A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 6: The Listening Room)

What’s the most important component in your two-channel stereo system? Hands down, it’s the listening room. For casual listeners, this may seem to be a dubious argument, but time after time, I’ve experienced a tremendous difference in sound quality, and personal enjoyment, as a result of paying proper attention to the listening space.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

Mostly, this article is about the placement of your loudspeakers, and the ways ways in which the sounds coming out of those loudspeakers interacts with the floor, furniture, walls, ceiling, and with one another. It’s astonishing: even a shift of a quarter-inch can dramatically affect the positions of the instruments on the imaginary soundstage, the reproduction of bass and percussion instruments, and the clarity of the entire sonic presentation. There’s more useful info here.

First up—and not always popular in rooms occupied by more than one person—is the placement of the speakers AWAY FROM ALL OF THE WALLS. For smaller speakers, not less than two feet in every direction, for larger ones, as much as four feet. Your primary listening position should form a precise equilateral triangle with the center of each of the speakers. (Get out the measuring tape or the laser measure. No kidding.) I prefer that each leg of the triangle be about eight feet, but some rooms will allow only about six feet, and others will allow for ten or even twelve feet (not ideal for smaller speakers). The face of each speaker should face forward—not be “tipped-in.” The cables should be of equal length, which means the electronic components should be placed in-between the loudspeakers (preferably in a sturdy rack made for that purpose—more on that in another article). Placing the rack behind the line between the speakers is fine, too.

Which means: “bookshelf” speakers should not placed in a wall unit or a bookcase. Speakers should not be attached to the wall, or placed next to the wall. They should not be placed snugly in the room corners (doubling the problem of placing a speaker against a wall, now you’re dealing with two walls for each speaker).

Unless you’re amazingly fortunate, the sounds coming from those speakers will reflect off the floor, walls, furniture or ceiling. Let’s take those one at a time.

Floor: a bare stone or hard tile floor is the worst because it’s completely reflective (sound waves will be bouncing all over the room, reaching your ears at different times, sacrificing clarity, tonality, presence, and soundstage), but you can correct much of the situation with one or several thick throw rugs (inside and outside the triangle).

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work--but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available--but these panels are among the best.

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work–but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available–but these panels are among the best.

Walls: if your side walls are parallel, then sound waves will bounce between them (causing somewhat similar problems). This is tricky: you need a combination of reflection, absorption, and diffusion. In other words, you will need to experiment, and you probably ought to ask your local audio retailer to provide some acoustic treatment (many available products to mitigate these problems). Sometimes, bookcases help, and sometimes, pictures on the wall help (but be careful about large glass surfaces because they are very reflective).

Big cushy couches and chairs may be very comfortable, but they absorb sound in a big way, and you will lose bass. This, too, is tricky, and you may need to choose between cushions and fidelity. Furniture without soft surfaces can make life complicated, too. A mix of hard and soft is usually best.

Ceilings: a very low ceiling may be reflective (treatments available), and a very high ceiling could cause some echoes (depends upon height). A room with an angled ceiling is better—and sometimes, challenging. A room with walls that are not parallel—same deal.
Other tips:

If you want more bass, try placing your loudspeakers a bit closer to the back wall.

If you raise or lower your listening position (or the loudspeaker), you may hear a difference in the amount and/or clarity of the high or low ranges. This is because your ear is even in height with the tweeter (highs) or woofer (lows).

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

Bookshelf speakers should not be placed on bookshelves–too close to the wall! Instead, they should be placed on speaker stands made for that purpose.

Boomy bass is a problem for everyone in the house, and it can be difficult to control. Often, it’s the result of choosing the wrong combination of loudspeaker and power amplifier for the room setting—one good reason to ask the dealer or other expert to help you to select and setup the equipment. Once the system is in place, this can be a challenging problem to solve.

img_0909Fine adjustments matter a lot. When I was first setting up my reference stereo system, I moved each speaker perhaps 1/8 of an inch toward or away from one another, and I routinely heard meaningful changes in the female vocalist’s timbre, the highs and lows in her voice, and the clarity (in this case, the vocalist was most often opera singer Dawn Upshaw on an album entitled I Wish It So (the song was most often “There Won’t Be Trumpets”), but I found the same indisputable improvement listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Rhiannon Gibbons, and then, on solo piano by Brad Mehldau and Mitsuko Uchida, and then, on the Derek and the Dominoes’ first album, and so the list goes on. I know that this seems to be an extremely geeky way to listen to music, but believe me, the extreme attention to proper setup has paid off for more than twenty years—I have never moved the speakers again.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 5: Amplifier)

Time to get serious by placing the amplifier, or power amplifier, in its proper context. As the final electronic component in the chain from original recording to loudspeakers, the amplifier’s job is to increase the power of the signal, or simply, to make everything louder. For better or for worse. Better: high quality original recording, high-quality turntable / cartridge / phono stage or CD player, pre-amplifier, and high quality interconnection cables running between these devices. Worse: the inadequacies of the weakest link are amplified, too.

In the previous article, we discussed a $999 Rotel pre-amplifier, the RC-1570. Happily, this component was designed to pair with the same company’s RB-1552 Mk II, also $999. (Each can be used with a component from another company, but they look and sound good together—and they’re available in a choice of silver or black.). The RC-1570 is a 130 watt amplifier—a 200 watt version is available for $600 more as the model RB-1582 Mk II—useful if your loudspeakers require more power.

Here's a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

Here’s a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

How much power do you need? The answer depends upon several factors. The first is the size of the room—think cubic feet, not square feet. A small room—let’s say 10 feet by 15 feet with an 8 foot ceiling—that’s 1,200 cubic feet would require about 50 watts per channel, more if you’re driving a pair of speakers with a special power-consumptive design (the Magnepan series of flat panel speakers are an example). A good-sized living room (20 x 20 x 10 feet = 4,000 square feet) requires about 100 watts per channel—more if you play your music loud. Bigger room, more power required. However: if your room’s acoustics are “dead”—tapestries on the walls, lots of soft absorbent furniture, thick carpeting, few exposed reflective surface—you may need more power. And if your room is very “live,” you may need less power.

If this seems complicated, trust your ears. Ask your dealer to arrange an in-house test so that you can listen to the prospective amplifier and loudspeakers in your listening room. You will learn a lot about the relationship between the amp and the speakers. (More about listening rooms in the next article.) Be sure to listen to your own records, your own CDs—music whose sound you know from past experience.

