Synergy : The combined action of discrete units (or agencies) such that the total effect is greater than the sum of the of the two or more effects taken individually. (Webster's Third New International Dictionary)
Synergy is an essential part of great music, both in the performance and in the reproduction of this music. It is particularly vital in the assembly of sound systems, where the correct choices can make real magic and the wrong choices result in mediocre sound and poor value.
Synergy also applies to thoughts and actions and this page presents the challenging thoughts of various people, which intertwine powerfully in their focus on the enjoyment of music, and how other factors like attitudes and equipment can add to or detract from the experience.
First Time's a Charm
"I don't understand acquired tastes," a friend told me the other day. "Why would I want to learn to like something that tastes bad?" Though we were talking about sushi (I love it, she hates it), the conversation soon worked its way around to opera, an art form to which she believes herself hopelessly allergic. Granted, she is only 24 and has heard a grand total of three operas to date - Macbeth, The Rake's Progress, and Orfeo et Euridice, none of them exactly mainstream - but she's still certain that opera is not for her, and though I hope she changes her mind someday, I admire her certainty.
My first encounter with the slippery concept of acquired taste came during my undergraduate days, when it was widely taken for granted by the intelligentsia that Elliott Carter was a great composer and Tchaikovsky a lousy one. To be sure, everybody loved Tchaikovsky and nobody loved Carter, but that didn't matter: in fact, it proved that everybody was wrong. The theory was that anything you liked at first hearing was too simple to be good - or, to put it another way, that there was an inverse relationship between quality and accessibility.
I bought into this theory at first, but then I had a revelation. It was a revelation on the installment plan, actually, for it occurred in stages, the first of which took place when I bought a copy of Peter Pears' stereo recording of Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings [London 4I7 I53-2]. This was in I975, at which time I hadn't yet heard a note of Britten's music, not even The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. I don't remember what moved me to buy that particular LP, since Britten was still in bad critical odor back then (though the worm was already starting to turn). Whatever the reason, I bought the record, took it back to my dorm room, put it on ... and was overwhelmed. Suddenly I realized that I was listening to a masterpiece, and that was that: the intelligentsia didn't matter anymore, at least when it came to Britten.
The second installment came a few years later, when the Juilliard Quartet came to Kansas City and performed the Schoenberg String Trio, which they were about to record for Columbia [Sony Classical SK 47690]. By then, I was the program annotator for the concert society that brought the quartet to town, and I knocked myself out over that particular set of notes; I saw it as my mission in life to awaken the benighted music lovers of Kansas City to the delights of late Schoenberg. Though I no longer have a copy of the program, it isn't hard to imagine what I wrote about the String Trio - it must have sounded exactly like Paul Griffiths raving about Milton Babbitt in the New York Times - but when I went to the concert, I didn't hear what I expected to hear. Instead of music, I heard... nonsense. Suddenly I realized that I had talked myself into believing that Schoenberg was a great composer, ignoring the evidence of my ears, which had been telling me all along that serialism had as much to do with music as "Jabberwocky" has to with poetry. The spell was broken, and never again did I take serial music seriously.
The third and last installment came when I heard Eugene Ormandy's 1960 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances [Sony Classical SBK 48279]. If Schoenberg was the household god of my undergraduate years, then Sergei Rachmaninoff was the antichrist, a composer played only by those poor grinds who slaved away in the downstairs practice rooms while the rest of us musical eggheads went about our more elevated business. Empty virtuosity! Notes without content! Syrupy sentimentalism! Or so I thought.. only this rime, I listened with my ears instead of my intellect, and suddenly I realized that this was a real piece of music, tough-minded and sardonic, and I was enthralled.
The lesson I learned from these three experiences was not quite as simple as you may think. Around the same time as my first encounter with the Britten Serenade, I had an instructive conversation with a wise old music critic to whom I blithely announced, apropos of nothing in particular, that I'd never much cared for Schumann. "That says more about you than it does about Schumann," he replied mildly. By the time I'd picked myself up off the floor and pulled the arrow out of my forehead, I'd formulated a credo from which I have never deviated in the past two decades: Trust your first impressions - but don't be afraid to change your mind.
One of the most surprising things that has happened to me in recent years is that I now like far more music, as well as a wider range of interpretative styles, than I did as a young man. This is not at all what I expected to happen as I grew older. "I have devoted myself too much, I think, to Bach, to Mozart and to Liszt," Ferruccio Busoni wrote to a colleague in I922, when he was 56 years old. "I wish now that I could emancipate myself from them. Schumann is no use to me any more, Beethoven only with an effort and strict selection. Chopin has attracted and repelled me all my life; and I have heard his music too often -prostituted, profaned, vulgarized....I do not know what to choose for a flew repertory!" When I first ran across this fascinating letter (Harold C. Schonberg quotes from it in The Great Pianists), I felt as if I were gazing into a crystal ball. I was certain that I, too, would become more and more intensely involved with less and less music, until the day came when I was left with a half-dozen supreme masterpieces to which I would return constantly in search of enlightenment.
