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Positive Feedback ISSUE 4
december/january 2003


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Auroville 8
by Srajan Ebaen

I keep coming back to the baseline dilemma that sets audiophiles on their endless peregrinations across technological Antarctica, chasing the warmth of the live event—if, in fact, that’s what they’re hunting. There are more and more indicators that the experience at home is acknowledged to be different but equally valid. In other words, the old myth of the absolute sound seems to be withering on the vine. Listeners seem to be embracing the idea that "replay" needn’t conform to the notion of an unattainable standard to be thoroughly enjoyable. Perhaps (what heresy!) certain deliberate liberties that might previously have been summed under the header of "distortion" (as in deviation) are now being considered viable.

A friend of mine attended the Chicago symphony—front row center, balcony—and fell asleep. The sonic energy displaced in that huge hall didn’t come close to the intensity raised at home. Sacre bleu! You mean "reproduction" was more fun than "original"? Best seat in the house? No traffic jams, no overpriced valet parking? No wheezing, coughing clowns two rows behind you? A firecracker recorded performance versus an uninspired live one? Imaging, soundstaging, focus as opposed to diaphanous blending? Why not?

But more important is what Jim Smith of Avantgarde USA, in a recent interview, dubbed the "reach out and grab ya" factor that leaves you with a bodily sensation long after the curtain has fallen or the amp turned off. I believe that the experience of being flooded with emotions that change our blood chemistry and leave behind this afterglow is what we’re really after when we declare that we want to recreate the live event. I can’t help but wonder. Ours is a consumer society addicted to entertainment. We consume entertainment as a distraction from reality with the gusto of human pigs competing in one of those how-many-boiled-eggs-can-you-devour extravaganzas that are celebrated in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Fair enough. Much of present-day reality seems to warrant recoil into something more pleasant than corporate culture, concrete jungles, or stale relationships. But the ease and convenience whereby we turn on our audio systems creates a lot of unconsciousness and undermines deliberation and intention. It’s like wolfing down a meal halfway off to elsewhere while talking on the cell phone and waving down a cab.

The amount of nutrition we assimilate from such a meal is minuscule—we’re probably inviting ulcers instead—but how different is that from coming home after a long day’s work and automatically reaching for the remote? Whether to turn on the telly, the radio, or the audio system is immaterial. We’re not really prepared to be ravished. We’re dirty, exhausted, and absent-minded.

If we listen to music from that place, it’s no wonder it doesn’t speak to us as strongly as we say we want. There’s nothing wrong with casual listening, if that’s all we expect, demand, or want, but we must also acknowledge that humans are creatures of habit. It’s easy to make a habit out of using music to be unconscious, distracted, or passively enveloped for relief or cheap entertainment. Should we then suddenly sprout a desire for a "serious" experience, we’ve set up automatic response systems in our psyches that are quite at odds with this new command. In a way, we’ve allowed ourselves to unlearn the art of preparation that is required for active participation. We’ve forgotten how to go out on a first date. We’re taking our partner for granted. Things unfold pleasantly but predictably. No goose bumps. No fancy footsies. No sleepless nights feeling that longing tug on your heartstrings.

Isn’t such a return to passion what happens each time an audiophile inserts a new component? Now we’re unwittingly on a first date again. We’re not sure what’ll happen. We’re more alert. Our senses are heightened. Is it surprising that the intensity of our first reaction to this new component is overpowering? It’s like a momentary youth pill. But of course it wears off, not because it was a placebo but because we fall asleep again. We no longer do our part, and once again place the burden on the equipment to transport us when our vehicle is without petrol.

Just as any human relationship requires a high degree of applied wisdom and actual "work" to maintain its edge, a passionate relationship to music asks of us only to approach it when we have a real need and desire for it. When our emotional availability is present. When we’re truly "in the mood." The best way to prematurely burn out any honeymoon is to overindulge the natural attraction. At first there’s all this magic. It seemingly doesn’t require any refills from our end. We "go for it," then slowly but surely lose our balance. We don’t attend to filling up our own selves anymore, but approach the lover to be filled. Sooner or later, the well runs dry. Time to upgrade.

Those audiophiles with happy long-term musical marriages tend to develop a kind of ritual that helps them set up a "sacred" space. Often quite literally, their dedicated music rooms are entered into only when they are ready. It’s a kind of discipline that remains sensitive to the moment. Sometimes we can listen for hours, sometimes we’re filled or saturated much sooner. Continuing past the proper point overstimulates us. What was pleasant turns irritating.

Using our music systems as powerful emotional triggers, time and again, requires going beyond just turning on the rig and expecting bliss. Nothing wrong with casual listening, but truthfully, how successful have you been at maintaining a casual and a deep relationship with one person at the same time? It’s a contradiction in terms. One ought to be able to switch hats, but the reality is different.

Coming back to the opening dilemma, it’s clear that if we are to be touched in our beings, our audiophile culture lacks the counterweight of listener preparation that would balance our reliance on machines. I called it "The Art of Listening" in an earlier column. It’s really no different than the art of anything else. There’s a deliberate focus, an ongoing learning process, a bringing of oneself to the process that shuts out distractions and inferior motives. It can be learned. What cannot be learned is the need for it. You either have the urge and capacity to let music speak to you in the deep of your heart or you don’t. There’s nothing wrong if you don’t. We’re not all wired the same. However, it’s also possible that nothing has ever sparked us strongly enough to light the flame. We may have gone through life enjoying music as a somewhat superficial distraction. Should we recognize one day that we can be touched far more deeply, we must not forget that this ability, previously latent or unrecognized, is ours. It’s got less to do with the equipment in whose presence we may have gotten "awakened."

If we place all the praise for this "conversion experience" on the gear, we set ourselves up for the usual descent into audiophilia. Yes, certain gear seems to provide a better trigger for emotional response than others. It’s for us to discover what trips our wires. But more importantly, let’s not forget that for these wires to twitch, our own apparatus has to be functioning. That’s something most reviews and dealers never talk about. They can’t sell it to you—you’ve already got it—but cultivation is up to you. It’s like becoming a better lover. Nature has equipped you with the basic tools, but that doesn’t mean you’re artful at using them. Once you get past your adolescence, you may need to be guided by your natural biorhythms and obey their schedules rather than hitting "override" to manipulate something that isn’t already present. In musical terms, less may be more—less frequent encounters, but deeper and more satisfying ones.

Visit Srajan at his website