Start with the low register: the bass, the drums, the bass section of the orchestra, the lowest vocal sounds. If the amp is suitable to the room and the speakers, the bass will be clearly defined—and thrilling. If you sense some straining, or graininess, then the amp is insufficient for the speakers’ needs (this is why your in-home demo ought to include a test of an amplifier beyond what you believe you need). Now, listen for the soundstage—the placement of the instruments, the sense that you are listening to a full group, ensemble or orchestra. When the music becomes complicated, does the amplifier keep up, or does the soundstage begin to decompose? Start at a lower volume, then gradually increase. If the music sounds very good at a low level, you’ve got a good match between speakers and amplifier. If the music doesn’t sound as good when the volume increases—is the higher register smooth or does it become edgy (and, perhaps, headache-inducing)? Don’t be afraid to go louder than you might listen to under normal circumstances—you want to push the system near its limits (preferably under dealer supervision so you don’t blow out the speakers). Listen to a variety of recordings in order to expose both strengths and weaknesses. And by all means, step up to a better amp in order to understand what you are and are not buying.

For most listeners, most of the time, the Rotel RB-1552 Mk II will be an ideal choice, but it’s considered an entry level amplifier for high-end audio, as is the competitive Parasound A-23 Halo (also $999) for comparison. If you were to increase your investment to about $2,300, and your room, listening preferences and/or loudspeakers require the additional power, you should certainly consider Parasound’s 250-watt A-21 Halo. And, take note, there is a sister pre-amp ($1,095), the well-reviewed Parasound 2-channel P5.

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To learn more about any audio component, download the owner’s manual before you buy. (Click on picture.)

Here, we begin to understand the passions of an audiophile: the resonances of the cello, the timber of the piano, the breath behind the vocals, the feeling of warmth and presence, all of these indescribable factors come together to more than justify the additional investment. It’s tempting to read the engineering background, and to refer to the design of the transformer, or the capacitors, or the overall approach to technology, but for me, none of that matters much. Most equipment in this price class is well-made, and most benefits from sophisticated engineering design, but it’s very difficult for me to understand these technology discussions. And besides, what I hear—and I do spend a lot of time listening, as you should if you’re making this kind of investment—and I’ve learned to trust my ears, my brain’s ability to process the information, and the holistic feeling that each recording seems to offer. I think the Rotel sounds very good, and the Parasound A-23 sounds even better—for all of the reasons described above. They also sound different from one another, but I cannot fairly detail the differences because I listened to these models in different rooms, with different loudspeakers.

img_0903Too theoretical? Maybe. We can shift back to the practical side of technology. These amplifiers—typical of their class—offer both RCA and XLR (“balanced”) inputs. It’s best if your pre-amp and your amplifier are both equipped with balanced connection. In the high-end community, there is no clear consensus in favor of balanced connections, so try both to determine which approach you prefer.

The other big decision: tube vs. solid state design. Certainly, tubes can sound sweeter, but solid state may seem less, well, scary. This is a longer discussion for a future article. My short-form recommendation: a tube pre-amp paired with a solid stage amplifier—but there’s lots more to discuss.

img_0902If you’d like to dig deeper into the world of amplifiers, that’s a good reason to buy The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by long-time Stereophile writer Robert Harley (now in its fifth edition. Some of the information in the book is fairly technical, but most of it is written for the same reason I’m writing these articles—to help select the best listening equipment.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 4: Pre-Amplifer)

Just to review: an integrated amplifier combines two functions, pre-amplification, and amplification. A pre-amp accepts  incoming signals of varying strength–from the CD player, FM tuner, and phono system–and makes the necessary adjustments on the way to the amplifier. Your volume adjustments are made on the pre-amp, too. In theory, a pre-amp should do little more than equalize the signals, and allow you to switch between the devices. In practice, your choice of pre-amplifier will greatly affect the way your system sounds, so it’s worth experimenting with several models before you make a decision.

A good pre-amplifier will cost over $500. You can spend a bit less, but you won’t get much for your money. You can spend many thousands of dollars on a pre-amplifier, and we will cover more expensive models later in this series of articles. For now, let’s have a look at what $1,000 will buy–and for that exploration, I often turn to a long-time favorite manufacturer in this price range, Rotel.

Specifically, let’s explore the Rotel RC-1570 ($999). And let’s have a look at the front and back panels of this pre-amp because we’ll be referring to the various features in a moment. (FYI, there’s a black and a silver model.)

rc1570_silver_0rc1570_back_0

As with any pre-amplifier, you’ll find a power button, a volume control, an input selector, and, on mid-priced models, a headphone jack. This particular pre-amp offers a whole lot more–a trend that is gaining favor. On the left, there’s a USB connector so you can attach a mobile device (an iPhone, etc.). There are a lot of other inputs, discussed below, and there is a visual display that provides a remarkable range of technical information. These features are uncommon, but all are welcome.

In fact, the back panel is the place to go for a clear understanding of capabilities. Let’s take a closer look.

rotel-pre-amp-diagram

On the left, there are two rows, one for the left and the other for the right channel. First up is the phono input–this pre-amp includes an equalizer for “Moving Magnet” or MM phono cartridges (some pre-amps do, others do not). You can also plug in a CD player, a tuner, and two other devices. All with RCA-type plugs. Then, there’s the output–both via RCA plugs and also via XLR connectors as “Balanced Output” (a different way to connect components that often reduces background noise and adds considerable clarity). There is one Balanced Input pair of jacks, too. There are some additional digital inputs useful for connection to a TV set top box, or a Blu-Ray CD player–in addition to the basic two-channel experience that is the principal purpose of a stereo preamplifier. And there’s more–but now we’re getting way beyond the typical operation of a pre-amplifier. (Perhaps that’s why Rotel refers to this model as a “Control Amplifier”–it does a lot!

It’s easy to get caught up in features, but before we move on, I’ll mention two ideas that aren’t typical of pre-amps, but make this device a pleasure to use. First, the volume control comes with a kind of memory–when you listen to a CD player, for example, it will remember the most recent volume setting, even if you turn the power off. It’s smart enough to recall the most recent setting for each of your devices, so the next time you play a record, it will remember the most recent volume setting for that device, too. Pretty cool! Second, you can attach a USB receiver so that anyone (with a password) can wirelessly connect and play music through your stereo system. Nice!

