Music Monday: Three Short Reviews

I am starting to feel a tiny bit of urgency that perhaps I have not accomplished as much over break as I had wanted. This ordinarily wouldn’t bother me much — after all, it’s a break — but I have a feeling that this semester is going to be a bit of a doozy in terms of work, unpredictability, and stress. 

With this in mind, I need both some good music and a short blog post and it happens that there are three albums that I’m really enjoying these days.

First, like half the world, I’ve been transfixed by Hasaan Ibn Ali’s Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album. Ali was a Philadelphia based pianist who is sometimes seen as one of the “invisible hands” in the jazz world. His sound apparently inspired Coltrane and, in particular, influenced his “sheets of sound” approach which he refined when he relocated to Philadelphia. I’m not so sure about this, but Ali’s music absolutely shares the kind of dense, sometimes stuttering, sometimes soaring, character of early 1960s Coltrane and offers the contemporary listener a challenging but exceptionally rewarding listen.

Second, for the last year or so, I’ve been interested in Daniel Carter. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who came out of the 1970s New York loft-jazz scene. His most recent album, New York United, Volume 2, with a bunch of forward-looking electronic musicians blends Carter’s avant-garde playing with roots in the free jazz movement with the more driving drums, bass, and electronic beats. I haven’t spent enough time in New York to say whether this album embodies the sounds of the city, but it certain coincides with how I imagine New York sounding or feeling.

Finally, I’ve really enjoyed Adam O’Farrill’s Visions of the Other. O’Farrill is the third generation of the great O’Farrill Cuban jazz dynasty, but rather than continuing the trajectory of Cuban jazz (a completely honorable trajectory though it may be), Adam has crafted his own style. Visions of the Other with its emphasis on complex melodies, room for improvisation, and laid back sound (at least compared to Ali’s Metaphysics!) feels like contemporary jazz. It was neither boring nor predictable and seemed always ready to draw you into the music deeper than you ever expected. 

One last thing… I had to immense pleasure of listening to these albums with a brand new set of tubes in my stereo amplifier. In a vacuum tube stereo amp, tubes are a bit like the tires on a car. You can tell when they’re getting old and worn, but as long as they continue to do their job, it’s hard to justify changing them. When you finally do change them, the change is remarkable and you rue that you waited so long to make the change. My amp went from tired, but obedient to dynamic and rich almost instantly (and the power tubes, I’m assuming, will take a while to completely “burn in” and settle down). Some of this might be attributed to the new signal tubes which were a bit of an upgrade over the last set, but I suspect more than anything, it is that the new power tubes (KT120s) are happier being driven at full throttle than the previous set that were struggling to hold bias.

One thing that struck me immediately was the improved soundstage. My main system consists of a pair of Zu Omen Def (Mark II) and Zu Undertone subwoofers. These are full range driver speakers with super tweeters and they tend to be a bit beamy (that is have a limited sweet spot where the full stereo effects are audible). With my new tubes, however, the beaminess dissipated and while I can’t say the speakers disappeared, they certainly faded into the background a bit more than usual. I suspect this is because the amplifier was provided more low mid-range and upper bass where so much of spatial information is embedded (and I know my room has a bit of a mode in the low mid-range, say 300 hz, and upper bass).   

The Political Ecology of Recorded Music

I listen to a ton of music, mostly in various digital format — CDs, downloads, and streams — but I do so through a occasionally painfully anachronistic system that involves vacuum tube amplification and single-driver, paper-cone speakers and enough cables to stress my wife (and my  dad, a former old-school IT guy) out. And, yes, I’m one of those guys who believes valves sound better and the best speakers are dynamic and biased toward the middle frequencies where the human voice and most instruments happen (at least at the price point where I operate). I also continue to buy and play CDs but I’ve never allowed myself to get into the so-called vinyl revival.

My stereo, then, is a very material presence in our home even when it’s playing music downloaded or stream through the internet. Kyle Devine’s book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (MIT 2019) examines the political ecology of recorded music starting with shellac disks and vinyl LPs and continuing through to modern CDs and digital music streams and downloads. 

