The Role of Imagination

The Role of Imagination

Written by Dan Schwartz

Sitting here listening to a Steinway recording – literally, a Steinway recording, as in an album of Ravel by the artist Sean Chen, released by Steinway & Sons records – I’m immediately brought, as I usually am, to the role that imagination plays in my perceptions of the reality of, in this case, piano music.

With much of the music that I listen to – say, the new 50th anniversary release of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass – imagination plays a whole different role. It’s more like watching an ear movie, all fantasy and artificial spaces. The same with my beloved early Weather Report (the first five studio albums). Gorgeous artificial spaces.

But with well-recorded classical and jazz, like this Steinway record, in which the rendition of the piano is so good, in terms of color and dynamics, it’s necessary to bring my mind to bear in a whole different way. My system is very good, but not quite good enough to overcome the problematic space in which it resides. And I can’t quite overcome the issues enough to determine what’s more to blame – system or space.

I think of HP’s magnificent Music Room 3, of the relatively recent and much-missed past. It was a smallish ground floor space in an old Victorian house with a bay window (at the back), and two-thirds filled with the four towers of the Infinity IRS V speaker system. Facing the speakers were three not-quite-comfortable-enough-to-fall-asleep-in chairs. A carpet sat beneath all, on a floor over a gap. In that compact space, so dominated by speakers that one listened almost in nearfield, you were just about entirely subject to the encoded ambient space of the record.

My two speakers aren’t nearly so awesome. Everyone who comes through here remarks on how huge they are – I respond that they replaced speakers that were much larger – but you and I know better. Nor is my room so compact and reverberation-free as HP’s. There’s no discernible reverberation, and very acoustically unlike my old apartment that caused The Absolute Sound’s Robert E. Greene to comment, when I moved, “but you’re keeping the apartment for your system, aren’t you”? One wall is glass (the right one), one wall stone (the rear one). The left wall is interrupted by a gap for the front door. But I won’t do anything to change the acoustics. It’s not bad, but it tain’t hi-fi, neither. It’s our living room.

So: well-recorded piano. Most really good piano recordings also record some of the room ambience. That’s already a bit of imagination – something of a tradition and something of a documentary approach, a capturing of an event, but a record that has an ambience that blends identically with one person’s space will be completely out-of-whack with another’s. It takes an imaginative ear (really brain) to blend the two spaces suitably.

Steinway piano in Changsha Concert Hall, Changsha, China. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/kailingpiano.

Steinway piano in Changsha Concert Hall, Changsha, China. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/kailingpiano.


There’s an older recording released on Athena records in the late 1980s of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performing Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. It was a re-issue of a Vox record engineered and produced by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz (and most recently available from Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds label). What’s so significant to me about the record is that it’s relatively dry. Its ambience requires next-to-no imagination to blend with my own space. My old speakers – Snell Type B prototypes (known as “The Refrigerators,” for their size, and which I still own), which are flat to about 16 Hz – could deliver the wallops of the piece pretty damn convincingly into my room. Did they sound real? Like a bass drum at a distance in a concert hall? No – they’re too present. Those wallops sound more like a bass drum thwacked in a recording studio would sound. Again: imagination completes the illusion of reality.

Arguably, the most important component we own is our brain.

Header image courtesy of Hausmann.

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