I am not an engineer, but friends who know audio engineering design are often impressed with the “build quality” of Rotel products. Often (but certainly not always), good design translates into a good listening experience. We can speak of particular transformer designs or the specific qualities of the Wolfson D-to-A converter, but that’s beyond me and most other people. And now is a good time to set expectations: this is not a high-end stereo pre-amplifier, but it is a very good mid-priced pre-amplifier. The difference is explained in a review of this device, and its paired amplifier, by The Absolute Sound, a leading audio journal:

The sonic question for components in this price range is not whether they can produce a fool-you facsimile of the real thing. Unfortunately, barring a technological revolution, they can’t. The more pertinent question, then, is whether they get enough sonic elements right—and whether those strengths are not overly compromised by the inevitable trade-offs—to convey music engagingly. “Engaging” is a word we high-enders use as shorthand for the cumulative effect of a multitude of sonic factors, but I believe that chief among these are the elements that most directly impact musical expressivity. Speci cally, I look for good timing, tonality, and dynamics.

As someone with a similar system in one room of my home, and a bona-fide high end system in another, I can attest to the difference. That said, listening to the RC-1570 is a pleasure, especially when paired with the RB-1552 Mk II Stereo Power Amplifier, and the sister CD player, the RCD-1570 CD Player. Each of these components costs $999–add a good turntable with an equally good cartridge for another $500 (the Rega RP1 with a Rega Bias 2 phono cartridge is on sale for $445 from Audio Advisor). And you’ll need loudspeakers. Total system price: about $5,000, but if you needed to come down a bit, I would probably cheat on the CD player (a $500 unit from Cambridge Audio or NAD would probably be fine.)

Gee, does that sound like a lot of money? We’ve only just begun. For most people, a $999 dedicated preamplifier is a major step forward, the beginning of a serious two-channel stereo system. And yet, $1,000 is considered a modest investment in high quality sound. As this series of articles continues, we’ll get into more costly gear. In fact, the next article, which is about power amplifiers (or, if you prefer, amplifiers) will begin to explain the virtues of a larger investment.

I should mention that Rotel makes an even more versatile pre-amplifier, the RC-1590. The step-up adds a lot of features and technology. See it here.

 

Be sure to explore more than one pre-amplifier. You’ll find different features and a different sound. One of the most popular is the Parasound Halo P7 7.1, which costs $1,699 and comes with a very wide assortment of RCA and XLR inputs and outputs. The phono input accommodates both a Moving Magnet and a Moving Coil cartridge. There are home theater capabilities, too.

If you’re seeking something simple–fewer features, more of a focus on sound–you’ll likely jump up into a somewhat higher price range, and you’ll be encouraged to explore the various advantages of tube vs. solid state pre-amps. Again, a topic for another day.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 3: Integrated Amplifiers)

The first two articles in this series covered the basics of tw0-channel stereo: a low-cost turntable, modest amplifier (built into the powered speakers), and the first steps toward a better system: the choice of loudspeakers that require a separate amplifier. For now, we’ll stay in the budget category, but this is the article where we’ll make a turn into the future of this series: equipment that offers a far more realistic, compelling, rich and entertaining presentation of recorded music. We’ll spend more money, and we’ll look at options for saving, or at least, investing with intelligence for the best long-term results.

A quick lesson before we get into specifics. You may recall that a receiver is a box that contains an AM/FM tuner, an amplifier called a phono stage that adds power to the tiny signal emanating from the phono cartridge on your turntable, a pre-amplifier to provide a similar function for the tuner and your CD player (or MP3 player, etc.), and a power amplifier (usually just called an amplifier) to provide enough energy to the loudspeakers. Each of these is available as a separate box, or component in audio lingo. The quality of each of these components affects the quality of the sound you hear through the loudspeakers. The quality of the cables that connect these devices matters, too–and you can spend tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars on these cables (again, a topic for a later article in the series).

Continuing for a moment with lingo: when purchasing amplifiers in the hundreds-of-dollars range, it’s  wise to consider an integrated amplifier. This device contains a pre-amplifier and a power amplifier, and often, a phono stage, too. Let’s start there, and consider completely separate components later on. Set aside $350 to $500 and you’ll be able to buy your first integrated amplifier–it won’t be a world beater but it will provide clearly delineated instruments and vocals, a bit cleaner bass and mid-range than you’d experience with a less costly setup, highs that don’t cause discomfort, and some presence or realism. You’ll be attaching this integrated amplifier to a pair of loudspeakers that cost about the same amount of money, and to a turntable and phono cartridge assembly that also costs a few hundred dollars. In total, your new stereo system will cost about $1,000. And we’ll step it up: if you purchase the right equipment, a greater investment should increase your listening pleasure. (Of course, it is possible to spend serious money and end up with lousy results. I’ll try to help you steer clear of this messy situation.)

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The Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 is a popular entry-level component for those interested in high-end audio. Be sure to read the review in The Absolute Sound (see link in text).

Crutchfield is one of several internet retailers who stock integrated amplifiers in this price range. Often, the discussion turns to the number of watts–in essence the power of the amplifier to drive loudspeakers. It may be tempting to focus on a 40 watt amp instead of a 25 watt amp. If you are driving large loudspeakers, extra power may be a consideration, but the difference between 40 and even 100 watts may be inconsequential because every loudspeaker and every room behaves differently. One good choice in this price range is NAD’s 40-watt model, a product from a respected low-cost manufacturer of long standing. Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 also comes from a well-regarded maker (reviewed by top audio magazine The Absolute Sound here). Go up to the $500-600 range and the quality of the sound will increase, along with the number of available inputs (mostly not useful in today’s two-channel world), along with the the range of available features (most of which, you will never use). In this higher range, I would again look at NAD’s current offering (each manufacturer offers a product in this price level, but the model numbers and some features vary from one year to the next). This level also introduces components from Pro-Ject, a popular high-end maker with some lower cost products in their line: here, the MaiA for $500 with a convenient USB input (more and more popular among integrated amps). Find the NAD units in the extremely helpful, twice-annual Recommended Components edition published by Stereophile magazine.

In a larger room, you may want an integrated amp with more power or more refined electronics (resulting in more refined sound reproduction)–Cambridge, Pro-Ject, NAD, Marantz, and Yamaha are good manufacturers for those who wish to invest $1,000 or more. And now, we’re beginning to enter a more exotic realm, the world of high-end audio.

