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The way we listen

What the Lounge music special asks is this: can we train our faculties to be tormented by the last 'lai' of a Simon & Garfunkel song with a little help from friends?

‘Sound Wave’ (2007) by Korean artist Jean Shin.
‘Sound Wave’ (2007) by Korean artist Jean Shin.

For his dazzling Pulitzer Prize-winning feature called “Pearls Before Breakfast", a decade ago, Gene Weingarten positioned the violinist Joshua Bell at a Washington, DC Metro station. Could one of the nation’s greatest classical musicians make people pause at rush hour? Would the same people who pay hundreds of dollars to listen to Bell in concert discern his musical virtuosity? His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities: “One of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made." Not too many people stopped to listen and the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was a pitiable $32.17 (around Rs2,070 now). The same year, Bell was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement.

In the experiment, a three-year-old was among the few who had strained to listen. Weingarten quotes the poet Billy Collins, who once laughingly observed that babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.

Is that true for music? Is good music objectively good? We might be hard-pressed to answer those questions. But we can train our faculties to be tormented by the last lai of a Simon & Garfunkel song with a little help from friends: technology, design, and audio equipment.

Because music, its modes and its machines, are inextricably linked, we were keen to cover both software and hardware in this music special. Many of the stories play forward from personal quests. Why not if Lounge staff and contributors include one with a collection of over 180 LPs, another who has followed Tori Amos in concert for 10 years, and an esraj player?

My story is personal too. Without some intervention, I might have been called Uranus Ghose. I was born around the same time as Sonodyne’s iconic Uranus series of music systems was launched. My father had joined the Indian electronics company straight out of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, after a brief period of bohemia, following jazz musician Louis Banks around to set up live concerts. The Kolkata-based company had started manufacturing hi-fi electronics, record turntables and loudspeakers to considerable acclaim. And they had the good fortune to be mentored by one of Bang & Olufsen’s design engineers, Subir Pramanik, whose philosophy my father distils in two words: “Choose elegance."

In the early 1980s, my father was despatched to set up the export division in Mumbai’s special economic zone. I grew up with high-fidelity sound systems in every room, with complicated controls that would convince any child to stay away from electronics in the adult life of their choosing. My father would take me to the design lab on weekends and though I felt very important being asked for feedback, my brother and I routinely begged for a normal two-in-one like everybody else. On occasion, he took me along for special consultations. I remember one audiophile’s home in Mumbai, a high-rise on the Worli seaface. The breezy, salty-aired vantage was good for everything except the audio equipment. This was a home that hosted private concerts with Chitra and the late Jagjit Singh for an audience of 10. In the listening room, everything had to be designed to retract. A low platform rose from the floor for the singers; speakers and subwoofers folded out from crevices.

For this issue, I drew from a source I trust implicitly. Here are notes from my father for a beginner audiophile.

Match your level: Strictly speaking for pure stereo sound, place your speakers—tower or otherwise—at ear level. Compact new designs propose a “shower of sounds" and suggest upward or downward tilts. But there is a purity of purpose in sitting in the ideal listening zone—between both speakers, some feet away—created by a two-channel stereo. The input should be LP.

Manage your reflection: You do not need to buy the best new acoustic dampers in the market. To control sound reflection, opt for fabric and wood furniture over metal or acrylic. Adopt curtains, avoid sheers. Use at least a thin carpet.

Choose your power: Passive speakers with an external amplifier or powered speakers could both work—don’t let anyone tell you it has to be the former. If you’re primarily listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi or Schubert with little need for amplified bass, you could do without a subwoofer. Listen without prejudice. The most important aspect of an authentic listening experience is to block out the white noise. Outside and inside.

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