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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


A Response to "The Creative Art of Recorded Music–Translation, Transduction, and Transformation, by Rick Gardner and David Robinson"
by Tom Davis


In the interest of provoking discussion, I’m going to locate some fissure lines in Rick’s piece that, with enough pressure, might yield more insight into the audio arts. I certainly agree that recorded music is its own performing art, and I agree that the listener is active in that performance, though Rick needs to rethink his reductive remark about painting: I, for one, don’t just "hang a painting and look at it" as if that "looking" was somehow like the passive absorption of starring at a television screen. How, then, is the listener active?

At the end of "Precept One" we find talk of "taste," and Precept Two’s opening line is "The subjective experience of recorded music is fundamentally different among individual listeners as a result of sensory preference." This thought is extended by the claim that "All humans have what is (apparently) a genetic preference for organizing and representing subjective awareness primarily in one of these [auditory, visual, kinesthetic] sensory modalities." Well, appearances here are deceiving. "Sensory preference" is only "genetically" prior for a listener who actively puts sound before the claim of music, since to hear "sound" in the analytic ways listed you have to abstract from what you first hear, from what actually claims your attention, which is music, not sound. Indeed, the active intervention, the abstraction necessary to put sound first is itself governed by different interpretations of just what is important about sound. Rick’s list of the different "participants" in the audio arts that begins with "The Music Lover" (I wish he had seriously begun with loving music) and runs to "The Recording Engineer" is the place to begin to see just how important different interpretive frameworks are, and how "sensory preferences" get actively shaped way before you can isolate pure "sensory input" itself. The effort necessary to isolate "pure" sensory input only gets made for conceptual reasons that have nothing to do with music. In sum: To try to anchor "sensory preference" in the genes mislocates the heart of the activity of participating in the claim of music.

Next fissure: the tension between the rhetoric of "each (fill in the blank) is valid" and the longing for a "common reference point" that is still not an "absolute standard" (see the third conclusion). Rick thinks it is misguided to use "the absolute sound" as an absolute standard. I agree. I’ve always thought the most interesting thing about the title of The Absolute Sound was HP’s use of an exclamation point: the abso!ute sound, for me, meant there actually is a standard in listening! Harry just got the standard wrong. It’s not sound, it’s what I call "the claim of music." Rick really wants a standard too, but he finds himself caught between that desire and the one at work when (just before Precept Six) he writes, "there is an equal opportunity at each step of the process (of recording and reproducing music) for something magical to occur," whereas four sentences earlier he wrote "While one might reasonably argue that certain portions of this process are preeminent...." Yes, one might, and if one does, you can’t have it both ways—one portion of the process can’t be preeminent when all portions are supposed to be "equal opportunities" for magic to occur. "Preeminent" and "equal" don’t go together. Or rather, they could go together if you are willing to grant that a recording engineer can be creative in finding solutions to this or that problem in reproduction, but that kind of creativity is not "preeminent" in relation to that which takes place as the composer puts notes down on the page. But, really, is there a recording engineer who would not agree that Beethoven’s kind of creativity is preeminent to what he or she does? (If there were one, he or she would no doubt work for some "audiophile" recording company.) It’s fine to acknowledge different kinds of creativity as long as you don’t lose sight of their real differences. Art is neither egalitarian, nor radically (sensorily) subjectivist.

The "standard" that actually emerges from Rick’s piece is the use of the master tape as "the only reasonable common reference point" (again see the third conclusion). Common reference point for what? For "pursuing fidelity in the reproduction of recorded music." Well, okay. Now ask: what is fidelity itself in the service of? After all, it’s not an end in itself, is it? I mean, while it could be an end in itself for, say, the recording engineer (though I suspect that would make, in the end, a bad recording engineer), surely fidelity is a notion that means being true to something else, not being true to itself. So what is that "something else"? Rick offers us the master tape, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but the master tape itself is in the service of something else—the musical event, and that is in the service of, yet again, what I call the claim of music. To lose sight of this "chain of fidelity" is the first step to becoming an audiophile, to fatefully putting sound before music.

I don’t want to underplay an important notion here, one that I believe Rick is addressing in his promotion of the master tape and DSD. "Distortion" is real, and I agree that "fidelity" means reducing distortion at each link in what I just called the "chain of fidelity." So, for example, I use David Berning’s Siegfried because it’s the lowest distortion amplifier I’ve yet found for reproducing the human voice. (There may be lower distortion devices at the frequency extremes of human hearing.) I want to listen to the human voice as a vehicle for the claim of music, so I want as little distortion as possible introduced into how voices can articulate that claim. What is genuinely interesting about the audio arts is learning how to so reduce distortion. What is depressing about the audio arts is the blind introduction of new kinds of distortion (both "physical" and "conceptual") into what it means to listen to the claim of music.

Rick really does have an "absolute reference" in his list of conclusions, and, for all I know, his use of the term "beauty" may well be getting at what I’m pointing to with "the claim of music." Beauty is the appearance of such a claim, but the claim is not reducible to beauty itself. Rick’s absolute reference is "that which most completely touches the individual soul" (his tenth conclusion). This "touches," I suspect, relates to my use of "claim," but another fissure line is at work here, so let me quote his tenth conclusion in full: "There is no ‘best’ or ‘right’ here but rather, that which most completely touches the individual soul. We should honor the paths that others have chosen as valid and meaningful for them. There is a profound difference between ‘bad art’ and individual preferences."

Bad art begins with putting "individual preferences" first, and I suspect there’s a fundamental confusion going on in this quotation over just what an "individual soul" means as far as art is concerned. The ecstatic dimension of art precisely means that you are taken out of yourself for the sake of the claim of the work of art itself. You can’t hear that claim while literally being yourself, that’s the point of its being ecstatic. "Individual preferences" reduce that claim to a matter of entertaining your personal "psychology," and that’s one definition of bad art. There’s lots and lots of bad art nowadays, just like there’s lots and lots of confusion over just what a "soul" can mean. You don’t have a soul, you are a soul; and you are a soul precisely when you find yourself ecstatically set aside for the sake of, say, the work of art. Surely the most depressingly thing about "being an audiophile" is convincing yourself to be ecstatic over sound as an end in itself. This does not mean that "audio arts" is an oxymoronic expression (and moreover a corrupt one), it just means that "the arts of audio," when they are good art, are in ecstatic service to the claim of music. When they are so ecstatic, they invite listening in ways not available by other means, meaning they open new possibilities for articulating the claim of music. It’s that kind of soulful creativity that deserves an exclamation point!