Why would you spend $2,000, or $4,000, or more on an integrated amplifier? There’s a simple answer. If you select the right integrated amplifier for your room, listening habits, and style of enjoyment, the music will simply sound better. At first, you may not buy into this way of thinking. You might even listen to one or two high end systems and proclaim that you do not hear a difference. While that may be true for you in a certain time and place, you will begin to discover differences as you take the time to quietly listen and compare one system to another. Why bother? Because we all spend a lot of our lives listening to music, and the experience can be extraordinary. Imagine enjoying an extraordinary experience every time you listen to music at home. That’s why you begin to invest in better audio equipment–and, inevitably, more recorded music, more LPs, and if you like, more CDs, too.

nait5si_1

The Naim NAIT 5si is an excellent choice for those who want to establish themselves in a high-end audio environment without spending a great deal of money. It comes with 60 watts per channel–sufficient for most mid-sized rooms and most listening levels–connections for a single pair of loudspeakers, a CD player, and your choice of other A/V equipment. There is no phono stage in this component–you will need to buy that component as a stand-alone. (See subsequent article about the phono portion of your new two-channel stereo system.)

In this category, one solid candidate for your long-term stereo system would be the Naim NAIT 5si, an update of a popular integrated amplifier first released in the early 1980s. The new model, released in 2015 for about $1,895, is typical of higher quality gear. And here, we dive into some tech talk. The quality of the transformer and the power supply matter a lot, and they are among numerous electrical and electronic parts that demonstrate the benefits of modern design and modern materials (capacitors, for example). In real terms, this means the newer product offers much improved sound: an open presentation that allows each instrument to be distinctly heard with nuance, even when the volume is turned down. The attack and decay of a snare drum sounds more realistic, more energetic, more captivating. The details become clear–listeners find themselves describing albums that they’ve heard a thousand times and are only now hearing the details. With speakers properly positioned, the Naim NAIT 5si and its kin generate a wonderfully wide and deep soundstage–close your eyes and you’ll imagine the musicians individually positioned, not only from side to side but also, remarkably (and magically) from back to front, and also from top to bottom. Some of this may seem like complete nonsense, but I have experienced the phenomenon time and again, and I have invited many other people, particularly the doubters, to engage in a similar experience. The Naim NAIT 5si has been well-reviewed, and it’s comforting to read a few positive reviews before you buy.

For about $400 less, you can make yourself happy with the Peachtree Audio nova150, pictured below. The earlier version of this product was nicely reviewed by one of my favorite (plain language!) reviewers at Stereophile magazine who goes by the pen name, Sam Tellig. Acknowledging that this is review of a somewhat different product, Tellig is wonderfully helpful in describing the characteristics of what remains a $1,500 integrated amplifier–one of the best you can buy in this price range. Just be sure to compare specs with the current model before you buy. And to keep you busy (and well-informed), here are some reviews of the newly designed 150.

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USEFUL ADDITION (November 30, 2016): The distinguished audiophile magazine, The Absolute Sound, just published its 2017 Buyer’s Guide to Integrated Amplifiers. If you’re considering the possibilities of a quality integrated amp, the guide is a superb reference.

Why buy an integrated amplifier when you could buy a separate power amplifier and pre-amplifier? That’s the next question we’ll tackle in this series.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 2: Basic Loudspeakers)

So we’ve begun. A brief explanation of older and modern two-channel stereo systems with a quick stop by two web sites, one to buy a pair of low-cost powered loudspeakers and the other to buy a turntable with a built-in phono amplifier to boost the strength of the signal coming out of the tiny phono cartridge. The system is adequate for a small room, and for very casual background music. The music sounds, well, just okay: clear enough, but not very lifelike. Certainly better than the sound you’ll hear from most of what’s available on streaming services, or from your iPhone, but quite low on the scale of what is achievable.

Throughout this series, we’ll seek out incremental steps as we improve various parts of the stereo system, sometimes taking big steps, sometimes modifying just one piece of equipment, sometimes several at a time. We’ll consider the various technologies and options now available–some offer substantial leaps in quality, and others offer more refinement and incremental joy.

For this step, let’s keep the turntable as-is: a $250 investment including the cartridge and some amplification of modest quality. But let’s separate the loudspeakers from their built-in amplification. This opens a wide gamut of opportunities to employ both new and used loudspeakers, each with its own particular personality, or acoustic characteristics. For example, some loudspeakers will offer improved bass but less clarity in the higher treble ranges, or greater detailing, or a more realistic sense of instrument placement in the panoramic sound field made possible by combining the sounds from the stereo system’s left and right channels (a bit of stereophonic magic that can be even more profound in surround sound systems involving five or more loudspeakers–an exploration for another day).

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

So, what we want is a pair of good-sounding, reasonably inexpensive loudspeakers offering just enough of each of those key ingredients. If you’re buying new loudspeakers, NHT offers a pair of their very popular Super Zero 2.1 loudspeakers for about $350. The company has been making reasonably priced, good-sounding loudspeakers since the 1990s. What I like about them: they’re clean, free from any obvious or annoying flaws, well-balanced in their bass, mid-section and high ranges and accurate. They are not $3,500 speakers, so don’t expect deep and clear bass, or silky strings, or extraordinary nuance in the vocals, but for most listening purposes, they are very satisfactory, and very enjoyable.

As a rule, loudspeaker manufacturers attempt to organize their product lines by price points. Many offer a “bookshelf” speaker for several hundred dollars to meet basic needs. PSB’s Alpha B1 costs $300 for the pair, and you’ll find a similar pair from Peachtree Audio, their SX60, for $350 to $400, and these compete with Monitor Audio’s Bronze 2, currently marked down from $500 to $378–all of these speakers are/were available from Audio Advisor, a leading web direct marketer, alongside speakers and other audio gear at prices from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.

Here's an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

Here’s an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

I put “bookshelf” in quotation marks because you should NOT place these small speakers in a bookshelf because they will not very good. Instead–and here’s the first of many lessons learned from audiophiles–allow several feet of open space around the loudspeakers so that nearby surfaces do not reflect the sound. Initially, this may sound like complete nonsense, and admittedly, you may not hear any substantial degradation in a low-priced stereo system, but once you do notice, you’ll be redesigning your listening area until you eliminate the uncomfortable sound. Since loudspeakers cannot be suspended from mid-air, you will want to invest at least $100 in loudspeaker stands for your bookshelf loudspeakers. Or, you will want to invest in tower speakers–larger rectangles that are several feet high and often represent a step-up in sound quality (and price). More on that upgrade in an upcoming article.

