I was cutting into a mango last night – it was a small variety known as Champagne, one that I have been smitten by for years. Its curvy shape can be described as half of the Chinese yin/yang symbol. It was perfectly ripe and its scent was intoxicating. I ate it slowly, with an almost child-like wonder, thinking: how could anything taste this good?
Reflecting on it, I was clearly having a sublime moment – an altered state where my immediate reality drops to the background and all that exists is that mango and my conscious experience of consuming it. The feeling is usually accompanied by a sense of awe. Some of my most memorable episodes occurred while immersing myself in emotion-evoking, impeccably recorded music heard through a superbly resolving audio set-up. A favorite example is the sweeping, heart-wrenching Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This 16-minute masterpiece is so beautiful it almost hurts. Again I wonder: How can anything be this magnificent?
While there are many good versions of this musical triumph available in all formats, allow me to bring to your attention a rendition by Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Humor me as I highlight a video of a performance that, to my knowledge is only found on YouTube. Don’t laugh, this is a production made to very high standards.
What makes this video so special is that it captures Sir Davis and the BBC Symphony at Gloucester Cathedral – a church where in 1910, this composition was played and conducted for the very first time. With outstanding cinematography and near-field intimacy (if I can borrow the term), Davis and his musicians look like they’re having sublime experiences of their own. When an orchestra tips out of normalcy and forays, as one into the experience en masse, magic happens. The presentation is not just seen and heard, but felt viscerally. I believe all legendary performances have that in common.
Switching gear (so to speak), experiences with hardware can also offer us sublime moments. One of the most dramatic was the first time I plugged my entire 2-channel system into a brand new AC power regenerator and played a familiar reference album. Nothing in the system had changed except the quality of the power I was feeding it. I sat there, in the sweet spot, eyes closed and mesmerized by what I was hearing. The pure, clean and steady 120V juice allowed my rig to create a musical tapestry that was richly detailed and nearly palpable. Even my wife noticed the difference immediately!
I’ve noticed one simple common thread to all of the sublime moments I’ve had listening to music: my eyes are always closed. By minimizing the distracting visual intrusions from our environment, hearing is immediately enhanced, my thoughts retreat to a low ebb and I can listen more deeply into the music. At times, while listening to a passionate, emotion soaked selection, I may even lock in and discern the intent of the composer. I don’t hesitate to share that I occasionally squeeze out a tear or two in my listening room.
If you’ve ever had the surreal experience of opening your eyes at the end of a musical piece you were completely immersed in, and for a second, being surprised by where you actually were…you know the feeling of a sublime moment.
Audiophiles are “enthusiasts,” which is one of my favorite words. It comes from the Greek “en theos,” which translates to “possessed by God” – which aligns well with these emotional moments of grace. Maybe a slight tweak for us would be En Theos Audius, Possessed by the Gods of audio…which we most certainly are.
Alón Sagee is the Chairman and Chief Troublemaker of the San Francisco Audiophile Society.