cords to line conditioner only because this combo has made a far greater difference than I’d have thought possible, as have the UHD Links, which, like QRT, exert their influence in ways to me mysterious. I’m not suggesting magic, merely aspects of physics I don’t understand. And probably never will. My cross to bear. We move on. Painfully.

Now about that local affliction: The items listed — platforms, line conditioner with its companion power cords, Links — address noise. Glare, grain, grunge, fog. I’m experiencing a proximity to recordings I’d not have thought possible, which returns us to my strange remarks a few paragraphs back about how good our basic components may really be. The extraneous noise we succeed in erasing — RFI among the culprits — permits us to better hear the essentials: what the software has to say for itself for good or ill and the manner in which the hardware broadcasts what the software is saying.

And that returns me to my hobbyhorse. BIS is a Swedish label with a healthy regard for good sound and a plump catalog. In comparing the Studio Master power cords to their predecessors, I unshelved a quartet of BIS CDs featuring the enormously entertaining Kroumata Percussion Ensemble. In playing the first, CD 272 (John Cage’s Second Construction, 1940; Henry Cowell’s Pulse, 1939; Torbjörn Iwan Lundquist’s Sisu, 1976; and Yoshihisa Taïra’s Hiérophonie, 1974), I glanced at the year of the all-digital sessions in the Gothenburg Concert Hall and of the disc’s publication.’83 for both. In that this is a great-sounding disc, I find that interesting. The compact disc began showing up in record shops in 1983, at first stintingly, later as an avalanche. It was also the year the Philovinylite Brotherhood, as with all aristocracies, began striking its reactionary — indeed often hysterically reactionary — postures.

It’s a point I made twenty years ago: If there exists but one great-sounding CD, it follows that the medium is essentially unflawed. Actually, there existed from the start a whole lot of great-sounding CDs and of course the dogs — always the dogs and always in larger numbers. It will never be otherwise. But hey, we wouldn’t appreciate beauty so much as we do were there no ugliness or mediocrity. The significant thing here is that the Philovinylite Brotherhood chooses to forget about a lot of quite nasty-sounding, all-analog releases. I doubt this can be stated too often: A production’s triumph or failure lies in recording technique. A good recording engineer like Marc Aubort, whose work straddles the analog and digital eras, understood that from the start.

Expanded capabilities notwithstanding, we can safely predict for the SACD / DVD-A era, should it ever fully supplant the reviled CD, that a badly produced recording will continue to sound like shit. Indeed, multi-channel playback will only compound what inept production teams do.

* * *

A few interesting recordings, old and recent.

Cover of hat[now]ART 117

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was a mad Italian count — and an original who described himself, to my mind disingenuously, as a mere conduit for Cosmic Whatevers. (Does psychiatry recognize a disorder called passive-assertive?) Scelsi’s thing is microtonality as the Music of the Spheres by Way of the Mystical East. His big pieces surge and writhe, erupt and recede to a uniquely Scelsian, restive flow. Serpentine says it well enough. Brasses, woodwinds and deep-chested drums play large roles. Why the big stuff hasn’t been widely recorded baffles me. It’s remarkably dramatic and, if you’re a stranger to modernist art music, not all that tough to grasp and enjoy. Scelsi had long since abandoned formulaic serialism for the Universe’s wide open spaces, and it’s this that you hear. Certain composers convey a sense of total abstraction. Scelsi’s aesthetic partakes of emotive extroversion. Those Cosmic Forces for which he said he’s the conduit bear a strong resemblance to the mad count’s Verismo forebears.

But a three-disc set did once appear. These French CDs are likely o/p, i.e., worthy of a quest if I’ve managed to describe what may be your cup of strong tea. Accord 200402, 200612 and 201112 offer respectively Aion, Pfhat, Konk-Om-Pax / Quattro Pezzi Per Orchestra, Anahit, Uaxuctum / Hurqualia, Hymnos, Chukrum. Uaxuctum features that spooky electronic sound generator, the Ondes Martenot, played here by composer Tristan Murail, along with two soprano and two tenor vocalists, and chorus. Carmen Fournier, violinist, is Anahit’s soloist. In this trio of CDs, a new-music specialist, Jürg Wyttenbach, conducts the Orchestra (201112) and Orchestra and Chorus of Polish Radio-Television, Cracow, in an ideally resonant venue, that city’s Church of Saint Catherine. Accord 200612 might be a good starting point. Quattro Pezzi manipulates a single tone in four movements. Anahit impresses me as an affecting work of genius and mood, and Uaxuctum’s sweep is simply amazing. Were Kubrick aware of it, I expect he’s have used it in 2001. Meanwhile, Uaxuctum manages to make its point as a nonvisual, two-channel event rather more than adequately. I checked with Amazon.com. The Accords are not there. Try the Princeton Record Exchange, eBay, or some other Internet presence specializing in used CDs. Gramophone’s back pages list several search specialists. Let me know if you succeed.