One further note: the placement of loudspeakers matters. A lot. An expensive pair of speakers can sound just awful if they are not carefully placed. And an inexpensive pair of speakers can sound surprisingly good if they are in the optimum position within the listening area. To begin, nothing should be closer than a foot from any wall or large piece of furniture, and ideally, two or three feet. Then, imagine an equilateral triangle with you at one point, the left speaker at another, and the right speaker at another. Generally, the front panel of those speakers should face you very directly. (Avoid the temptation to angle the speakers.) Why bother? The stereo effect will be far stronger: instruments and vocalists will suddenly become clear and distinct images–the bassist over there, the piano over there, the singer center stage, etc. It’s an amazing thing–the way even modest loudspeakers can “image” when they are properly placed. And yes, you may need to do some rearranging of furniture for the optimum effect. If your loudspeakers sounded better in the store, placement is probably the secret sauce. Experimentation is part of the process because every room is different and because furniture, carpeting and other stuff affect the traveling sound waves as they move from the loudspeakers to your ears. Despite what others in the household may say, this process is always worth the time and trouble–and is often a good reason to find a room where you can be left alone to listen to your music.

Do you need new speakers? Your money may go further if you purchase a high quality pair of used speakers–but you must choose very carefully.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeaker on eBay for $490. You'll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers--we'll cover that in a future article--but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment--also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeakers on eBay for $490. You’ll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers–we’ll cover that in a future article–but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment–also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

If $350 is within your budget, you might also consider a pair of used loudspeakers purchased from a very reliable local dealer. It is not unreasonable to search for a pair of twenty year old loudspeakers that may have cost up to $1,000–offering a great deal more quality–but the search may require several months of patient web searches and store visits, and some driving (figure a 100-300 mile radius, even if you live near several large cities). You’ll need to study to find the manufacturers whose products were reliable, high quality, and available in the used marketplace–and, unfortunately, information on the web is neither consistent nor abundant on these topics. If you have a friend who cared about loudspeakers in the 1990s or 2000s, a joint exploration is recommended. And I cannot emphasize the importance of a very reliable, trustworthy dealer quite enough. If you’re willing to take the time, you could certainly explore these and other quality brands: Thiel (for some ears), Magnepan (flat panel speakers employing a unique technology), Dynaudio (extremely accurate), KEF (good all-around), B&W (now marketing as Bowers & Wilkins), Celestial (good all around), and the list goes on (please add your favorites in the comments area below).

If you want to dig deeper, spend some time exploring this historical survey of superior audio equipment. It’s part of a massive website published by the longtime high-end (expensive, fine-sounding) stereo enthusiast magazine, Stereophile.

To some extent, the loudspeakers you find in the U.S. may be similar to those found in the U.K., France, Germany or Japan. Each region of the world has its own loudspeaker makers, and remember: the larger the speaker, the more costly the shipping. In the U.S., you will find a lot of European speakers and a lot of American-made speakers, but the selection is likely to be more local in other countries.

Now that we’ve got the loudspeakers, we’ll need to purchase an amplifier, perhaps an integrated amplifier to start. That’s coming up next.

 

 

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 1)

Somehow, stereophonic sound has survived. The excitement began in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s when consumers could buy their own stereo record albums and their own stereo turntables. By the 1970s, many college students and music lovers owned their own stereo systems: a receiver, a turnable, and a pair of matching loudspeakers. We were quick to point out that a “turntable” was not a “record player”– a turntable contains a spinning platter, a tone arm, a phono cartridge, and within the cartridge, a tiny stylus (replacing what had previously been called a “needle”). A receiver, by the way, serves multiple purposes: it is an AM/FM radio tuner, a phono stage (to amplify the modest signal emanating from the phono cartridge), a pre-amplifier (to amplify the signal coming from the tuner, and later, from the add-on cassette or CD player), and an amplifier (a more powerful set of circuits to energize the loudspeakers). Early audiophiles incorporated a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, which allowed recording of radio broadcasts and LPs, and live performances–the first time these capabilities were available to non-professionals. Some audiophiles purchased  headphones so they could listen without disturbing others, an old-school courtesy enabled by a technology that was considered somewhat exotic at the time. Nowadays, the tuner is hardly a necessity, the cassette or tape recorder has been bypassed by the digital revolution which eats its young (CDs and DVDs are enjoying their final productive years), but the turntable is in the midst of a resurgence, and headphones have never been more popular.

Here's a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

Here’s a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

By the 1980s, this system might have included an audiocassette deck in place of the reel-to-reel recorder, and a Graphic Equalizer–an elaborate set of tone controls that allowed listeners to emphasize or de-emphasize treble (high tones), mid-range, and bass. Generally, systems like the one above were intended for people who listened to rock music–electric guitars, deep bass, powerful drums. If the room was shaking but nothing was tumbling from the shelves, then the bass was not sufficiently powerful.

Today, two-channel stereo is simpler, more elegant, and sounds a whole lot better than it did in the 1970s. If you’re unearthing a system from somebody’s basement or attic, you might consider an upgrade, but most people will be happier with the sound that a new system can provide.

Basically, you need a pair of loudspeakers, an amplifier, and a turntable with a good new cartridge. And some cables (the quality of the cables affects the quality of the sound; more about that later). Some loudspeakers contain built-in amplifiers, allowing for a very simple setup. Most people do not buy a CD player–unless you’re sitting on a nice collection of discs. And most people don’t need an AM/FM tuner–but some people enjoy listening to a particular FM station. And so, most people do not require a stereo receiver–unless the system is intended to double as the center of a home theater (a role that can be performed, quite adequately, by a two-channel stereo). No need for a remote control either.

So let’s start simple. As this series of articles progresses, there will be ample opportunity to spend a thousand dollars, five thousand, ten thousand, and more. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with a nice, new, modest system for $500. Visits to just two web sites take care of business:

at_lp120_usb_1_sqa2_plus_r-front_lbl3

The first is Audio-Technica, a long-time maker of turntables, phono cartridges, headphones, microphones and other gear. Take a look at the AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive turntable. Buy it directly from the manufacturer for $249 (if you shop around, you won’t find it for much less). This particular turntable is unusual because it contains a small phono pre-amp (see above) so you won’t need an intermediate piece of equipment to plug it into a pair of powered loudspeakers. Which ones? Try the A2 Powered Desktop Speakers from AudioEngine— they also cost $249 direct from the manufacturer. If you want something that sounds better (more detail, more presence, clearer treble and bass, more punchy bass), move up to the A5+, found on the same website. The lower priced model is available in the nifty red color and black or white; the higher priced model is available with a wood veneer, or black or white.