Needless to say, it didn't work out that way. Now that I stand on the brink of middle age, I find that I am more open as a listener than ever before, so much so that I even find myself enjoying pieces and performers that don't naturally suit my taste or temperament. I used to dislike Ella Fitzgerald, for instance, but today I listen to her records with great pleasure, even though my reasons for disliking her haven't changed. I still don't think she had any feel for a lyric; I still don't like the sound of her voice, which always struck me as pinched; I still think she skimmed lightly over the emotional content of the songs she sang. Yet none of that matters to me any more. Is she my favorite singer? No, not even close - but now I can appreciate the virtues of her singing, and that's what matters.
Does this mean that I have somehow "acquired" a taste for Ella Fitzgerald's singing? You could say so, but I prefer to think of it not as a conscious act of will but as a natural process of growth. It isn't as if I sat around my apartment listening to Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! [Verve 835 464. 2] with furrowed brow, waiting for the sun to rise; it never bothered me that I didn't like Ella, just as it didn't embarrass me when I changed my mind about her. I simply accepted my taste for what it was - a matter of personal preference - and when it changed, I accepted that, too.
At the same time, I believe devoutly that criticism is not merely a matter of taste, that it is rooted in objective perceptions of fact; I also think that some critics are more perceptive than others, just as some pieces of music are better than others. I suppose it would be more stylish to put the word "better" in quotes, but the awful truth is that I unhesitatingly accept the existence of a meaningful standard of excellence in the arts. The art critic Clement Greenberg once shrewdly observed that all canons of excellence are provisional - but in saying so, he never meant to suggest that there is no such thing as excellence. This is part of what that wise old music critic was getting at when he told me in so many words that it didn't much matter what I thought about Schumann: It is the responsibility of the listener to rise to the level of the great masterpieces. If you don't like "Mondnacht," it's your fault, not Schumann's.
How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory points of view? The answer lies in a subtle remark made by Kingsley Amis, who was both a great comic novelist and a passionate music lover: "All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt." I wish those two sentences could be carved in stone and set in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza. In matters of taste, the most important thing is not to pretend. To go through the motions of "acquiring" a taste is very often to engage in an elaborate and protracted pretense, one that may well be not merely insincere but sometimes just plain wrong. I now know that I was wrong when I pretended to like the Schoenberg String Trio, and even more wrong when I pretended not to like Tchaikovsky.
As for my young friend who thinks she doesn't like opera, that's just fine with me. I plan to keep inviting her to the Met from time to time (La Traviata is next on the list), and I doubt she'll turn me down, so long as I don't insist that she pretend to enjoy herself. But should the day finally come that she decides to give up completely on opera, that'll be fine, too. For who knows what might happen once she turns 40? She might just hear Der Rosenkavalier on the radio, and suddenly realize what she'd been missing all those years. That's the wonderful thing about taste: it's never too late to change your mind. I might even start liking Schoenberg again - after all, deafness runs in my family.
Written by Terry Teachout for Fi Magazine, February I999.
Sadly, this fine magazine is no longer published.
A little explanation on the next piece, which appeared in The Absolute Sound magazine, Vol. 8, # 3I, September I983. At the time TAS (regarded as the underground hi-fi press) was engaged in virtually open warfare with Stereo Review (the establishment). TAS, under the leadership of Harry Pearson, advocated listening to sound equipment and systems, comparative listening tests and used as their frames of reference live music events (ie the absolute sound). Stereo Review, guided by Julian Hirsh, advocated judging equipment on measured performance alone and openly stated that if they couldn't measure a difference, then there simply wasn't a difference (eg. audio cables didn't make any difference because Julian Hirsh couldn't measure any differences between rip-cord and fancy speaker cables!) Somewhat heavy-handed and sour, it is nevertheless quite amusing.
Reprinted here with permission of Harry Pearson, Sallie Reynolds and the Publisher of The Absolute Sound.
Instrument Review Exposes the Golden Ears
A One Act Play Staged in The Bronx
Scene I. Act I.
(Antonio Stradivarius, is working in his Bronx garage, not far from the Linn Sondek plant, putting the last coat of varnish on one of his new violins. The phone rings].
Antonio: Hello, Hairy. Thanks for calling. I just wanted you to know that I have put the finishing touches on a new prototype, and I would like to send it to you for review. I got a call from Julian Hearse this morning, who wants to test one, too, but I'm afraid he's not going to understand why I want to put a price tag of $250,0000 on this thing . . . ah, you're right, it would be stupid to send them one. See you at Carnegie. Bye.
[Knock at the door].
Antonio: Guilio, see who's there.