As with so many works informed by “neomaterialist” approaches to objects, Devine shows a particular interest in the processes and materials involved in the manufacturing of recorded music. From the harvesting of lac beetle secretions and quarrying for limestone required for shellac records to the petroleum based plastics that make up vinyl LPs and CDs and their jewel cases, Devine shows how that Father John Misty is right when he sings: 

Try not to think so much about
The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record
All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining
The high gloss
The tape and the gear

Devine goes into some detail about the environmental damage and dangers faced by works in the record manufacturing industry which both left behind toxic waste and workers scarred by the process. He spends less time linking the processes involved in making an LP with the experience of playing or handling (or even destroying) a record which is a departure from a certain among of popular writing that celebrates how consumers engage with the distinctive materiality of the vinyl disk.  

The contrast between the consumer experience of materiality and the perceived immateriality of music in the 21st century (as downloads and the like) parallels a broader trends in how we understand consumer culture. On the one hand, people are becoming increasingly aware that we pay for intellectual property as much as the materials themselves. In fact, the intellectual property associated with goods and objects often shapes how we can engage with the objects themselves. Proprietary software updates, for example, can change the sonic signature of playback devices and, in some celebrated examples, prevent informal maintenance and repair on farm equipment. 

On the other hand, there’s been growing attention to the physical infrastructure that supports our download and software driven consumer culture. The human cost of the material in our portable devices which often comes from countries with poor worker safety, child labor problems, and little organized labor. Server farms generate tremendous amounts of heat and require immense quantities of power to serve music. They also reflect increasingly deterritorialized nature of consumer culture where regional and global servers work together to distribute copies of songs to devices in ways that offer only the faintest resemblance to the supply chains that produced and distributed vinyl records or plastic CDs.

Among the most interesting observations in the book is that prior to the advent of the CD (or the distribution of music digitally), record companies were organized and thought of themselves much more as manufacturing companies with significant investments in not only the production of vinyl disks, but their chemical make up and the technologies involved in their playback. A few companies, such as Sony, continue this tradition with investment in both playback technology, devices, and record labels (Columbia, RCA, as well as their own record labels). 

Today, there’s a much greater awareness of the intellectual property associated with music. The fluidity and relative ease of digital recording and distribution streamlines the relationship between a singer, a song, and its possible monetary value. In the past, however, the record companies role in manufacturing the medium through which the song circulated made the link between the song as an idea that could be monetized and the song as a commodity less direct. The medium of the recording and distribution of the music made the record company’s role in the literal manufacturing of a hit song or album much more significant and the role of the artist less distinct and clear. Today, in contrast, the success of musician-owned labels and private, independent releases on the internet shifts the emphasis from song as commodity made possible through the collaboration of the artist, recording industry, and manufacturing, to the artist as primary, if not sole, generator of value. When individuals project this contemporary view of how music generates value onto the past, it is easier to see artists as being exploited in the past, and recordings as more intellectual than material property.

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that exploitation didn’t occur. The story is well known: white musicians exploited African American artists and used their social and racial access to the manufacturing and distribution capacities of the record industry to make money for white record labels and performers. The role of ASCAP in protecting the intellectual rights of artists took on greater significance well before the internet, of course, with the radio and within the recording industry, but as the route from recording to revenue undergoes material changes in the 21st century so will the very idea of how art is valued.

A Draft of a Response to Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory”

This past week, I offered to write a response to a piece by Andrew Reinhard over at the journal Epoiesen. Having the opportunity to write a response there had been a recent bucket list thing for me since I started to work with the journal’s editor Shawn Graham to publish the paper and paginated version of the journal through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Reinhard’s piece is titled “Assemblage Theory” and it consists of a short essay and an album of music based loosely on an assemblage of found sounds. In my response, I want to probe the rest of the assemblage as a way to think about the way in which archaeology works to produce knowledge. Nothing I’m going to say is new on profound, but I hope it at least works alongside Andrew’s ideas and takes on some of what the first response to this piece (Jolene Smith, which you can read here) and Neville Morley’s noted on his blog here.