So we’ve begun. And you can start listening to LPs with your new stereo system before the holiday. As we proceed, we’ll listen to a lot of music, spend a lot of money, and concentrate on the many reasons why investments in quality sound reproduction make so many people happy.

As a further inducement–you can buy LPs for just a few dollars. Sure, the ones in Barnes & Noble cost over $20, but that’s high-end, heavy duty vinyl, the latest in a long series of record industry schemes to collect more money from consumers. I ignore most of them. Instead, I seek out the best of dozens of old school record stores because many of them sell LPs, in very good condition, for five dollars or less. Classical albums are especially difficult for the stores to sell, so many of them cost even less. (Collectible rock and jazz albums cost more.) There is much to be said for used LPs from a reliable retailer–and much to be said for giving your used records a bath (being careful not to wet the paper label or to scrub too hard when drying them). As this series progresses, I promise to tell you where to find these stores, and the best online sources, too.

Much more to come. I hope this series turns out to be helpful to you.

An Exuberant New Thing

Sly and Famly StoneA few months back, I found an old album by Sly and the Family Stone. They were a group I liked, but I never knew much about them. Next year marks fifty years (!) since Sly formed the multi-racial band, so now’s a good time to dig deeper.

By 1967, Sly (a boyhood friend misspelled Sylvester as Slyvester; the nickname stuck with him) was 26 years old, a San Francisco disc jockey on a soul station who played music from both Black and White artists. Sly had already produced several minor hit songs, formed and performed in several local band including the multi-ethnic Viscaynes. Times were changing very quickly—especially in the Bay Area—and Sly was well-connected because his influence via radio station KSOL was growing.

The first album by Sly and the Family Stone didn’t do much on the charts, but it’s clever, innovative, funky, and a whole lotta fun. The first single, “Underdog” starts out with a slow version of “Frere Jacques,” then rolls into a rap-like rhythm supported by power horns and a chanting chorus. There’s some gospel in there, too. Listen: this is fifty years old, but it sounds fresh, not at all dated. “I Cannot Make It” is the other popular track from 1967’s A Whole New Thing, and it opens with a vocal similar to “I am the Walrus” (same year). And then, the hits start coming—you probably know just about every one of them because they’ve never really left the world stage.

The fun begun with “Dance to the Music”—#8 on the Billboard Pop Chart and #9 on the Billboard R&B Chart—“listen to the voices!” with that screaming voice, the little bobbing a capella voices, the low down deep voice, the jumping back and forth between Stax, Motown, psychedelia, the big horn section, the get-up-and-dance, the complex jumping back and forth between musical ideas, in just three minutes. These guys are having such a great time making a new kind of music—and the public loves it! Black listeners (#9 on the Billboard R&B charts) and White listeners, too (#8 on the Billboard Pop Charts). The energy is so rich, so contagious—and still so free from the rigidity of corporate music production (that comes later). “Fun” from 1968 keeps the grove — “When I party, I party hearty, fun is on my mind, put a smile upon your face…there’s a sister there’s a brother having fun with each other”— driven by the kind of free-style audio production that looked beyond the traditional concepts of musical arrangements and formality. “ “M’Lady” sounds like a party going on. “Life” is a carnival that begins with a barker, then two, laughing at each other, big horns, a gigantic consciousness raising high—“Life – tell it like it is— you don’t have to die before you live!!”

Y4CDSS006The youthful exuberance is gone, the social awareness is increasing, the production is slicker by 1969’s “Stand” — “you’ve been sitting much too long—there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong!” – “there’s a midget standing tall, and a giant beside him about to fall!” It feels a bit dated, a golden oldie, a solid memory but the controlled chaos and the crazy audio production is a thing of the past. From the same album (called Stand), there’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People”— probably the group’s high water mark— and both of those songs bind the no-holds-barred past with the glossier, socially consciousness future. The same album’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (same lyric, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger”) is a sincere push toward revolution.

And the hits just kept on coming: “You Can Make It If You Try”— the band’s optimism was always a joy— and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are wonderful, timeless in their way. And now we’re having fun: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and the anthem, “Everybody Is a Star.” That’s all pre-1970. A lot happened in just three years.

With the 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On, The Family Stone reminds us of its roots with “Family Affair” — very AM-radio friendly, positive, bringing the community together in the best way: “One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn” “Newlywed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out” “Nobody wants to be left out” “You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there” — a warm, cozy number that feels dated, but, it’s sincere. That song reached #1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. There’s a similar song called “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” that’s more ambitious, kinda jazzy and bluesy, and although it charted, too, it’s not a song most people remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of the songs that followed on the charts from 1971 through 1975.

Those later songs are very good—some are vaguely familiar—but they lack the early energy. Instead, there’s a laid back funk, very appealing combinations of electric guitar and horns, a funky stoner groove that’s easy to enjoy time and again, decades after it was produced. It feels original, not at all derivative because the band always led, rarely followed. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the later material, and how nicely it has stood multiple plays while tooling down highways that did not exist when this music was made.

So what happened to Sly and the Family Stone? Trouble became evident as early as 1969 when a combination of influence from Black militants and the drug culture destroyed key creative relationships. By 1970, Epic Records gave up on the possibility of a promised (contracted) new album and released an early Greatest Hits album to keep the market alive. By 1975, the group’s fans had abandoned the possibility of Sly and his band actually showing up for concerts—a big show at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall left most tickets unsold. The downhill slide continued—the sad story is well-told in a Wikipedia article.

Certainly, music historians have written about the huge influence of Sly on several generations of artists, how rap and hip hop trace back to Sly and the Family Stone. That’s all fascinating, but the real story here is the freshness and magnetism of music produced fully a half century ago.

Can’t help but wonder. If it was 1967 today, and I was blogging, would I be writing about the amazing musicians of 1917? I’m guessing no. Sly was something special.

 

 

The Magic of Musicals, from the Inside

“Not every show has an ‘I Want’ song. Or a conditional love song, or a main event, or even an 11 o’clock number. But most do.”

The terminology may be unfamiliar, but the ideas are not.

A Broadway-style musical begins with an Overture, except when it doesn’t. Is the overture the lightning bolt that energizes the whole enterprise? Or is a divine spirit that visits a particular script, score, director, performer, ensemble, or theater?