Wyttenbach conducts another Scelsi gem, Kya, a 1959 composition for viola, cello, clarinet, English horn, trumpet, trombone, French horn, and soloist Marcus Weiss on soprano, alto and bass saxes. Kya is as clear a picture of Scelsi’s dramatic purpose as you’re likely to hear. Its substance is anything but doctrinaire. Apart from the composer’s characteristic meanderings this way and that, the music has the feel of a tonal center. The generous program, with Philippe Racine, piccolo, and the Ensemble Contrechamps, includes Ixor, Rucke di Guck, Tre Pezzi, Yamaon, all dating from the Fifties, and Maknongan, 1976. This characteristically well-recorded Hat Hut CD, hat[now]ART 117 was released in 1999 in an edition of 3000.

Remaining with microtonality in another world entirely, we’ve hatOLOGY 558, the Matthew Shipp String Trio’s Expansion, Power, Release, released in 1999. (For ample information, including liner notes, see http://www.hathut.com/. Hat Hut’s American distributor is http://www.cadencebuilding.com/. As of October 2003, back-catalog pieces will be midpriced. In that Hat’s titles are both interesting and of audiophile quality, that’s good news. The modernist classical side is called hat[now]ART, the far larger jazz list, hatOLOGY.) The Matthew Shipp String Trio includes violinist Mat Maneri, the son of reed-man and pedagogue Joe Maneri, a noted authority on microtonality. (Yes, son, that’s a pun!) Shipp’s always forceful work at the piano often favors emotional ascents of a rhapsodically lush character. In emulsion with Maneri’s selectively “wrong-note” violin and William Parker’s pungent acoustic bass, the trio makes interesting and sometimes riveting music. The free, close-to-improvisational demeanor of the track for solo piano, “Combination Entity,” shows us how close Shipp is willing to come to Maneri’s way of seeing things.

Cover of hatOLOGY 561

For that which separates the men from the boys, or maybe better, the attendants from the inmates, go without pause to hatOLOGY 561, Out Right Now, released in 1991, with Himself, Joe Maneri, alto and tenor saxes and piano; Joe Morris, guitar; and Mat Maneri, violin. Whether you’ll need to take Dramamine depends on how much determination you bring to the event. I love this stuff, but then that’s me. You will at least understand how fully-leaded microtonality can operate within a jazz milieu. I’ve heard enough free-form music-making to recognize the odd bits of gold in expanses of dross, and this is gold. Whether or not the music puts you out to sea — the rolling-deck metaphor invariably comes to mind — you will perceive a solid ensemble. These three understand each other and the strange and wondrous language they share.

Cover of hatOLOGY 590

As a bonus for those who’ve soldiered through, a gem of a release and, better yet, recent. And better better yet, absolutely accessible. Broadband accessibility as the Grim Reaper’s calling card? For me, usually, yes. I don’t often apply accessible as a term of endearment. But Strandjutters, hatOLOGY 590, is simply too witty, whimsical, charming and deft, not to neglect cleverly retro here and there, to be other than a winner. Well yes, there’s the inevitable meander into free-form vavoom, but this too is heavy with charm. The trio: Daniele D’Agaro, tenor sax and clarinet; Ernst Glerum, double bass; Han Bennink, drums and percussion. The tip-off is the Netherlander Bennink, the jazz world’s Falstaff. Once again, on more familiar ground, superb ensemble work. The best European jazz — and this is surely in that tier — differs from the home-grown in ways I’d hesitate to put into words. As a listener whose primary interest is modernist classical, I find myself often preferring Europe’s take on an American artform. Anyway, the scoundrel wraps himself in the flag; the music journalist in Elvis Costello’s quip: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Scelsi and Maneri, father and son, might prove a bit much. Strandjutters not. The recording took place in the Loft, Köln (Cologne), a popular jazz recording venue. As with many Hat releases, this is a co-production with a state-supported culture apparat, in this instance, West German Radio, Köln. Christian Heck is the good recording engineer.