As a final note, this is just a draft. My original idea was to produce a series of statements on the piece that form an assemblage both on their own and in relation to the piece itself. As with most of my clever ideas, that one gave way to the limits of my creativity and energy, but hopefully, some parts of it persist in this roughest of rough drafts of a response.


Andrew Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” is a remarkable experiment in thinking and performing an assemblage. Sculpted from found sounds on the internet, Reinhard’s album – and the work that preceded its release (and indeed, the article that introduced it on Epoiesen) – makes visible the work of a musician, archaeologist, or individual in bringing order to the fragmented realities that surround us. The seamlessness of Reinhard’s beats does not intend to represent or reproduce the cacaphonic character of the original group of samples, but to project a kind of order on this chaos.

The smoothness of Reinhard’s final production serves as much to obfuscate the original character to the samples as it does to bring them into meaningful relationships. His description of this process evoked for me Elizabeth Freeman’s interpretation of Frankenstein in her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). When I read this work, albeit in another context, I mused that archaeologists continue to work in Victor Frankenstein’s tradition of practice: to creates a smooth digital reality that is both indistinguishable from our experience of time and inauthentic as a way of recording, understanding, and ultimately re-experiencing the past. In fact, we can argue, following Freeman, that modernity sought to create a past that eliminated the abrupt and affective character of its pastness created through awkward and profoundly human assemblages and replace it with a smooth and seamlessness experience that largely looked to the present as a point of reference, or, at very least, suggested a kind of familiar, future utopian reality (a Foucauldian heterotopia). Reinhard’s selective remixing of these samples offered an approach to smoothing our disjointed encounter with the past. In fact, out ability to recognize constituent parts of these songs is lost entirely as Smith has already noted in her response. This, however, is a common feature of our  diverse, digital, post-industrial and post modern world which so often seeks to eliminate the jarring disjunctions that the seams between parts of the assemblage become all the more intense and, as the tragic humanity of Frankenstein’s monster demonstrates, real.

Reinhard, like Victor Frankenstein, is honest about how he shaped and presented his assemblage; he drew on traditional pop song structure and accentuated the sounds that evoked contemporary guitar rock, beats drawn from trap, house, and EDM, as well as other sonic conventions. These various structures are part of this assemblage as well, and it is probably safe to assume that these structures allowed Reinhard to anticipate his music while identifying sounds on the internet. Hayden White, for example, famously argued that a series of tropes and forms of employment shaped the way that historians produced narratives, explained causality, and produced assemblages of evidence. Neville Morley’s response to Reinhard’s piece reminded us that pop sensibilities are only one potential way to emplot this assemblage.  

Despite Morley’s critique, which Reinhard invited by making his original assemblage available for examination, Reinhard’s arrangement still models our own approach to archaeological knowledge making. Narratives of all sorts prefigure the assemblages that we encounter in archaeology. These narratives and processes constitute parts of these assemblages the same way that a traditional pop melody or familiar sound on the web prefigured the songs possible at Reinhard’s deft hands. As Neville Morley has show, different hands introduce different elements to the assemblage and Reinhard’s generosity with his samples has resulted in at least one new encounter with some of the same basic elements. This reading of Reinhard’s project accepts the ontological integrity of the samples that Reinhard used in his songs. We can all agree that they exist and that they are things and as such they can be combined with other things which range from narratives, song structures, technology, and experiences.

By making the samples of one song available, Reinhard allowed us to play along with him and to create our own music from a common pool of sonic artifacts. Among archaeologists, however, this kind of generosity remains relatively rare; the fact that Reinhard only released the artifacts from ONE song parallels neatly the tendency among archaeologists to feint toward transparency and openness in analysis while holding back certain key elements of the interpretative process. Historically, archaeologists were loath to release their notebooks which were often the personal property of the scholar. More recently, archaeologists have acknowledged that their deep experience in the landscape, with particular methods, and across the social relationships that shape fieldwork formed as vital a part of the archaeological assemblage as the carefully documented ceramic sherds and stratigraphic relationships.     

Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” also invites us to think about the elements in the assemblage that served to mediate our encounter with it. In fact, the emerging field of media archaeology considers the way in which both the physical and conceptual structures of media impact our engagement with our environment, the past, and the present.  

When I first read Reinhard’s piece, I clicked through to Spotify and dutifully clicked on the first track. The website played the first 30 seconds of the song and then went to the next song on the album. I didn’t think much of it because I wasn’t really that concerned with the length of the songs. After two or three tracks, however, I discovered that because I don’t have a Spotify account, I could only hear the first 30 second of each song. That was a bummer, and apparently this also influenced the first responder to this article’s listening to the tracks

I then emailed Reinhard and he let me know that the album was also available on on Tidal. I then played it on my MacBook Pro and though it sounded interesting enough to cue it up on the stereo that lives in my main room. Through by much larger and more sophisticated stereo the sound seemed a bit muddled: the big bass in a few songs (like “Trappist”) seemed smear across the other sounds on the track, and the entire album just felt too damn loud. To be clear, I was listening to the album over an Auralic Mini music streamer that outputs to a Schiit Bifrost DAC through a pair of Audioquest RCA cables into a 60 watt vacuum-tube Audio Research Corporation amplifier that drives a pair of Zu Omen Defs, which are paper-cone, full range driver speakers flanked by a pair of super quick, 400 watt Zu Undertone subwoofers. This system loves small ensemble jazz, carefully recorded rock music, and acoustic stuff. In fact, sometimes when I play loud, boomy music especially through the streamer, the bass get a bit sloppy for some reason. To try to listen to the music more carefully, I also played it over my little office system which consists of two powered Yamaha studio monitors and a thumpy little subwoofer that sits under my desk. It sounded tighter and every bit as loud as on my home system, but perhaps not as big. When I played the version of the album that Reinhard sent to me as .wav files through my Sony music player (a HAP-Z1ES). It cleared up most of the boomy-ness for whatever reason.

All of this is to point out that this sculpted assemblage of samples also consists of a complex series of technologies, services, and environments that mediate our encounter with all parts of the assemblage from their transmission to the relationship between the various component parts. We can probably assume that the sound that we hear is similar enough to what Reinhard created to form the basis for a meaningful conversation, but even across my various listening environments there is plenty of room to quibble about how the assemblage actually works. At the same time, we can recognize in the LOUDNESS of the tracks (their compressed dynamic range) a sonic artifact of the late-20th and early-21st century. Reinhard’s album has a dynamic range of around 6 db, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories was around 8 db, but could be as high as 13 on vinyl. The most flagrantly loud album in my playlist is Oasis’s 1995 What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? with a dynamic range of about 5db.

What we can understand, however, is how companies and individuals have succeeded at monetizing various elements in this assemblage. Sometimes this is overt, such as when we have to sign up to listen to a particular music service which then records our listening habits to compensate (barely) musicians and to serve us advertising. At present, we only have access to this music through a series of music services whose future is far from certain. The formats through which this music is distributed – whether in the rather more “raw” .wav file or through such compressed formats as FLAC, ALAC, or MP3 – may prove as ephemeral as 8-track tapes, DATs, or mini discs, or as persistent as LPs. Archiving these tracks so that both Reinhard’s and this article makes sense in the future is not as simple as saving the music files to a repository, but must also extend to preserving the various subsidiary formats and even devices through which these songs could be heard. As Raiford Guin’s has shown with video games, playing these games is more than just the source code, but involves the experience of the arcade or the home gaming system, the haptics of the controllers, the look of the CRT monitor or television, and even the art on the game cartridge or cabinet.    

