Real Sound (or, Why Alex Ross Can Sod Off)

How do you know that what you hear is “real”? It’s a question central to Plato’s cave allegory, but it’s also one that Alex Ross seemed to take up in a recent New Yorker article.

"Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604" by Jan Saenredam - British Museum Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604” by Jan Saenredam – British Museum Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Alex Ross related two connected uses of a sound manipulation technology called Constellation, designed by sound engineer John Meyer. In one, he describes how Meyer’s speakers, microphones, and computer system can be used to create a lively restaurant soundscape; while in the other, Ross tells of how Meyer’s system works within the acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. The principle involved in both of these examples is the same: the microphones record the sounds produced in a particular space, analyze those sounds, and transmit them back into the space in a way that is so real that it is invisible to the people who hear them. In the restaurant, Ross says, the effect is tremendous: there is a vibrant din of conversation and other noise, but also enough isolation at the table that parties can converse at normal speaking levels. In the concert hall, the effect is equally remarkable.

Unfortunately, Ross entirely misses the import of his observations. This is a frequent quarrel I have with Ross’s writing, which seems to want to sell itself as classical music writing “for the people” while also relying on the old-fashioned elitism of classical music to assure his status as expert. He remarks:

Although no amount of digital magic can match the golden thunder of a great hall vibrating in sympathy with Beethoven’s or Mahler’s orchestra, the Meyers may have come closer than anyone in audio history to an approximation of the real thing.

Of course, the distinction made here is absolute nonsense, evidence only of Ross’s distrust of his own eyes and ears. He supposes that there is some ideal type of acoustic environment out there in the world, if we’re willing to search for it. (It helps to have a New Yorker credential and project budget to support you in your search: Ross nominates Vienna’s Musikverein as the ideal that even Meyer wishes to emulate.)

And this is simply not the case. At the risk of sounding like an old-fashioned postmodernist (yes, I think that combination actually makes sense), it is not only futile, but actually nonsensical, to compare the technological enhancements of Meyer’s Constellation system to “real” sound production and acoustic resonance. Constellation doesn’t try to imitate real sound; it is real.

In case we missed the point, Ross concludes by again suggesting that Constellation is only as good as the unmediated examples of concert sound it wants to emulate: “The simulation may fall short of perfection, but it trains the ears to yearn for the ideal.” In what way does the system fall short? Ross seemed to enjoy speaking with his dinner companions, thanks in large part to Meyer’s sound system; the resonant value within Davies Hall was evident from Ross’s retelling of the event. Where is the perfection for which our ears supposedly yearn?

(Here’s a hint: it’s in all of those experiences Ross describes, and many, many others, too.)

There are several fundamental problems within Ross’s assumptions. First, and most prominent, is the idea that there actually is any sort of “perfection” to be found anywhere in classical music performance. More specifically, this version of perfection is problematic because it is represented (by Ross and many others) as some kind of value-neutral ideal, rather than the product of a very narrow and specific cultural history—the same history, incidentally, that has given us the archetype of the solitary genius artist.

But even if we deal with the idea of perfection in the acoustic case only, there is still a problem—the problem of individual perspective. Walter Legge, the great EMI producer from the mid-20th century, famously described his work as making records “which will sound in the public’s home exactly like what they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall.”1)in Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge Legge’s vision of acoustic perfection, written in reference to his work in the 1950s, provides a lynchpin between the Romantic ideals of the 19th century and Ross’s more modern delusions. It is the most precise encapsulation of European-derived ideas of genius to the recording medium, because it supposes that there could ever be that ideal perspective in any real-world concert hall. (A slightly more charitable reading of Legge might suggest that he was actually recognizing a fundamental difference between recording and concert performance, although personally, I don’t think that this perspective is supported by the rest of Legge’s memoir.)

Here, then, is one of the great tricks of today’s classical music culture: the ubiquitous presence of mediation is suppressed, and we (as audiences) are repeatedly told that the only “real” experience of the music is a direct one (in a concert hall, in silent contemplation). But this, of course, is why all manner of “Music Appreciation” efforts have failed to generate new enthusiastic audiences for classical music. Prospective audiences are constantly told that classical music is not elitist, that it is open to everyone. But the subtext is always, “As long as you appreciate it on our terms.” Recordings of a legendary pianist? Wonderful—but no substitute for being in the hall and hearing the pianist play “in person.” Technology in the concert hall? Great—as long as it knows its place and stays out of sight.

It’s truly inconceivable to me how Ross can describe in such perceptive detail the effects of a technology like Meyer’s Constellation, and at the same time claim that this technology is little more than a crutch to prop up “real” music-making. We are not blinkered victims trapped within the deception of Plato’s cave; there is no ideal form of music out there to be sought and simulated; there is no “real” music beyond the music we hear. If Constellation helps us to appreciate music, then that’s great. We certainly don’t need some gatekeeper to inform us that we’re just getting an imitation (albeit a good one) of a “real thing” that we’ll never get to experience.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

References   [ + ]

1. in Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *