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First Person

Memory's True Voice Is Rich in Emotion

The elusive quest for the thrilling sounds once heard from vinyl records might as well require a time machine.

September 13, 2002|ALAN G. ARTNER | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

For the last few months I've been engaged in chasing after a quality of sound that, at times, seems to be only in my head.

Musicians know the frustration of inwardly hearing a sound they cannot elicit from others or create themselves. Conductor Arturo Toscanini threw tantrums, once nearly putting out the eye of a violinist who did not realize the sound he wanted, and Wilhelm Furtwangler so regularly spat on unresponsive players during rehearsals that some talked of getting umbrellas.

I felt such frustration as a piano student when the touch giving the right sound failed me, which was often. That happened decades ago, and I did not expect another flare-up; my piano long has stood, getting more and more out of tune, with keyboard covered. But recently an ailing old CD player expired, and the aftermath brought back disagreeable emotion.

The CD player was replaced months ago. I have since auditioned many other pieces of equipment, with so much craving and so little satisfaction that I'm desperate for a fix and have considered spending an appalling amount of money to get it. The other day I caught myself looking over plane and train schedules for trips to Amherst, Mass., and Vestal, N.Y. My aural nirvana was said to be in the one place or the other.

I may as well have made a reservation on a time machine, as I'm trying to recapture a sound I first heard long ago, when a child.

Then it came from vinyl records that thrilled me beyond imagining. Compact discs made me sick from the start. They denied the qualities that hooked me on classical music. A warm, plush, velvety string tone, for example, produces in me physiological changes like nothing else. To trigger those changes at will was, I know, what kept me returning to recorded music.

I began to collect LPs because the tone created in certain performances effected more changes than did others. It was that simple. The strength of my experience came equally from quality of tone and how that tone was employed in the tension and release of music.

I did not know at the time, but the performers who most stimulated me--Leopold Stokowski, Clifford Curzon, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich--were all great colorists. Color gives character to music by conveying shades of feeling.

Recorded and live sound are, of course, different. But once I began to hear concerts by the artists I admired, they substantiated the character of the artists' recorded tones, which was as personal as a fingerprint.

I've gone to concerts regularly--meaning weekly, and for a time, several each week--for almost 40 years, hearing all the performers whose recordings I collected. So although most of the artists are now dead, their individual tonal characteristics still are with me, having been imprinted by records, reinforced by concerts and reconfirmed by concert tapes, many of the same events I attended.

My first CD player, an expensive one for 1984, immediately sent me into withdrawal by reducing all colors--which is to say, the artists' tonal personalities--to a range of gray and reproducing them coldly like brushed aluminum. All the players I heard did that, but the gleam sounded brighter at my house because of an earlier switch from a tube receiver to one of solid state. More than 20 years ago, next to nobody acknowledged the difference in sound between them, and for some who did, a loss of radiance was made up for by a gain in clarity.

I did not have much hope, then, for a new player. It would be mainly to hear discs by current performers too good to abandon. Yet because for decades I have purchased electronics from a man who is as much therapist as audio dealer, I was overtaken by a rush of agreeable sensation from his first recommendation and, tears streaming down my face, found myself responding to discs I had given up for barely presenting shadows of a true aural experience.

There began the trouble.

If certain artists could be reclaimed from CDs, might I also get more of them from the 15,000 LPs that had their tone hardened by my receiver? The next step was clear: Find a pre-amplifier to be used only with the CD player and first-rate headphones. Then it would be easy to work upward from its warming effect to an amplifier with like qualities and, if necessary, new speakers.

On the way, the people I've met speak largely in initials and numbers, comparing, for example, the C42 to the 385, with an occasional whisper of the MC2105. Collectors say I can get the sound I want from vintage equipment of the 1960s. Audiophiles say technology today cannot be bettered. Gadgeteers say I should buy a machine to vacuum the interference from electricity that is dirtier now than it was in the 1960s.

For a while, the collectors held sway. To attempt to reproduce the string tone once heard from Stokowski records--I have 760 of them--I tracked down a version of the receiver I had when his LPs made on me their greatest impression. And--ah-ha!--there the sound still was, as affectingly sensuous as my nervous system had remembered. How did I not remember that winds and brass and percussion were rough, as if forced through a sieve, and became scrambled behind a muffler whenever music got loud?

In sound reproduction, as in everything else, it seems you can't go home again. But I'm not giving up. This is not about nostalgia. The sound--which, after all, is an agent of ecstasy--exists.

*

Alan G. Artner is art critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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