You There! Yes, You! Why Are You an Audiophile?

Mike Silverton

[February 2006.]

Most mornings I’m up and about before first light. Hunkering down in the music room for a long, luxurious listen when milady’s abed and the traffic’s yet to hit the road is a pre-dawn delight in a big old house with rooms and doors. That’s from the heart. Lee and I earlier occupied a small Brooklyn loft with a door to the public hall and another to the john. Total: two. Here, in our northerly corner of heaven, the music room / parlor alone has a pair. For a number of recent mornings I’ve been reacquainting myself with a handful of discs from my Morton Feldman batch of about 70 CDs. As much as I’d love to tell you everything I know about a cherished modernist, it would have little to do with this essay’s direction. Suffice that much of Feldman’s music is notorious for its demands on attention and time. Two recordings of String Quartet 2 occupy, respectively, four hatART and five Mode CDs. (The Ives Ensemble players take a slightly faster pace than does the FLUX Quartet.)

As for challenging sensibilities with brash provocations — musical modernism’s once-vibrant subtext — Feldman’s subversions take the least assaultive route. The music rarely raises its voice, making its tortoise-like way in unflappable insouciance. And therein — and elsewhere — lies the magic: quite the perfect way to begin the day, in however large or small a dose. Audience etiquette does not apply to music on recording. I have three superb performances of For Philip Guston, a four-hour-plus work for a trio of players doubling several instruments each: flute, alto flute, piccolo; piano, celesta; vibraphone, marimbaphone, glockenspiel, chimes. I could not part with any of these this side of despondency. Conversely, I could not sit through a live performance of so slow-paced, sedate and repetitive a work without getting antsy. (I’m an old guy. We pee a lot.) With respect to encounters, I would like to claim that for For Philip Guston and other Feldman works, recording is the ideal forum, but that would leave a point unmade.

Let’s get to it in the Buick Century 2000 Lee and I inherited from my late father-in-law. It’s a comfortable, responsive ride that more than meets our needs. Also, it’s among the world’s unsexiest automobiles, but then, I’ve never been a car snob, nor have I ever used its cassette player — I swear! — but I do tune in often to Maine’s PBS station on the not-so-hot FM. Relative to the parlor’s exquisite sound system, my love of music developed early in life by way of crappy radios and record players. I was fortunate to have grown up in a city with several classical-music stations, each with its own editorial slant. At this late stage of life, I can enjoy canned music in and out of the rough. A beautifully produced performance of X’s Nonet played on a beautiful sound system is a pleasure beyond compare. No need to tell you that. And yet, within the Buick or by way of our kitchen’s small FM, the music’s there in its essentials.

Let’s assume I have the recording I just heard in the kitchen or car. I experience it in the parlor with a different set of expectations. Aspects of the performance denied me on the road or as I’m prepping dinner — soundstage dimensionality, meticulously delineated harmonic textures, “air,” transparency, dynamic finesse — take on a significance I would never have thought to listen for in a lesser setting. Good sound is pleasurable but not, I think, essential to the enjoyment of music. At least not usually.

Feldman is a different duck. In the Buick, For Philip Guston wouldn’t make much sense (were a station foolhardy enough to play it through or even in part). For all his music’s austerities, the man was a sensualist. The listener who relishes sound for its own sake — in other words, an audiophile — can easily immerse himself in the revelatory qualities of the work’s enmeshing overtones and lingering decays. What occurs between and among the gentle attacks — in the cracks, as it were — is more than half the fun. To fully savor the quietude’s impact, one requires a sound system with killer resolution. I am not the first to observe that Feldman is, in a strictly literal sense, a colorist. Those early-morning sessions are as close to synaesthesia as this listener gets. And, as I say, the mystique works best while it’s dark and silent outside.

Very well, you’re sold. You check into Amazon.com and spring for a set. You get up the following morning at five (let’s say it’s Saturday), tiptoe off to the listening room, put on disc one and 15 minutes later ask, “What is this shit?! Silverton, you son of a bitch…!”

Easy on the invective, Slick. I’m not pitching Feldman. He’s my cup of tea and, more than likely, your cup of hemlock. I am saying that to experience Feldman’s take on sublimity, my sound system serves as an indispensable ingredient. I am not saying that I became an audio demento in order to immerse myself in Feldman’s sound world. My fondness for his music developed long after my initial adventures in hi-fi (to revert to a moribund term). Assuming that you, gentle reader, are also a six-burner audiophile, I do suggest most emphatically that, between you and me, a Feldmanesque equivalence exists. In other words, an aspect of music you value and cherish just doesn’t make it on other than one’s ne plus ultra sound system.

But what a thoughtless fool I am! I just trotted out a Latin cliché without actually thinking about what I mean. Ne plus ultra: the utmost point attainable. For the audiophile, it’s anywhere but in the sweet spot. Happy listening anyway.