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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003



The Mysteries of His System

The Verses in His Life

A Love Story


Part Thirteen


by Barry Grant




Audie and Prudence proceeded apace down the long corridor at the center of the Made Man Motel, the site of A Show.

"Prue, look. Thin trapezoids of light, receding to a point beyond discrimination, each light diminished in brightness by the square of its distance from us, assuming, of course, equipotent point sources radiating equally in all directions. Open doors, I think."

"Behind which door is Mr. Bell, I wonder?" said Prudence concealing a smile with a quick kiss to Audie’s cheek.

"Behind which door is my system?" Audie replied. "With all the systems I imagine are here, I can’t help but think one is mine. Maybe one will bid me, with perfect midrange clarity, partake of itself, like Love bids the guest ‘guilty of dust and sin’ in the George Herbert poem that Vaughan Williams set to music."

"But what are you guilty of?"

"Only of being myself, and you have already forgiven me for that."

"Dear, dear Audie!" Prudence exclaimed as she snuggled Audie’s head between her soft breasts.

[long pause]

Audie twisted his head and wriggled one eye free. It lit on a stack of stapled sheaves of papers spilled across the hall. "What’s this?" he exclaimed.

"What?" said Prudence, reluctantly relaxing her arms.

Audie picked one up one of the papers. He read aloud:


New Music

for Audiophiles:

A Conceptual and Psychological

Introduction to

a Practicable Method

of Spiritual Transformation

Through Correct Selection

of Source Material

for the

Home Hi-Fidelity



Albert Grantowski, Ph.D.


"‘Through correct selection of source material.’ Might be important. Someone must have dropped or dumped these here." Audie continued reading.


I don’t like recordings because they turn music into an object, and music is actually a process that is never the same twice. If you turn it into an object, then you have the kind of musical experience that resulted. . . in the amusing remark of a child . . . . I was present when Stravinsky conducted one of his early pieces for orchestra, one of the ballets; and after it was finished, the child turned to his father--they were sitting in front of me--and he said, "That isn’t the way it goes."

--John Cage


"‘That isn’t the way it goes.’ That’s good, but Cage is a little hard on recordings. He made a bunch of them."

"‘ I like it. ‘That isn’t the way it goes.’" said Prudence. "It’s you."



This is the Audiophile mantra. We sit before our systems, and, like the child in Cage’s story, we listen not only to the unique sonic event present to us, but also to the emanations of our minds--our fantasies and memories, our imaginations and desires. Effusions of the grasping, clinging self hover about our systems. The sounds of these projections are as vivid as the actual sounds of the system. Our love of sound is not pure enjoyment of acoustic vibrations, but a neurotic "love" of an unattainable ideal.


"This is great! Dr. Johnson said something similar. Do we have time to read the whole thing, Prue? "

"All manner of things are well and shall be well, including Mr. Bell and your system, I am sure. We have time."

Audie and Prudence sat down against the wall, the Grantowski paper propped on their contiguous thighs.

"Prue, are you hungry? I am. I wish we had something to eat."

"Have a sandwich," said Prue, slipping her hand into her satchel.

"We brought sandwiches?"

"Aubergine and onion, your favorite. And water, mit gas!. Someone is watching out for us. We have luck, Audie."

"Love and luck, Prue. Love and luck." Audie plucked the translucent hairs of Prudence’s left earlobe with the tip of his tongue.

"Onward!" Prudence squealed with delight.


Buddhists say the source of all suffering is desire, and the basis of desire is dualism. In The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, the bodhisattva Suddhadhimukti declares, "To say, 'This is happiness,' and 'That is misery' is dualism. One who is free of all calculations, whose mind is aloof and pure, like empty space, enters into nonduality."


"Perfectly true," said Audie, picking a piece of purple skin from between his teeth.


Two men walked by. Audie looked up after they had passed. A faint odor of Caig ProGold hung in the air. "Inveterate cable swappers, I bet," he said to himself.


Audiophile "calculations" are a manifestation of a peculiar form of dualistic consciousness: acoustic dualism. The source of all dissatisfaction with one’s hi-fi system is hearing double: that which is present and that which is not present, the sounds we hear and the sounds we desire and fear. The audiophile hears two when in reality there is only one.


"Acoustic dualism! That’s great. A real contribution to the literature on audio samsara."


shaded dogs are dull


"Audie! Again! The singing. Something about dull dogs."

"I heard nothing, Prue."


today there is NO BLISS


"And now, ‘no bliss’."

Audie shrugged.


A system "succeeds" or "fails" in producing sounds that sound like other sounds--the "sound" of the recording venue or the "sound" of the information on the recording medium. Buffeted between our relief that our system has finally gotten some aspect of the other sound "correct" and our anxiety that the next recording will fail to deliver or that some other aspect is "wrong," we never hear only what is present.