Sometimes this is imbedded within longer history of music making. The samples that Reinhard used in his songs were all free and open access, apparently, but even this is a response to the growing scrutiny of samples used in hiphop music. Hanif Abdurraqib, in his recent meditation on the oeuvre of Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, reflected on the change in hiphop in the mid-1990s when record labels discovered they could require permission and payment for samples used in songs. By 2001, the use of paid for samples becomes a point of pride for rappers. Jay-Z, famously attacked Nas by claiming that he didn’t even own the right to his own songs so when Jay-Z sampled them, Nas didn’t make any money:

So yeah, I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong
You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song
And you ain’t get a coin, nigga, you was gettin’ fucked then
I know who I paid, God – Serchlite publishin’

In this context, Reinhard’s use of free samples explicitly detaches himself from the commercial aspects of the music making process. At the same time, he didn’t release his entire assemblage of samples explicitly. There is no ceramic catalogue, nor did he make his data available by crediting his sources. In fact, his tracks aren’t available for free download and only appear on paid streaming services. We can imagine that maybe Reinhard is getting “a coin,” but his sources are, in Jay-Z’s words, “gettin’ fucked.” 

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Reinhard’s place in the media ecosystem, but to demonstrate how the flow of objects through various media create relationships that define their value. The easy fluidity of digital space emphasizes the instability of assemblages especially at their margins and the push and pull of efforts to stabilize how they produce meaning. We do this through controlling access, through various strategies of narration, and  through the leveraging of various media affordances.

Reinhard starts his discussion of assemblages with Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I suppose that I’m trying to nudge swap lenses and considering his work in light of Delanda’s earlier work, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines which expanded and developed the notion of machinic phyla from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus. The idea of Delanda (and Deleuze and Guattari) emphasizes that assemblages form not merely through conscious decisions or even discursive rules (like narratives or the pop song), but also through affordances of the objects themselves. These scholars were particular intrigued by the notion of flow and the ways in which the movement of material, manufactured objects, and individuals mediated by their materiality produced value within the capitalist system in ways that appeared to be nearly autonomous. Michael Roller has adapted this notion archaeological assemblage as evidence for the emergence of mechinic consumerism in the 20th century. This is a kind of consumerism that is as much a product of producers and production as the manufactured objects. 

In some ways, excavating Reinhard’s “Assemblage Theory” embodies both one potential relationship between the disparate fragments of found sound collected from internet as well as the ways in which 21st century digital assemblage exist within an ecosystem that not only allow us to experience them but also monetizes our access. 

<more soon…>

Domesticity and Hi-Fi Living

I’m totally enamored with J. Borgerson’s and J. Schroeder’s Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (2017) published by MIT Press. The book explores the remarkable world of album covers from the 1950s and 1960s not from the heights of pop music (which was still dominated by 45 rpm singles), but from more offbeat and intriguing perspective of the newly introduce long-playing record. The book is lavishly illustrated in color and the authors present the album covers as a catalogue organized according two broad themes of “Home” and “Away.” The former includes album covers that feature home life including the joys of listening to music in a domestic retreat, and the latter features the covers of albums that offer to fill the house with foreign ambiance or to transport the listener the exotic locations.   

Borgerson’s and Schroeder’s most interesting observations center on the aspirational domesticity illustrated by these album covers. The home spaces are filled with musicians or listeners perched on Eames chairs in modernist, minimalist surroundings. The cover of Ornette Coleman’s iconic Free Jazz (1960) even featured art by Jackson Pollock. The album covers grouped into the “Away” category in this book depicted foreign places relying on a series of recognizable tropes to bring the romance, exoticism, or adventure of international travel to suburban living room. At the dawn of the jet age, these images did more than offer a glimpse of exotic “other” places outside the grasp the ordinary middle class family and reflected the shrinking of the world where it was now possible to travel to Europe, Cuba, Asia, or even domestic destinations such as, the newest state, Hawaii or bustling urbanism New York City. The albums, their cover, and the music, served as a guides to the new tourism of the jet age, and allowed for it to be (re)experienced at home.

As someone who loves hi-fi sound, I recognized that some of the aspirational character of these album covers goes beyond their ability to convey the neatly arranged space of the modern home or evoke the potential of travel and extended to the very idea that mass-produced recorded music was available on demand at home. The growth of radio made music available in the home or office, but the listener remained subject to the whims of the radio station and was always aware (for better and for worse) of being part of a listening public. The home hi-fi allowed a listener to create a private soundtrack for their world, and this likewise worked to redefine music and the home stereo as a way of capturing the otherwise public experiences of performed music. The privatizing of the public experience strikes me as a key element in our middle class dream. The promises of “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound,” “Living Stereo,” “360 Sound,” and “Living Presence” from the long-playing record demonstrates that record companies understood that listeners aspired to the fidelity of living performances in their homes. 