[Guilio goes to the door, opens it gingerly, but is bowled over as five men dressed in lab smocks enter, two pushing dollies loaded with a variety of electronic equipment].
Hearse: Hello, Mr. Stradivarius. My name is Julian Hearse, and I am the chief audio editor at Instrument Review.
Antonio: But I wasn't expecting you today. I'm busy putting the last coat of varnish on my violin.
Hearse: Oh, this won't take anytime. We know you are using a special varnish on your fiddles. The underground instrument press [cough] says this varnish makes an incredible difference in the sound of your instrument. Naturally, we want to subject your instrument to a variety of scientific tests to see if we can measure a difference.
Antonio: Guilio, usher these men out.
Hearse: Wait a minute. These men are all associates of mine who work for Instrument Review. They are scientists, and it will take us only a few minutes to run your violin through a couple of exact measurements.
Hearse grabs the violin out of Antonio's hand, and straps a lead from an oscilloscope to the E string].
Antonio: Christ, man, that's a $250,000 violin!
[There is a moment of stunned silence].
Hearse: A what??
Antonio: That's a $250,000 violin you're fooling with, and I demand you take that grass-stained alligator clip off of its E string!
Hearse: Wait a minute. Did you say $250,000?
Antonio: Right, and if you don't get out of here, I am going to call your boss, Gordon Sales.
Hearse: That won't do any good. He's deaf. Calm down, Mr. Stradivarius. Look, these tests won't hurt your violin. They'll help us prove once and for all whether the underground press is right. So how about it?
Antonio: What do you want to prove?
Hearse: We are going to hook your instrument up to our various devices here. Ah, there's our mobile truck now, bringing in a custom-made anechoic chamber I had especially built for these tests. [A large contraption is wheeled in by two employees of Mid-Fi Moving and Storage.]
Place it right there gentlemen. Thanks, and have a coupla real men's brews on Instrument Review. [The men nod and exit stage right].
After we conduct these tests, with this extremely advanced calibrated microphone here, the other gentlemen and I will conduct some blind-fold listening tests with other violins we have brought which duplicate your design exactly, but are priced from $I00 to $300.
Antonio: Why would you want to do that?
Hearse: Well, there are a number of things we want to prove for our readers. The people who buy musical instruments - and judge accordingly - have a right to know. [In an aside to his assistant, David Ramada-Inn.] Dave, my boy, we know and will prove that the use of "superior" varnishes has no effect on the sound. Second, we know and will prove that if a violin is built using the latest scientific technology, and specing out like his, will sound the same. Third, we know and will prove that the use of gut for strings, and horsehair for violin bows, won't make a difference either. So, that's why we brought synthetic nylon hairs for the bow, and monofilament fishing line for the strings. If not, we'll equalize. Frankly, Dave, when you've been around as long as I have, it'll blow your mind when somebody charges $250,000 for a violin. We at Instrument Review don't believe that any violin is worth that much. It certainly does not provide a $249,700 incremental improvement in sound over the $300 model we have here. [To Antonio] If you don't approve, fiddle-maker, we'll tell our readers.
Antonio: Okay. But careful of that violin!
Hearse: Don't worry. [The other four men scurry about, hooking up the electronic equipment. Then Hearse turns, and says] Okay, let's start the anechoic chamber test.
[There is a moment of mild confusion, when Dave Ramada-Inn, speaks up].
Ramada-Inn: Ah, Julian, we have a little technical problem.
Hearse: [Irritated] What?
Ramada-Inn: Who is going to play the violin?
Hearse: What? Play? What do you mean, play?
Ramada-Inn: You have to play it to test it, and none of us can play the violin.
Hearse: Play it to test it?
Antonio: Don't look at me. I make 'em, and I don't play 'em for youse guys.
Ramada-Inn: What are we going to do?
[Suddenly, another knock at the door].
Antonio: Guilio, see who THAT is.
[Guillo goes to the door, and in enters a rather elderly gentlemen].
Antonio: JOSH! How are you? What a welcome surprise. [The two men embrace one another, with tears running down their cheeks].
[Turning to Hearse] I want you to meet one of my best pals, Josh Heifetz.
Heifetz: Hello, Tony. What's this mess?
Antonio: These men want to run some tests on my new violin. They need someone to play for them. This might also give you an opportunity to listen to my prototype, and tell me what you think.
Heifetz: Well, as you know, I've retired from public performing . .
Antonio: [Whispering urgently to Heifetz] Please, as a favor. I want to get these guys out-ta here.
Heifetz: Okay, I'll do it.
[There follows a rather convoluted procedure, whereby Heifetz picks up the Stradivarius, and then the other violins in succession, and enters the anechoic chamber. Although the sound is dead, it is clearly obvious that the Strad is infinitely superior to the others].