Form matters. That’s the mantra of Jack Viertel who wrote a book with the odd title, The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows are Built. He’s the Artistic Director of Encores!, responsible for the simple re-staging of three musicals every year for Broadway-literate audiences. During the recent past, Encores! has produced and presented “1776,” Do I Hear a Waltz, Cabin in the Sky, Zorba!, Paint Your Wagon, Lady Be Good!, Fiorello!, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley—mostly shows from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. As for more recent shows, Viertel questions their meanderings away from proper form and structure.

He is a man who has helped to construct magic—his credits include Hairspray, Angels in America and After Midnight—so his opinions are both well-formed and well-informed. He has credibility. I learned a lot by reading his book, in part for professional purposes, but mostly because he’s an terrific teacher with a subject that fascinates me.
In his words: “How do you begin a show?” How does a musical greet the audience at the door? How do creative artists introduce the characters, set the tone, communicate point of view, create a sense of style, a milieu? Do you begin with the story, the subject, the community in which the story is set, the main characters?”

enmjW_the-secret-life-of-the-american-music....jpeg.220x0_q85_autocrop_crop-smart_upscaleSince overtures “have become a rarity today,” the opening number carries the weight. Originally, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum began with “a sweet little soft shoe about how romance tends to drive people nuts” but that misled the audience because the show was not about romance or charm, but instead, a boisterous vaudevillian take on three Roman comedies. Critics and audiences don’t enjoy mixed messages, so the reviews were lousy and the audiences stayed away. The creative team—a top-notch group that included Larry Gelbart, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Burt Shevelove—didn’t know what to do. They asked director Jerome Robbins what he thought. He asked Sondheim (music, lyrics) to write something “neutral… Just write a baggy pants number and let me stage it.” Viertel: “He didn’t want anything brainy or wisecracking, but he did want to tell the audience exactly what it was in for: lowbrow slapstick carried out by iconic character types like the randy old man, the idiot lovers, the battle-axe mother, the wiley slave and other familiar folks. Sondheim wrote “Comedy Tonight” as a typically bouncy opening number, but he couldn’t resist his clever muse, and so, the “neutral” number’s lyrics go like this:

Pantaloons and tunics,

Courtesans and eunuchs,

Funerals and chases,

Baritones and basses,

Panderers,

Philanderers,

Cupidity,

Timidity…

You get the idea. (Go listen to the song! It’s terrific.)
Another show provides the textbook example of Broadway construction. The opening scene in Gypsy is a mirror image of the closing conceit—and both are built around the song, “Let Me Entertain You!” (Sondheim wrote those lyrics, too!)

Unknown.jpegAnother simulates the movement of a train pulling into River City, Iowa a century ago—serving to introduce the flimflam man named Professor Harold Hill—“Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods…look, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk, whataytalk?…”to set the stage for The Music Man. Similarly Cabaret begins with the multi-lingual “Wilkommen” and Fiddler on the Roof begins with “Tradition.”

Some shows combine the traditional role of the opening number with the inevitable song that follows, called the “I Want” song. “Good Morning Baltimore!” provides a taste of what Tracy wants in Hairspray, but A Chorus Line is more direct in its use of I Want in its opening number:

Chorus-Line-Weston.jpg

God I hope I get it.

I hope I get it.

How many people does he need…

I really need this job.

Please, God, I need this job.

I’ve got to get this job!”

hqdefaultIn Annie, the I Want song is “Maybe”– the orphan dreams of her parents. In Gypsy, the “I Want” song is “Some People,” and in “West Side Story,” it’s “Something’s Comin’” In Hamilton, it’s “My Shot.” It’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in My Fair Lady and “Somewhere That’s Green” in Little Shop of Horrors. Note the consistency of a place far away as a device to express desire—“ Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid follows the same pattern.

The conditional love song comes next—or follows shortly after. “If I Loved You” from Carousel, ”I’ve imagined every bit of him / From his strong moral fiber / To the wisdom in his head / To the homely aroma of his pipe..” sets up the unlikely romance between a gambler and a Salvation Army worker in Guys and Dolls.And now, things become complicated. (Heck, you could write a book about it…) There is “The Noise” — “a pure expression expression of energy” that’s intended to be, mostly, fun, without much consideration for story. Try, for example, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly. Then, the plot thickens, a secondary romance is introduced, unexpected obstacles, confusion that must be resolved within the next hour or so. The disappointment—a character has made an unfortunate choice. Tentpoles lead to expanded  audience expectations: “I had a dream / a dream about you, Baby! / It’s gonna come true, Baby! / They think that we’re through, but, Baby…” From at least one character’s point of view, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” but others in Gypsy have their doubts—and when the first act curtain falls, many of the characters are gone, never to be seen again.
b6d1048bcf323255f40fcaf41997abd7Gee, this is fun. Suddenly, every musical I’ve ever seen makes more sense than ever! I could go on about “The Candy Dish,” “The 11 O’Clock Number” and the construction of the ending, but that would make the whole blog article too long. Pace matters.

Buy the book. See the musical(s). If you’re in NYC, buy a ticket to “Encores!” — even if you  don’t know the show, will not be disappointed because now you’ve taken a glimpse backstage, under the hood, inside the dream. It’s all a glorious confection—characters in the midst of the most dramatic adventure of their lives stopping everything to sing their hearts out and dane a lot. Makes no logical sense. But it’s wonderful. And it’s been going on for the better part of a century. And there are people who are very, very good at this particular art form. Every once in a while, it’s nice to celebrate them.

A Spectacular Thousand-Year Journey

Wayfaring StrangerEvery once in a while, I’ll catch an episode of The Thistle & The Shamrock on a public radio station. Seems to me, the show has been on forever, but I’ve never thought much about the program’s title. Of course, it refers to music from Scotland and from Ireland, but that’s a very small part of the story that its host / producer tells in her new book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. (From the start, I should point out that this is a fabulous book, a work deserving of all kinds of awards and many quiet hours of reading accompanied by many more spent listening, preferably to live music.) In fact, it’s not just Ms. Ritchie’s book: storytelling and scholarly research duties are shared by an equally talented music lover, Doug Orr, whose Swannanoa Gathering is, among many good things, the place where the idea of the Carolina Chocolate Drops took shape: “they have helped revive an old African American banjo tradition that was fast disappearing.”

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

The authors of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.

