It involves an Eberhard Faber Design Art Marker No. 255, in green if you insist, but you can also use a pencil.
While listening to music (it works with analog or digital, by the way), read a book about the music you’re listening to. Find an obscure website reference. Ask a friend for her take.
I know, it would be better if this tweak was more arcane, more difficult and more expensive.
Bear with me, please, because while it’s none of those, it is time consuming. But worth it.
When we were youngsters, we read album liner notes. This, it turns out, is not that different from reading the cereal box while eating your Cheerios in the morning before school. You’re not reading the box because it’s new or interesting. You’re reading it because it’s there.
And so it was with album covers. Despite a very dubious award category in the Grammys (shouldn’t it be called the Grammies?), most liner notes aren’t particularly entertaining or memorable.
On the other hand, just ten or fifteen minutes of listening to or reading Phil Schaap on the history of a particular Charlie Parker recording session will almost certainly change the music. (Phil’s Grammy awards for liner notes completely justify the category, by the way).
Part of the audiophile experience is the knowing. Knowing where the instruments were in space at the session. Knowing what the trombone really sounded like. Knowing what it was like to be there…
But the knowing needs context.
Ornette Coleman is unapproachable if you start at the end of his discography. He’s playing for us, sure, but also for himself, extending himself from what he did in the previous album, or in the previous set. If you start early and work your way up, you begin to know.
Look, here’s a book about the songs Bob Dylan didn’t write. Five hundred pages of truly obsessive reporting on how Dylan discovered Robert Johnson and what listening to what one of his songs did to his writing. And listen… here, here’s Bob singing that song the author just told us about. Yes, it sounds different. Better. More plaintive. How could it not?
Oh, here’s a website (genius.com) that dissects lyrics. It’s strong on rap, but is expanding into just about everything.
And, wait, here’s a recent article about Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It turns out that the taxi horns have been played in the wrong key for the last fifty years. You can bet that those taxi horns will sound less veiled the next time you play them on your fancy rig.
There are two theories of art: One theory is that you must come to it cold. You see what you see. You hear what you hear. Your interpretation is all that matters.
The other is that you learn first. You understand what the artist intended (if she chooses to reveal that). You understand the context. You figure out what was going on when it was created, what the swirl was all about.
Both theories are valid, but it seems to me that only one aligns with the audiophile mindset.
The obvious question to ask: Which books, Seth? Tell me what to read, where to look.
That’s actually not the next question, because it turns out that one man’s obsessive yearning for the details of a Binghamton show by the Dead is another person’s waste of time. No, the next question is: do you care enough about the experience of listening to sign up for this journey?
At some point, you’re going to have trouble finding yet another electronic tweak for your system. It’s likely, though, that you’ll never run out of Post-Its, Blackwing pencils or good conversation.
(Originally published in Copper #4)