The Recording Angel

GLENN McNATT

September 04, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

A friend who works in a hi-fi store was baffled recently by my kvetching about the high cost of stereo equipment.

''Of course there's a lot of hype involved,'' he conceded, ''but the important thing to remember is that a good system will let you really hear the music. That's what matters.''

Ah, if only it were so simple.

Admittedly, recording technology has come quite a way since Edison invented the phonograph back in 1876. When the Victor Company introduced its ''Victrola'' in 1906 it was the last word in technology and cost $700. That was a lot in those days. Yet modern ''state of the art'' sound systems start at around $20,000, and go up from there.

Of course, hardly anyone outside that dedicated band of enthusiasts known as ''audiophiles'' actually buys such gear. Among the upper-middle classes of the 1990s, the ''audiophile'' urge is akin to what a cocaine habit was in the 1980s, i.e., a sign that one probably has more money than good sense.

Still, there are two kinds of audiophiles. There are the ''equipment freaks,'' who compulsively buy and trade ever more sophisticated pieces of hardware in search of some elusive goal of sonic perfection. They seem happiest when their toys have lots of glowing tubes, wires running all over the place and turntables and CD players that look like miniature sets for a ''Star Wars'' movie.

Then there are the ''music lovers,'' people who genuinely enjoy music and who put up with the complexity and cost of audio gear only in so far as it helps them achieve that goal. One can admire their taste and still suspect that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

The interesting thing is that both types of audiophiles swear their gear makes the musical experience more realistic, more like ''live'' music. Alas, this is where I part company with them because to my ears, at least, even the best recordings played over the best equipment don't sound remotely like music as I hear it in the concert hall. One might even argue that, in the strictest sense, what comes out of a loudspeaker isn't music at all but in fact something different altogether.

Consider that until the end of the 19th century, music was universally regarded as the most ephemeral of arts. A musical performance was a unique event in time that could never be exactly duplicated. No performer ever played the same piece precisely the same way twice; indeed, a mechanical repetition of notes was considered the nadir of poor taste, indicating lack of musical imagination and intelligence.

Even the notations by which composers indicated their intentions were taken only as a rough guide to what was to be played. The ''music'' itself was thought to reside in the performer, with the written notes serving merely as a sort of road map, as it were, for the spontaneous realization of his or her artistry.

All that changed with the advent of recording, which snatched music out of its temporal indeterminacy and turned it it into a thing that could be touched, owned and played over and over again. Recording divorced the performer from his performance in the most radical way possible. For the first time, one could hear music regardless of whether the performer was physically present or indeed whether he was even alive.

This development had profound implications for the way music was appreciated and understood. ''Music'' came to be defined by its purely objectified aspect, by its ''sound'' rather than as a complex social interaction involving performer, instrument and audience.

Yet this is not at all the way we experience the real world, any more than we experience the image fixed on paper by camera and lens as a definition of the objects portrayed. We know the apple in the picture has many attributes -- taste, aroma, tactility -- that the photograph can only hint at. We experience the apple ''live'' only if we pick it up and bite into it. Similarly, our experience of music through recordings is always second-hand at best. Even a ''live'' recording can capture only a fraction of the sensory information conveyed by an actual performance.

The best recordings, in fact, are those that make no pretense of sounding like ''live'' music at all but seek instead to create a completely new kind of experience. Unfortunately, many people have become so accustomed to hearing their music ''canned'' that they have forgotten what ''live'' music actually sounds like; they confuse its electronic image, as it were, with the real thing.

I hope my audiophile friends will forgive me for saying this, but that is a little like trying to eat a photograph of an apple -- and just about as nourishing.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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