Beginning in the 1600s, long before America became a nation, there was an African American banjo tradition in Appalachia. Mostly, the musicians were slaves brought to America to work on the plantations.  The “banjar” evolved from stringed instruments played in West Africa, and eventually became known as the banjo. The instrument lost its luster when it was adopted by musicians performing in blackface in minstrel shows. That’s why the old African American banjo tradition found itself in need of revival.

Of course, the term “minstrel” is rooted in a much earlier tradition. They were dancers, mimes, jugglers, wrestlers—all-around entertainers who wandered Europe, from backwoods village to royal court. By the time Christopher Columbus voyaged to the new world, that minstrel tradition was fading. By 1700, minstrels were hard to find, but the idea of a traveling musician, accompanying himself (sometimes, herself) on a stringed instrument (very portable) was taking hold. It was enabled by new technology: the printing press. Broadsides (single sheets) were printed, then sold. They covered news and opinion, and often, featured lyrics to songs meant to be sung by groups of people in public, for fun. The most popular type of song was the ballad: “a narrative poem that tells a story meant to be sung.”

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

TED Talk—actually a performance—by Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. Another link in the chain.

The serious journey begins in the North East region of Scotland known as Aberdeen. Separated from the rest of Scotland (and England beyond) by the Cairngorms to the west and the Grampian Mountains to the south, its culture was much affected by sailors who came across the North Sea from Scandinavian, Nordic and Germanic people; the trip was only a few hundred nautical miles, less than the distance from Aberdeen to London. Although this history is more than 800 years old, some of the music survives, not as museum pieces but as traditional repertoire in the Appalachian hills of the U.S., in Ireland, in Scotland, and on my stereo system. Often, the fiddle (imported to Scotland from Italy) was the instrument of choice because it was portable and versatile—but it was not without controversy (by the time it reached the Appalachians, some Baptists called it “the Devil’s instrument.” There are so many styles of fiddle playing, each broadly associated with a region: the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, Highland fiddle and its kin heard on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, which would be the Acadian fiddling that makes its way down to New Orleans with the corruption of the term Acadian now called Cajun.

“Connecting hollow bones and sticks to an animal bag…” begins in primitive times. Nero played the bagpipes. It’s been traced back to early Egypt, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, and India, used by shepherds and herdsman who had easy access to the necessary materials. The troubadours of France and the minstrels of the Middle Ages made bagpipes part of the traveling show. “By the 15th century, the bagpipe had displaced the harp (!) as the instrument of choice especially in its role as a call to battle.”

The trail of connections extends over an extremely wide portion of time and space. These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The connection between Sweden and North Carolina is, perhaps, not so far as anyone might think.

These contemporary Swedish musicians play on the nyckelharpa and harp. The distance between Sweden and North Carolina may not be so far after all. Click to watch a performance video.

About 8,000 years ago, people began traveling the narrow channel between Scotland and Ireland. Of course, they brought their music along. “Common language, common culture, the whole fiddle tradition, and the whole music tradition is all very, very similar and connected. The history and the geography have all played a part in it. You know the shamrock, the rose and the thistle—meaning the three—England, Scotland, and Ireland—all contribute to what we know call the Ulster song tradition…,” explained Irish traditional singer and song collector when he was interviewed by the authors at the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina.

Some had heard of the land far across the Sea of Green Darkness, the Ocean Sea, the Western Ocean, the Sea of Perpetual Gloom. Some knew of the early Viking passages to to Vinland, now Newfoundland. In 1717, Ulster Scots (Scots who had migrated to Ulster) were beginning to migrate to Boston, and in 1729, the first Highland Scots were arriving in Cape Fear, North Carolina. In 1745, Andrew Presley travels from Aberdeen to North Carolina; 190 years later, his family tree would include the birth of Elvis Presley. In 1768, James Ritchie and his five brothers set sail from Liverpool and eventually settle in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas; in 1922, Appalachian singer, song collector and scholar Jean Ritchie is born to a branch of the family well-established in southeastern Kentucky. In the 1770s, Doc Watson’s Scottish ancestor Tom Watson leaves Edinburgh for North Carolina. As they travel, and when they settle, they sing melancholy songs about parting ways with the family left behind, sing about the hardships and the good times. Parts of their stories are reassembled by the song collectors who travel to learn them by heart, write the songs down, perform them, and record the elder folk before they, and the memories, pass.

DIVI077The authors have done just that, and so, in their way, have Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar. But the authors have accomplished more. They’ve managed to weave a very complicated story together, a saga of migration and evolution, Viking travels and minstrel shows, song fragments that survived for nearly a millennium, wonderful artists from Scottish poet Robert Burns to Kathy Mattea. There is so much love and passion for the history, the music, the instruments, the people, the land. There’s a CD bound into the back cover so you can hear the music, with every track explained in fascinating detail. There are dozens of handsome full page photographs that provide a sense of the land, plus illustrations of the instruments. Every time I wanted to know more about an interesting concept, I’d turn the page and find a very comprehensive briefing on, for example, “The Ceili, or Ceilidh” (a social event with music that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland); the dulcimer; “Child ballads” (Scots and Irish ballads classified by Harvard Professor Francis James Child, and often referred to by their numbers). I had never heard of The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. but now I understand its importance. Before Ellis Island, Philadelphia was the American point of entry for most immigrants from Ulster. They’d travel this early highway west and then south, ferrying across the Susquehanna River to Winchester, Virginia (home of Patsy Cline) and the Shenandoah Valley and on to the Yadkin Valley terminus in North Carolina (think in terms of today’s Boone, NC); Daniel Boone extended the trail to what became the Wilderness Road out to Kentucky’s Cumberland Gap.

When I first noticed this book, I figured I’d learn something about music history. Certainly, the authors covered that territory with great skill. That was only the starting point. I’m reminded that there is no such thing as music history, just as there is no such thing as art history or political history. Everything is intertwined. It’s an unbroken circle.

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians."

Here’s a good look at a sample spread. On the left, several string band instruments with a story of a North Carolina mill owner whose factory was the largest blanket manufacturer in the world. He hired a local musician to entertain employees during breaks and picnics. Apparently happy employees were less likely to unionize. These days, the town is home to the Swannanoa Gathering, a large festival and workshop celebrating Scots, Irish and traditional music. On the right is Mike Seeger, who “dedicated his life to singing and playing southern traditional mountain music…He discovered and assisted many old time musicians.”

 

 

Night at the Operas

If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.

DSC01491loc-grande-guerra-page-001-344x1024Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.

DSC01752That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorussopranonarrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.

DSC01772It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804).  Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.

DSC01499The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.

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