Hearse: [Peering at the oscilloscope] I told you the tests are the same. Frequency response, intermodulation distortion, transient response - all identical! Ha!
[Hearse is getting quite excited by now].
Ramada-Inn: Julie, you forgot to turn on the machines.
Hearse: Eh? Oh. Where's the switch ... er, oh yes. [Click]
Ramada-Inn: Well, Julian, I think I heard a small difference, but - . - that could be due to testing errors.
Hearse: Quiet! Don't you realize it is not Instrument Review's policy to comment on the sound of anything. Besides that, we might lose our Japanese violin advertisers.
Antonio: I need to get to work, so hurry up.
Hearse: Well, we proved our point. The violins that spec alike, sound alike! [All of the other men look at one another uncomfortably].
Now on to our double blindfold listening test. First, the varnish.
[All the other men from Instrument Review put on their stereo (two-eyes) blind folds, and sit down on the floor].
Oh, wait a minute. Mr. Stradivarius, would you have a violin with no varnish on it, and one with a cheap grade of varnish.
Antonio: As a matter of fact, I do. I've been experimenting with varnishes - hit or miss affair
Hearse: [Interrupting] Why don't you use science to help you?
Antonio: I use my ears.
Hearse: You are UNSCIENTIFIC. But I won't report you to my readers or even to Gordon Sales. Let's get on with it.
[Heifetz picks up three of Stradivarius violins. He plays through a few bars of some Bach Partitas. All three violins sound very good, though one is a bit brighter, one a bit duller, and the prototype violin sounds glorious].
Heitetz: Wait a minute, Tony. I think we need to adjust the sound post a little in this instrument. [He hands it to Stradivarius, who fiddles (so to speak) with the violin, adjusting the sound post.]
Hearse: I just don't understand you guys. Japanese fiddle makers use laser pits and bytes to determine the exact location of a sound post. Why don't you?
Antonio: We use our ears. [Hearse sighs].
[Heifetz plays the three instruments again. The duller instrument now sounds appreciably brighter, but audible differences remain, in the order one would expect: the prototype is sweet and wonderfully resonant; the model with the cheaper varnish mundane; and the violin with no varnish bright and harsh. On the other hand, Heifetz plays so brilliantly on all the violins that some of the subtle differences are masked. He plays for about fifteen minutes, interchanging the instruments at random, but calling out the numbers which have been assigned].
Hearse: Well, have you fellows tabulated your scores?
Ramada-Inn: That's hard to do with these blindfolds on.
Hearse: Take them off, you dummy!
Ramada-Inn: Good point! Thanks, boss. [The men from Instrument Review mark their cards. Hearse takes the cards, and adds up the score]
Hearse: PROVED! Proved right!!! [He hops about, a man possessed].
All alike! No differences! All the same! All myth and no science. And I didn't even have to use my switching box.
Heifetz What? Let me see those scores. [He reads them, and then exclaims] Look, what do you mean all myth? These men guessed right 95 per cent of the time!
Hearse: Not enough! Don't you realize that unless they score I00% it's not a "hit," and the results are not psycho-acoustically significant!!! 95% is a standard deviation error for true scientists.
Heifetz Tony. Best of luck. You've got one helluva good violin. [He exits].
Hearse: Vindicated! At last! At last! Vindicated by science! SCIENCE!
Antonio: [Knowing his violin will be the subject of an ensuing article in Instrument Review - forgetting his principles for a moment - realizing that the evidence will be presented in such a way to cast doubt on his violin-making] Look, Mr. Hearse, I want to discuss one thing with you before you leave.
Hearse: What's that? [He busies himself, along with the others, packing up the electronic equipment].
Antonio: I was thinking of running a full color center advertisement in your magazine, advertising my student violins.
Antonio: Yah. My boys need the work and the income.
Hearse: Christ, why didn't you say that before!
Hearse: You don't understand. We can only pick on those manufacturers who don't advertise with us. Zipcord-Davis would be mortified if we ran a derogatory review on an important advertiser! I'll never forget my first review of the Lansing Century 100.
[Hearse has become extremely downcast. Antonio's request has created a problem).
Antonio: Ah, I see the problem. Say, why don't you try my friend Guaneri. He's got a little shop in Greenwich Village, and besides, he's working alone these days and doesn't have anyone he's teaching.
Hearse: [Brightening considerably] What a great idea! Come on boys [And with that, in a cloud of dust and with a great deal of clatter, they exit. Ramada-Inn can be overheard saying "Say, Julian, who will we get now to play the violin?" and Hearse responding "It's only music, after all. How you play the instrument has no bearing on our scientific tests!"
[There is a momentís pause. All is quiet].
Antonio: [Turning to Guilio] You know, of course, that I would never place an ad in Instrument Review. After all, my violins do produce The Absolute Sound.
[Curtain closes with Antonio picking up the phone and calling Hairy Person]
William T. Semple