The Friday Morning Listen: David Bowie – Low (1977)

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When’s the last time you put some music on, sat down, and just listened? Disqualify yourself if you: read a magazine/book, turned on the television, played a video game, checked your email, texted somebody. I bet it’s been a while, eh? What’s that? You’ve never done it? Hey, don’t feel bad. I bet you’re in the vast majority of listeners. With the advent of so many hand-held devices, people have become quite used to having music everywhere. What doesn’t seem as important anymore is the quality of the sound. Even if a person owns a pair of swank headphones or earbuds (yes, there are swank earbuds), the music listened to is often of the lossy mp3 variety. Clearly people have moved toward the convenience side of things.

Sound quality used to be a big deal. In fact, an entire industry bloomed from the notion that fidelity to the original sound was all-important. Yessir, in the early days of “Hi-Fi,” people (OK, it was mostly guys) would lay down sizable chunks of money to equip their listening environments with the latest in loudspeaker technologies, turntables, and tube amplification. Like any other subset of the home entertainment world, there were plenty of fads. The best one might have been quadrophonic sound. Ooooh, four channels. Oooooh, four speakers! The funny thing is that when stereo was first introduced, that was considered a fad (wrong). Years later, multi-channel sound made a comeback of sorts, though this time it was in the home theatre. This was scoffed at by the stereo purists, who thought that their preferred method was more “natural.”

The truth is that it’s really hard to say what “natural” really means in this context, since stereo is really a kind of technological trick: the left and right channels are re-combined to produce a single audio image. On better systems, the effect can be striking, producing an audio hologram. On my system (which does indeed have a turntable and tube amplifiers) this effect is most pronounced when listening to solo acoustic music. It seems like a person is sitting there in the room playing for you.

But is that “natural”? Is there something more? Take for example, this Beck Sound and Vision thing. In a stunning collaboration (for the Lincoln Motor Company) with director Chris Milk, Beck “reimagines” David Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” for a 170-piece, binaurally-recorded orchestra. Add to that the 360-degree cameras and you can put yourself right int the middle of the action. Instead of listening to music that’s “over there,” you can be completely surrounded by it.

I’m usually the one who brings the skepticism when it comes to technology but I have to say that this is pretty cool stuff. And while the video part was amazing, I’m more interested in the audio. After experiencing Beck’s video, just imagine listening to one of your favorite albums recorded in such a way: with you standing right in the middle of the band.

Not “natural”? Eh, who knows?! It sure would be fun though. Maybe if this kind of thing became more popular, people would sit down to listen again? Would you?

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