Perhaps we have class A equipment with perfectly tuned vibrations. We learn that gravity is turbulent and electricity unclean. We filter our current and isolate our system from untoward pulls. We learn that only battery power is truly clean and gravitational disturbances exist in three dimensions, not two, and we purchase new devices. Und so weiter, und so weiter. Such is the psycho-econo-sonic rondelet of the audiophile.






"I could say that for hours.




We know audiophilia is a mug’s game. We watch ourselves believe, again and again, even as we trace the trajectories of our disappointment. (For we are not whole and divisions within ourselves compete and speak together.) We take another step, and we know that with every step we take another step is added to our journey. Upgrading and writhing. Tweaking and twitching.


"Ha! That’s good too."




But listen! Listen and hear our mistake! Listen to how we speak in our journals, our shops, our convocations. System upgrade. High fidelity. Upscale audio. High-end audio. There we are! In our systems! Our discourse is replete with metaphors of height and spiritual perfection. We purchase enlightened and transcendent equipment. We practice the Zen of system tweaking. We seek audio nirvana.


"That’s true, Audie."


We have displaced our spiritual yearnings on to our systems! We are lost in boxes, wires, devices, pillows, pillars, and lotions. Instead of working on our selves, we work on our systems. Quelle folie! Cage says we must have ears to hear. Ears! Not perfect systems, but proper ears, that is, proper attitude, true awareness.


"Of course!"


As we strive to perfect our systems, we sink deeper into anxiety and longing and internal rupture. We make the same spiritual mistake, over and over. There can be no doubt that it is a spiritual mistake. Audiophiles are, after all, lovers, seekers. We believe in a reality beyond mundane consciousness. We aspire to a perfection. We seek out and extirpate "imperfections" (a Christian element in our practice). Our ritual of critical listening is a meditation. Audiophilia has all the elements of a spiritual practice, but the elements are out of balance and confused.


"Christian element?"


How can we correct our practice and embrace and integrate our projections. How can we learn to hear only what is present? Complacency and acceptance of "second rate" is not possible for us. We cannot, now, after all we know and have experienced, accept colored sound, transient distortions, or shallow soundstages. Serious pursuit of the enlightenment that would allow us to enjoy our systems as they are is too demanding a first step. We cannot shut down our systems until we can hear them rightly. What can we do? What first, humble steps can we take? Listen! The medium of our misery is the medium of our moksha!

The first step to overcoming acoustic dualism is proper selection of source material for our systems.


"Aih! The diagnosis is great, but the treatment is ridiculous."

"Maybe not, Audie. Read on."


A universal rule of spiritual and psychological development, propounded by Carl Jung among others, is that the repressed and the rejected are the very keys to achieving wholeness. What is most obviously ignored in our community? Exactly! Modern musics. New Musics. Especially computer and tape musics. Among such musics is where we must look for recordings that can free us from acoustic dualism.

Tod Dockstader writes in his liner notes to Organized Sound by Tod Dockstader, "Since these pieces can never be performed in the usual sense, this record represents their only publication: you will perform them, as they were written, when you play it on your turntable. I’ve included this note so you will know your performance will be an accurate one." Your performance will be an accurate one. What blessed words!


"That’s true. I had the same thought when I read the notes. They really relieve your mind. Until you play the recording."


The problem is hearing what is not present; the solution is playing recordings that have only presence: recordings that cannot be wrong, that cannot fail, that have no distance from reality because they are reality!

The use of such recordings is the first step in provoking a conceptual shift in our understanding of our systems, a shift from thinking of our systems as sound reproducing systems to thinking of them as sound producing systems. A reproduction must be judged by its fidelity to an original. A produced sound is only the sound that it is. It cannot be compared to a reference. It is original. It is sui generis. It cannot be wrong. It cannot be right. It is neither an object (pace Cage), nor an idea.

And with this conceptual turn, my friends, can come a complete spiritual transformation. By hearing only what is present, we ourselves can become truly present, truly whole, truly at one. We will be able to listen to any recording without anxiety. We will have overcome acoustic dualism, and we will experience the truth so sonorously stated by the esteemed Dr. Johnson: There is only Original Sound in all its manifestations.


"Dr. Johnson! I thought so."

"So the problem is not with my system, but with my source material? But I played Dockstader and Subotnick, and they didn’t make any difference. You heard them. The low end of the Dockstader was hazy, and the transients on the Subotnick were blunted. I remember."

Prudence sighed.

Audie tossed the article across the hall. The pages flapped and cracked in the brief transit through open space, hitting the floor, wheeeee heeeet.

"That was beautiful."


"Do it again."

Audie picked up another copy of "New Music" and flung it down the hall.

Wheeeeu - wheeeeu, ping.

"The acoustics in this hall are amazing."

"Let me try." Prudence stood up, held one of the copies above her head and let it drop.

Wheeee ah umph.


"Let’s get going, Prue."

Prudence placed one copy of "New Music" in her satchel and piled the rest of them in a neat stack near the wall. She took Audie’s hand. Together they skipped down the hall, enjoying the eeeeh huh, eeeehuh of their soles scraping the much-scuffed carpet.


several notches closer to reality