The Audio Cynic

Music in the Air

Somewhere over Brazil, 11/10/18: When we write about listening to music, we often refer to blacker backgrounds, greater inter-transient depth—and similar hogwash.

When I talk to the engineers I work with about how the biggest improvements are made in sound quality, the thing that comes up most often, and is one of the biggest contributors to improved sound quality, is lowered noise. And yet: I’ve written before about being able to enjoy music over a cheap clock radio. I’m fascinated by the idea that there are as-yet-undefined aspects of sound quality that transcend or evade standard measurements.

As I write this—Pilot pen upon spiral-bound notebook—I’m thinking about my experiences tonight, listening to music at 34,000 feet. Thanks to my flight attendant son, I’m coddled in business class in a 777, headed overnight from Buenos Aires to DFW. I have a belly full of fairish food and several glasses of a decent California red.

I also have access to the American Airlines “Entertainment Portal”, and as usual, I flip through the music choices before resorting to a movie. By virtue of my exalted status in biz class, I also have noise-cancelling Bose headphones.

Over the last 50 years (!!), I’ve probably badmouthed the products of Bose as much as any audiosnob, But: I have always tempered that criticism with appreciation of the company’s marketing, allied with admiration for the company’s patent portfolio and technical resources. Take a look sometime at the company’s decades of work in acoustic automotive suspensions—it’s pretty damned impressive.

But I digress.

So: the music available ranges from icky pop (ABBA) to decent older jazz (strangely large collections of Ahmad Jamal and Ella Fitzgerald—not together) to a number of artists I’ve never heard of. Most are DJ-ish, and for me, unmemorable.

One album stands out, by an artist I’ve never heard of: I Tell a Fly, by Benjamin Clementine. The songs feature well-recorded piano (think early Elton John or Randy Newman), with cabaret-style vocals and mostly-sparseĀ  accompaniment. The voice brings to mind a male Joan Armatrading, with an odd warbling tremolo and a theatrical presentation that ranges from Rufus Wainwright to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.

There was also something unexpected—genuine emotion, capable of eliciting genuine emotion in this very jaded listener. Need I mention how rare that is?

Clementine seems to be a Brit, but of what origin, exactly? The tone is sardonic, yet wistful. It’s not for all tastes—but I am very much taken by it.

Long story short: music can stand out whatever the listening circumstances, but without the noise-cancellation it’d be a lot more difficult to appreciate this.

So: thanks, American Airlines. And thanks, Bose!