I was also intrigued by the depiction of record players and turntables throughout the book. With few exceptions, the turntable was a understated device usually set off center in the album cover art. There were no wires powering the turntable (or any other electrical devices on the covers) and despite the claims of stereophonic sound, album covers never showed the two speakers necessary to reproduce the full effects of stereo recording. The turntable was a low-key and unobtrusive element of the neatly modernist home that could be hidden away in its cabinet until called upon to transport the listener.

This contrasts significantly with the contemporary vinyl revival which has produced turntables that are designed for their owners to display in their homes as a marker of their sophisticated taste in music and audio gear (exemplified by the recent interest in turntables by lifestyle brands like Shinola). While amplifiers, speakers, and the other gear required for the true high fidelity experience remain a delightful mishmash of industrial utility and modern design sensibility, the turntable has set itself apart, as an opportunity to display audio sophistication. The rituals surrounding turn table use (and to be clear, I’m not a vinyl guy), their design, and the required equipment encroach upon the clean minimalism of the 1950s and 1960s album covers and introduce a muddle, functional aesthetic to domestic space that makes obvious the tools required to translate the public experience to the home. Unlike the understated, almost magical, reproduction of performed music evoked in 1950s and 1960s album art, the 21st century stereo demonstrates the visual mastery of arcane, complex, and sophisticated technologies. If the space and design of the modern home sought to produce a subtle, domestic retreat open to both men and women, the 21st century stereo embodies a crass, functional, and messy masculinity.

The covers reproduced in this book reminded me that you can hide the cables, the racks of LPs, and even the turntable, but the hi-fi experience was never quite as austere and tidy as album covers displayed, and there was something very contemporary about the particular tension between aspiration and reality. The  clean modernity of the technology present in our contemporary mobile phones, laptop computers, and stainless steel appliances, can never quite hide the messy tangle of cables, skills, and rituals designed for its mastery. Despite the neat potential of this aspiration domesticity, the recent vinyl resurgence reminds us that people still want to demonstrate technical proficiency in controlling their world. 

Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

Three Quick Things

I’m on the road for the rest of the week and flailing about to get ready for the new semester. If you’re planning to be at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in San Francisco, make sure to check out one of the papers that I’m giving over the next couple of days. So, this will likely be my last post for the week, but next week should be particularly full of new semester and archaeological goodness.

Here are three quick things to distract you while the blog is on the last bit of its holiday hiatus.

1. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, grab a copy of Nan Rothschild and Diana diZerega Wall’s The Archaeology of American Cities (Florida 2014). It’s in the University Press of Florida’s excellent The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective series. If I was one of THOSE guys, I’d teach an entire class using these books starting with the remarkable general surveys on cities, capitalism, race, gender, and labor, and then move to the specific studies on tobacco, the fur trade, the Cold War, forts, et c.  

The Archaeology of American Cities is as much a book about urban archaeology as a book about American urbanism. Organized as a topical survey with a historical introduction, the book would lead even the most text bound historian through the value of material culture in understanding both “great man” history and the history of social class, gender, race, and the economy in the US.

2. Stereo Subwoofers. I recently (like last week) installed a pair of very fast, stereo subwoofers to my main stereo. For years, I’ve avoided adding sub woofers to my system saying things like “I’m really concerned with the midrange” and “I don’t trust them to integrate with my current speakers” or “my room is boom-y enough.” I have no idea why I waited so long. My speakers are the fantastic Zu Omen Def (Mk Ib) which are lovely down about 45Hz or 40Hz, but lack real low end punch. In general, I was cool with that because I figured that I don’t listen to much music real intense lower bass and true full-range speakers in my price range sacrificed too much in the mid-range in an effort to do everything (and, yes, I know there are some good full range speakers out there, but I also gravitate toward tubes and modest wattage amps).

