Neil Young's Pono player is the latest entry in a debate over the fidelity of digital sound which simplifies the relationship between the medium of music and its experiential message. By Philip Brophy.
What is that thing you hold in your hands? It’s a recording. What is that thing you hear in your head? It’s that recording. They appear to be the same thing, but there’s a dimensional warp which separates and qualifies them. The recording you hear in your head — that’s the experience you get from the recording. It’s at once sono-musical, psychological and psychoacoustic. It’s a vicarious aural experience which inserts you into some ulterior time, space, moment. Listen carefully enough — or read its construction with acuity — and you can almost hear the faders moving up and down on the mixing desk. So much pleasure is gained from this that its allure is almost pornographic: all your inner sensations are triggered by aural stimuli predicated on phantom tactility. You were never there in that studio space, but you are granted the loin-moistening throne of an aural voyeur to inhabit a non-existent realm.
But something has to enable that psycho-pleasurable chain of effects. And that’s the thing of the recording, the thing you hold in your hands. Strangely, much current angsting over the demise of music treats the thing in your hands and the thing in your head as consequences rather than simultaneous phenomena. Many observers articulate their views of the sorry state of things by making a causal link between object and experience. Changes in the record-object are deemed to affect changes in the record-experience. In a base ontological sense, this is true enough. But it presumes there is some ideal experience which predates the object/experience bind which is now somehow altered, transformed, debased or destroyed.
This is a common vinyl purist stance, best demonstrated by Neil Young’s development of the Pono playback device/platform/interface for allowing a wider upper range resolution of audio playback. When Young launched Pono in March with a Kickstarter campaign (complete with a video of testimonials from a retinue of Anglo-American rock and pop royalty) and a presentation speech at SXSW in Austin, Texas, everything he said was hard to fault from a vaguely ethical viewpoint (he referred to it as "an artist-driven movement to save sound", invoking the familiar ‘us versus them’ scenario of artists squirming under the sticky bed sheets of industry). In his speech, Young made special note of producer-arrangers like Phil Spector and Jack Nitzsche. Young has collaborated with Nitzsche on numerous occasions, and when he talked about working with acoustic sounds in actual spaces in the analogue realm, he was paraphrasing many of the views articulated by the producer, whose production arc covered a wide range of technological changes in studio practice from the 1960s to the 90s. I remember having a long and fascinating conversation with Nitzsche about the quality of plate reverb units. It was convoluted despite its simplicity, and it took me more than five years of concentrating on their textures on recordings and in the studio before I could even start to grasp how he perceived the filamental aura of how sounds were transformed into spatial ghosts of remarkable fleshiness. Jack clearly had spent decades comprehending the meld of physical sensation and erotic transformation of reverbed sounds, thereby generating a far more complex pool of data than the algorithms employed to simulate a pre-labelled reverb experience which has since typified digital effects processing of this acoustic phenomenon.
But if we are to judiciously accept the phenomenological state of sound — of how music materialises itself, of how it hovers in our aural consciousness — I wonder exactly how fine-tuned Neil Young’s amp-blasted ears are to the 96k range of audio encoding. His SXSW speech was problematic in its reliance on truisms of reality, analogue systems, artistic intent and so on — even though I support his orientation as a musician. He would have done better if he had championed how he himself grappled with technological changes on his 1982 Trans album. But the release of Pono made me think of the relatively recent string of attempts to address the thing/experience bind via experiments in what amounts to a secret history of encoding — of how to place something in your hands which will affect something in your head.
However, for me, this history is more openly argued in the realm of film sound. Now, this is not the place to go into such a complex and varied history which at least starts with early celluloid experiments with stereo encoding back in the late 30s and multitrack orchestral recordings on magnetic tape in the early 40s. But I can point to some interesting markers.
Most sound and music in the history of cinema is in someway linked to intensifying the sono-musical experience — despite the oft-bemoaned notion that film’s visuals too often overwhelm and overdetermine the soundtrack. Cinema has always envied that inner-world magic unleashed by listening to recordings. This is so much so that cinema’s materialisation of the object (the sound coming through the theatre’s speaker array) is largely an attempt to lever an aural experience akin to listening to recordings. As technological fidelity increased across the 70s into the 80s, music on screen started to attain that pornographic lushness and phantom tactility which was likely more hi-fi than anyone’s home stereo systems.
Extrapolating this arc of sensational production, cinema sound became more immersive with various Dolby surround applications — almost in an attempt to move beyond the inner world constructed by the record listening experience. By the late 80s, these developments heavily influenced my thinking about cinema, sound, post-production and music, and how they set up a dense dialogue with records, performance, recording and music. To this end, as a musician and sound designer I have pretty much worked exclusively in surround/multichannel sound since the mid-90s. Even now when I listen to a stereo playback, I can perceptually separate the content coming from the speakers from the content reflecting from the wall behind me — not because I’m some technologically advanced mystic, but simply because I’ve spent a long time listening forward and rear while facing ahead into a quadraphonic soundfield. Stereo is fine, but in comparison it always feels like I’m in a box peering out into the world with my ears.
Having enjoyed various quadraphonic releases on vinyl, CD, SACD and DVD-audio, I thought that I could share this experience by releasing my work on CDs encoded in Dolby Surround, so that when one would play them though a CD player connected to a surround amplifier, the music would play the original four-track master recording to create an immersive spatial experience. But truth be told, no one was much interested in such an experience. As deflating as this was for me personally, it does prove how wide the gulf is between the thing in your hands and the thing in your head: most people perform amazingly complex ways of tying the two together — for positive or negative reasons. The audiophile and the mp3ite are operating in similar fashion by making their own experience out of the means granted them in each instance. I’d argue there are no ethics in this private exchange between medium and experience: who is to say whether one has a more profound experience than another in the act of listening to music? For profundity lies in perception, analysis, consciousness and the expression of ideas. That’s called writing about music. And the onus is on writers to come up with better goods in that department.
To counter the pessimistic question of where music is heading, I would aver that it goes nowhere: it resides right there in the dimensional warp between your hands and your head, between the act of consuming and the act of listening. I can testify to how my deeper understanding of music has come from two types of moments. The first is an unpredictable encounter with a song whose materiality — its texture, its configuring, its apparition — overwhelms my attempt to dissect its contents. The second is when someone else turns me on to a song, not by intimidation, oneupmanship or neurotic insistence, but because they somehow manage to point out something they experienced deep within the song which I then attempt to register. In this latter case, I try to not listen for myself, but through an alternative self which can navigate the music better than I. In film scoring, one’s personal taste is a deadly liability. Film scoring entails dealing with psychological sensations and effects which go well past any sense of ethical stability and well-being. Film scores thus enable a promiscuous listening which I find liberating: I feel I’ve gone beyond myself into something more interesting than my pithy sense of taste.
Just as there’s an inseparable tie between the record object and the record experience at the personal level, so is there an unstoppable parallel continuum between histories of recording technologies and how they are evaluated as part of shared listening experiences. It doesn’t matter how hobbled the industry becomes, or how often it shoots itself in the foot – when you hold that thing in your hands, something will happen in your head.
Philip Brophy is a composer, filmmaker, critic and curator.