The Acoustics Of Christmas Eve MusicTuesday, December 24, 2013
A bar holiday may be tinged with melancholy, but it’s a sweet sort of melancholy. (Its tone is captured perfectly, I’m compelled to say, in John Denver and Rowlf the Dog’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” on the “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together” TV special in 1979.)
This very record (we have it as both a record and as a CD) is my family’s favourite music to open presents by the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. We follow (as I am originally from Argentina and my daughters were born in Mexico) the custom of celebrating nochebuena and leaving Christmas day as a day to stay in bed, do nothing except eat Belgian chocolates and Spanish marzipan.
But there is another piece of music that is dear to my heart for Christmas. This is Vivaldi’s Gloria (he wrote two) RV 589.
I first heard it a few days before Christmas in Mexico City. It might have been 1973. This was the year that my friend Jorge Urrechaga told me my sound system was not adequate. What hackers do now, Urrechaga did then with smuggling. He had a transistor amplifier(one of the first at the time) that banged over 50 watts per channel RMS. The brand was Acoustic Research and the amplifier had a brass front piece (I like the word escutcheon) and exactly five knobs. It was beautiful. Urrechaga harped on the idea that Acoustic Research with its amplifiers, turntables (I bought the lovely XA-1) and speakers would reproduce music accurately. Urrechaga sold me (cheap) that AR amplifier.
I like to think that the age of enlightenment which began in the latter part of the 17th century and ended in the beginning of the 19th represented an age of scientific discovery and where the idea that all was knowable and possible produced an explosion of activity in which man was the center of all things. I like the sound of the Alejo Carpentier’s version of the term enlightenment as Siglo de las Luces (the century of lights) and the name of one of his most famous novels which follows the first appearance of a French guillotine in the West Indies.
The idea of a century of lights and of the fact that the music of the time was the early baroque and the baroque, produces in my ears, when I listen to Vivaldi’s Gloria, an explosion of positive thinking. Christmas music should give us cheer and hope and baroque music has that in spades.
In the beginning of the 1980 I did not lock my front door. This was a habit. I paid the penalty in that someone walked in one night and took my CD collection and my Acoustic Research AR-3A speakers. The insurance company replaced them with JBL monitors that were supposed to be better. I have never been that sure.
I find the present situation of musical sound suspect. I cannot understand how music can sound at its best with ear buds and with that sound coming out from a digital phone. I do not buy the idea of “enhanced” sound or “enhanced deep bass”. Nor do I accept the idea that music has to come from all sides.
It was on Sunday’s The Bach Cantata Project brought by Early Music Vancouver at the Chan that my idea was further reinforced.
I was centre-front row and very close to violinist Marc Destrubé and his superb group of musicians who specialize in baroque music placed in period instruments.
One of the warmest but most delicate sounding (as in never loud) was Ray Nurse’s lute. And yet while surrounded by a loud baroque chamber organ, a couple of cellos, a bassoon, etc I could hear that lute.
Back in the middle of that cavernous Chan Centre I am sure the lute could not compete.
Baroque music is music to be heard in a large living room or a king’s chamber. Earbuds will not create the reverberation of a chamber’s walls no matter how good your surround sound is.
If I am to follow the path of the now defunct Boston Sound of Acoustic Research I need to be facing a wall of sound coming to me from the front and I will accept that some of it will pass through and bounce back.
At the same time I want to be able to hear that violin, that viola, that cello and the bass without any of those instruments being enhanced in any way. Perhaps if there are two cellos, one might be a better instrument and sound better. I don’t want to make that cello sound better (enhance it) by turning a knob.
For Christmas my eldest daughter will no longer listen to music in her Lillooet home through the tiny speakers of her computer. She will have my AR amplifier and a very good used CD player that I purchased at Lotusland Electronics & Music. But there is more. As I was about to leave with the Technics CD player (perhaps not as good as a Denon I recently purchased there to replace my Sony that finally failed) I made the wrong question to the friendly associate Mitch, “You wouldn’t happen to have any AR speakers, would you?”
As a matter of fact I have these recently restored (they are 35 years old) AR-2ax speakers. We connected them and played my recently fave recording of Colin MacDonald playing Handel with a baritone sax in a trio with a harpsichordist and a cellist. I was blown away by the presence of the sound.
I have been listening to them now for a week as my JBLs are in the basement. My daughter Ale will not note the difference when we open presents on Christmas Eve. The ARs are about the same size. At some point once I give her the amplifier and CD player I will tell her, “You might was as well take my speakers, too.”
My heart will be wrenched but my JBLs will do just fine.