Adding two quick Zu subwoofers to my system and setting them to pick up from around 45Hz has after a single day of listening blown my mind. There is so much musical information below 45Hz and these new additions to my happy speaker family have expanded the soundstage, defined instruments more clearly, and, of course, added impact to rock, hip-hop, and reggae. I can also say with some confidence that I now have enough subwoofer power (400 watts x 2) to destroy my 19th century house and perhaps the core of the earth. I won’t do this, but it’s empowering to know that I can.

3. North Dakota Quarterly. If you don’t care about subwoofers or American archaeology, I probably can’t help you that much… other than to point you in the direction of North Dakota Quarterly’s site. Go and check out me and managing editor Kate Sweney talking NDQ on Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street or go and find something cool to read from the archives.   

Audiophiles, Sciences, and Democracy

Over the last few months, I’ve begiun to wonder why audiophiles are so angry with each other and why journalists, bloggers, and ordinary people seem to take so much pleasure in criticizing carefully engineered gear, high resolution music formats, and other typical audiophile fare.

Just over the past few weeks, for example, I have read articles claiming that Neil Young’s overhyped Pono is no better than an iPhone (echoed endlessly). I’ve read Fred Kaplan’s “courageous” public claim to being an audiophile on Slate attract some rather nasty comments (but do click through to the story about the conflict between Michael Fremer and the Amazing Randi!). I’ve seen one of my favorite tech bloggers, a man with no audiophile interests at all, chime in on the longstanding debate on whether 24 bit audio actually sounds better, and another get into some kind of crazy Twitter flame war with the Wirecutter about headphone preferences (it all worked out). I’ve even seen the fine folks at Pitchfork chime in on whether high resolution audio is worth it, and witnessed endless new fronts in the cable wars.

These are my thoughts on the issue:

Much of the recent interest in audiophiles stems from the attention garnered by Neil Young’s high-resolution, crowd-funded audio player, the Pono. The anger and bombast leveled in many of these conversations, however, stems from something deeper in American (and more broadly Western) society: our ambivalent relationship with science.

Anyone who has watched the news, listened to the oldy timey radiophone, or read the interwebs lately knows that many Americans look upon science and scientific authority with more than a jaundiced eye. People have questioned the safety of vaccinations, the existence of man-made climate change, the basis for evolution, and the universal applicability of the law of gravity.

The reasons are not complicated. Science and democracy have always had a strange relationship. On the one hand, science has served as a leveling institution in society by demonstrating how all humans function under the same set of limitations and rules. The universality of science has played no small part in our view that all people are created equal. In fact, Enlightenment reasoning undermined the authority of earlier political regimes that depended upon the idea that some folks were superior to others on the basis of their birth.

At the same time, the role of science in leveling society has come at a cost. Those who understand science have come to represent a key voice in maintaining equality in our communities. While scientists and their supporters have stopped short of being philosopher kings, knowledge and understanding of scientific truth is unevenly distributed, and those of us without the skills to understand scientific arguments have to trust scientists when they tell us that the earth is getting warmer, vaccinations are a good idea, and that we should never lick the seats in a New York City subway. So science gives us a kind equality, to some extent, but the rules within which this functions are not equally understood. It’s a fraught predicament for a society like ours in the US where everyone’s vote counts the same and most of us can run for office and participate in decision making. It is hardly surprising that the tension between our (let’s say) equal access to political power (writ large) and the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge manifests as frustration and anger in the media especially when we’re asked to make changes to our lifestyles to accommodate the newest scientific finding. To put it personally, I want people to be REALLY sure about climate change before I give up my Ford F-150.

Most of the time, those of us not steeped in the most recent scientific research have to make decisions based on a certain amount of faith in the scientific processes. In a recent series of blog posts (part 1, part 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, part 3, part 4) on expertise over at Parttime Audiophile, Scot Hull ruminated on how difficult it was to understand expertise and to identify experts among audiophiles. Hull finished his impressive series of essays with the conclusion that most audiophiles rely on aesthetic judgements to declare a product “good” or “bad.” At the same time, he concedes that there is a science to audio, and “good” and “bad” equipment does related to “good” or “bad” engineering practices. And, often times, the good or bad engineering and good or bad scientific measurements coincide with the aesthetic judgement of reviewers. This is not always the case, of course. Poorly engineered gear is rather less likely to sound good than good sounding gear is to be a paradigm of rigorous engineering.

