Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How to Listen - Part 3

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, you learned how to listen to the silence between notes and the attack created by an artist playing an instrument. You also learned that the Devil is in the details and that true artists bring out their individual styles by exploiting the assets of an instrument where others cannot. You learned that in the attack and decay of a note is where these subtleties lie and how to listen better for these highly audible clues. And you went to a friend's home and listened to a very familiar piece of music on their system and with your new ears tried to hear the differences that system revealed that yours did not, and vice versa.

You also took notes about the things you heard on your system and on your friend’s system and tried to understand which was “right” as compared to the real thing. This is why you need to attend live concerts so that you understand what the real thing is supposed to sound like, right? This is the difference between a system that sounds good and one that sounds right.

One of my pet peeves is people who compare electronic music across systems. What does a keyboard programmed with this contour actually sound like? Who really knows? Even when playing that same keyboard program into a different amplifier it too will sound different. What chance does your audio system – regardless of how well refined it is – have to accurately reproduce any electronic music?

On the other hand even within the same instruments there are minor variations in their characteristic sound. Take for example the well-known Fender Stratocaster played by musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and many others including those playing in a venue nearby your home this weekend. Look at the different pickup designs below and think about how just that single difference influences the sound.

While it is obvious from the pickup layout that the Clapton model will sound very different from the Murray model, exactly how does it sound different? Can you tell the difference between these two instruments in any of these musician’s signature albums? One day you may but today just try to hear something – anything – that tells you that this Stratocaster sounds different from that one.

Complicating the sounds produced by non-acoustic instruments is the amplifiers used to create the final desired effect. Stevie Ray Vaughn playing a Clapton Stratocaster through a Fender EC Twinolux speaker/amp combo will sound very different compared to a separate Marshall EL34 amp and 1960B speaker.

Similar issues hold true for any non-electronic instrument, especially classical string models. The violin, while a simple design used by all instruments in this category, consists of a string that vibrates against a bridge that makes the body of the instrument resonate. How that body-bridge-string combination interacts determines how the notes of that instrument will sound. Much like different combinations of guitars and amplifiers will make a performance sound different, each of these elements make that acoustic instrument sound equally as different. And how an accomplished musician coaxes the sound from any instrument tells you not only about that musician’s technical ability to play that instrument but also the artistic interpretation by how he or she demonstrates her command over its virtues. While Itzhak Perlman prefers to play a Stradivarius and can bring you literally to tears, he can also play a cheap beginner’s violin and make it do the same. Why? Because he is Itzhak Perlman and understands how things should sound.

As you develop your listening ability, you will be able to discern any system’s attributes and its shortcomings. While it is easy to focus on what you do not like, listen instead to what you do. Nothing is ever perfect, especially in the audio world. For example, there are things I really like about the PAS amplifiers and things that I do not. But the things that they do far outweigh those minor flaws they have and like listening to a Stradivarius over a beginner violin, I prefer listening to its assets. Don’t get bogged down in a negative approach to the sound of any recording, performance, or piece of audio gear; in the end everything will disappoint you and fall short of perfection. Even the best artists make mistakes. Staying in a positive frame helps you enjoy the experience more so than focusing on flaws. Know that it sounds different as opposed to being good or bad.

So, when you listen, listen not only to the notes, not only to the attack and decay, but also how the artist coaxes life from an instrument that seizes your attention. One of the most copied pieces of popular music ever is The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Played by practically anyone you know or ever heard of, this piece shows you how artists interpret the same music differently. Pop orchestras perform this piece in formal concert regularly as do solo starving artists in dingy nightclubs all around the country. Each time you hear it, even in an elevator lulling you to sleep on the way to your floor, you recognize the merits of these notes and the strengths of the accompanying vocals (if any). Each artist interprets that piece with their own style. So which is right? I have several favorite versions, each with their own unique interpretation as I would suspect that you do too. There is no “right” or “wrong,” just different.

However, understanding why you prefer once type of performance over another can give you an insight to your own personal biases. We all have biases, mine being toward unamplified live performances and my wife’s to chest-thumping bass. While these biases help you enjoy certain pieces of music, these same biases will keep you from enjoying a new musical experience until you learn how to let them go. For example, for the longest time I did not understand opera. People singing their hearts out in foreign languages saying the same things over and over again and then the star falling over dead at the end just was not my cup of tea. But the human voice is without a doubt the most perfect instrument you will ever hear.

What I needed was to abandon my biases and immerse myself in the performance, something much easier said than done. But all I needed was inspiration to change that bias and it came in the form of a casual comment from a friend. He said, and I quote, “Operas were the movies of the time.” That’s all it took and I started to become hooked. So now, I find that listening to opera is enjoyable and one I can even look forward to. A few years back, my wife bought Anna Netrebko’s DVD “The Woman – The Voice.” In this highly creative collaboration, opera is tastefully thrust into the realm of a pop music video.

Play track 2 – the “Quando men vo” selection from the Puccini opera “La Boheme” – and listen to the decaying hall echoes created by the string section just prior to Anna singing. She opens with a sustained vibrato that emphasizes the concert hall ambience bringing fullness to her voice that surpasses the best reverberation attempt artificially induced in any recording studio. Her voice emphasizes the emotion and power behind the melody intended by the composer and interpreted marvelously by the musicians accompanying her. Focusing on her rising and falling vibratos throughout each piece in this DVD helps you to succinctly define that emotion bringing even more meaning to this brilliant performance.

By now, you should have realized that there is more to music than you have been hearing and hopefully you are refining your ability to hear subtle details. Most of your effort will revolve around persistence and perseverance where finding one unique feature grabs your attention and you search for that same detail in other performances. As you build your repertoire of details you will meet others who can explain to you in their own words what they hear about a performance that will shed additional light on even more details to which you were unaware. And of course going to live performances and listening for characteristic sounds created by the combination of instruments and electronics is always a pleasant pastime, especially when modest libations and good friends are involved.

Abandon your biases and open your mind up to new possibilities in musical art. Focus on what you enjoy and overlook the flaws and human error. All venues hide artists and it is your task – if you wish to accept it – to find those exciting, new, and different artists that give you a tingling thrill that runs down the entire length of your spine. Until next time, listen carefully, take notes, and always enjoy your music!

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

My other titles include:

·  Extreme Audio 1: House Wiring ·  Build an Extreme Green Hot Water Solar Collector
·  Extreme Audio 2: Line Filtering ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Wind Turbines
·  Extreme Audio 3: Chassis Leakage ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Solar Electricity
·  Extreme Audio 4: Interconnect Cables ·  Meditation for Geeks (and other left-brained people)
·  Extreme Audio 5: Speaker Wires ·  Althea: A Story of Love
·  Extreme Green Guide to Improving Mileage ·  Build an Extreme Green Raised Bed Garden
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening ·  Build an Extreme Green Rain Barrel
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening 2012 ·  Build an Extreme Green Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder
·  Build an Extreme Green Composter ·  Extreme Green Appliance Buying Guide

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