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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003


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Auroville 21
by Srajan Ebaen

Our latest installment, on Becoming a Better Listener, generated enough global e-mail responses to suggest that more practical examples—how to reverse the loss of innocence, along with its shadow, that dreaded inability to enjoy music listening as fully as before the advent of critical listening—were needed in order to satisfactorily respond to their questions. It was one thing to describe the disease, such that others would recognize it and perform successful self-diagnostics. It will be quite another to suggest a cure that can be readily explained, easily followed, and will actually work. Dr. Ruth, are we asking for impossible miracles?

Always willing to wrangle syntax in an at least honest (while ultimately utterly doomed) effort, let me dismantle certain preconceived notions surrounding the "meditative" aspect I talked about earlier. Simply envision yourself at the end of a two-hour uphill hike, somewhere deep inside virgin mountains. Your whole body has naturally fallen into a rhythm to cope with the physical demands. Your core temperature is up, your bloodstream has burned off a few impurities along the way. You’ve breathed more deeply than you ever do at your desk or during your daily work commute. The exhaustion has slowed down the upstairs chatterbox, and the pastoral environment, with its immense quiet, is beginning to seep into you and create a mental space in its own likeness, one of more quiet and expanse.

Hunkering down above the tree line to enjoy the views, you take in the vistas. Colors seem more intense than usual, smells stronger. Your whole nervous system has undergone the deoxidation, clean-all-connections treatment. Synapses are firing more cleanly and loudly. You’re more in your body, far less in your head. Are you there? How you customarily arrive at such a state doesn’t matter. Kayaking, playing tennis, road biking—any physical exercise will do, rolls in the hay included. Now, take yourself from that state and park yourself directly in front of your audio system.

Eureka. Rather than somehow hoping that listening to music would get you into that state, you bring yourself to this treasured event already fully occupying it. You’ve removed all the crud from your instrumentation panel without even trying, oiled all the push buttons just by working the body electric. You’re prepared yourself to be triggered. Can you appreciate how this gesture—of not coming to the audio experience empty-handed—could make all the difference in the world?

Analyzing the how and why of this difference, one could talk about what happens when we first insert a new piece of hardware into our systems. We’re excited. We’re curious. We’re keen, alert, fresh, ravenous, a kid again with the keys to the candy store. We’re also challenged whether we’ll perceive a difference, and how much. Needless to say, this very uncluttering and heightening of our senses intensifies the raw experience. Perceived improvements in sound could well be partially due to our enhanced sensitivity, one that’s buoyed purely on these psychological factors of expectant readiness. Once this freshly scrubbed readiness subsides over the following days, the aural differences we enthused over seem to shrink as well. Eventually, doubt sets in. Worse yet, the great equalizer of dulled attention takes over. One reason audiophiles circulate equipment? Sheer boredom.

Why do we look backwards in time with a sense of loss, over having felt more alive and fully present way back when, over having enjoyed music more? It’s because our psychic hard drive of accumulated experience was emptier. Our internal operating program was still as fast as a supercharged Pentium 4, and thus more accurate. Endless caches of unreadable, misplaced files, endless copies of copies called memories didn’t yet burden it down. What we need now is a psychic enema, a psychological "delete" command for useless memories and habits, a complete system’s defragmentation that optimizes our functional effectiveness.

Also consider the perennial rite of passage into adulthood that preceded our present sorry state. We adopted habits that compromised the free expression of feelings, in others and ourselves. We learned and accepted that feelings and their expression can cost relationships, jobs, opportunities, reputations. We no longer have many experiences in the easy-come, easy-go fashion of youth. We leave things unsaid and unfelt. Rather than coming full circle to be naturally erased, these things clog up our psychic hard drive and disturb our dreams.

Since the regenerating power of music is emotional in nature, it requires emotional availability to absorb and make use of in the first place. If we’ve shut down in the heart, endless repeats of our favorite music won’t crack that open. The latest cable upgrade won’t make a dent. When we look back at innocence lost and consider the mechanisms leading up to it, the cure plainly doesn’t limit itself to audiophile compulsions. It’s really about whether we live our lives with passion, intensity, and integrity in all its aspects. It’s about how well our body/mind mechanism functions. It’s about how healthy we are, emotionally and mentally. If things are rusty, certain connections dead or miswired, we need to address them comprehensively. Coming home tired from work we hate, disgruntled at the boss but unable to chew him out, finding our spouse in even worse shape and staggering over to the couch in search of the remote clearly isn’t a successful recipe for any kind of orgasmic audio experience.

Reclaiming the musical enthusiasm and experiences of depth and grandeur we like to remember from our teens is clearly a far more serious enterprise than overcoming audiophile habits. "Let the dead bury the dead," said a Christian celebrity somewhere. If we’re comatose while alive, music alone certainly won’t raise us from the dead. Contemplating JC’s advice for his contemporaries, we realize how far-reaching a proposal was made. To counter our tendencies for stagnation and entropy, mediocrity and compromise, is really at the heart of any spiritual or religious movement, from Jung to Shaman, Buddhist to New Age. It’s what originally motivated the erection of any church, temple, mosque, or stupa before the teachings calcified and politics took over.

The s-word itself is very popular and easily said, the work behind it often misunderstood and a lot harder. Most of us know old people that have remained mysteriously young at heart. Even if they’ve never used the damn s-word in their lives, they’ve somehow lived its meaning nonetheless. The return to becoming joyful listeners has something to do with what kept those wrinkled but shiny people young despite their deteriorating bodies. The audiophile cure, to be comprehensive, isn’t simple, the medicine not passive. A simple discipline of physical exercise before any serious listening session could be an uncomplicated regime to rekindle the flame and reignite the passion. It mimics the coming into the listening room as though going to one of those treasured live concerts. For those, we have to make financial and practical preparations. As a result of all that effort—getting dressed to the nines, getting a nanny for the kids, battling traffic and parking—we’re of high and expectant spirits, and thus practically assured a good time even if the band or symphony were to play with less than full sails.

The audiophile focus on the equipment tends to distract us from the truism that the listener is always the most important part of the system. Advising people on how to upgrade themselves—should they determine that they, in fact, constitute their system’s weakest link—clearly goes beyond the scope, not only of an audio column, but more importantly, the qualifications of the one writing it. But in the interest of those who took the trouble to write in and ask questions, this much can be said, to paint the bigger picture and suggest an appropriate context.

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