The ambiguous reality at the intersection of measurement, engineering, and aesthetics is hardly satisfying to those of us whose very concept of society is grounded in the authority of science to help us make important social, political, and economic judgements. After all, how is it possible for us to trust science in some vitally important areas of our life and ignore it in others?

The result of this kind of ambiguity is predictable. People get angry, and on the internet this anger often quickly escalates to irrational fury. This is typically most visible among audiophiles when debating high resolution audio, the value of cables or various room correcting devices. On the one side of the conversation are those who often argue using engineering and science that high resolution audio, $2000 speaker cables, or various acoustic gewgaws do nothing to improve our sound quality and our listening experiences. On the other side of the debate, are people who insist on the greatest high resolution standard, wire their systems with cables the size of my wrists, and can understand (frankly) the latest digital room correction technologies. Both sides claim science supports their perspectives and the other side is selling unscientific snake oil.

The arguments are generally dull. And, if these arguments remained confined to audiophile forums and ended with both sides dismissing the other as fools, we might simply overlook them.

Recently, however, these arguments usually escalate to something more when the internal wrangling of audiophiles becomes public fare. Audiophiles are attacked as arrogant elitists who lord their tastes over the “common man.” It is not enough to attack their taste, however. For justice to prevail, ordinary folks must demolish the foundation of their tastes and disclose that the emperor is, indeed, naked. The goal of these attacks is to eliminate the basis for a perceived audiophile elitism and return the listening world to a kind of equality where democratic opinions can thrive. No longer will some arrogant audiophile lord the supposed superiority of his or her system over iPods, phones, or other affordable media players. Taking down some audiophile conceit is a win for democracy!

Why are audiophiles, in particular, the object of such scorn? On the one hand, I have detected some of the same anger directed against athletes who swear by gear, supplements, or training techniques of dubious scientific value. On the other hand, we don’t usually see folks arguing that their 1992 Honda Civic is every bit as good as a 2015 Ferrari FXX-K. I suspect the distain shown audiophiles, in particular, comes from three things.

First off, audiophiles are a minority and have perpetuated a steep learning curve to participate in audiophile conversations. As I have argued elsewhere, most of this the language used in the audiophile media is specialized and as a result, exclusionary. Most people do not have access to audiophile quality components: there are relatively few high-end audio stores in the U.S. and the brands associated with the hobby are unfamiliar. Our encounter with the hobby and high-resolution sound is typically through the media. In other words, for most of us, encountering high-end audio is not a first hand experience (and this includes many audiophiles!), but encountered through other folk’s descriptions of how gear sounds. Some audiophiles can compare these descriptions to their own authentic experiences, but this requires that one has heard a good bit of gear and understands the language used to describe various kinds of gear. As I have argued elsewhere, the language of the audiophile media represents formidable barrier dividing the world into into those who get it an those who don’t.

Second, the defining quality of audiophile equipment is the experience that its provides. Since in most communities, it remains challenging to find high end audiophile systems – much less listen to it over a sustained period of time – people are fundamentally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance audio. Of course, people are generally unfamiliar with the experience of high performance cars as well, but cars and other luxury commodities that offer rarified experiences have more accessible aesthetic qualities. Cars are highly visible design studies and a series of numbers (quarter-mile times, 0-60 times, skid pad figures, or even lap times) represent more accessible surrogates for automotive performance. So folks will argue over whether a Porsche or a Ferrari is a better car, but they rarely argue about the fundamental validity of the criteria used to compare them. They have different styles that might appeal to different tastes, but their performance figures can be readily compared.

Finally, audiophile stereo equipment is not only discussed in exclusionary language and difficult to access and experience (even through available surrogates) but it also tends to be expensive. Audiophile gear smacks of economic elitism and nothing disrupts the placid life of contemporary democracy like visible symbols of economic inequality.

This short column argued that some the anger present in audiophile forums derives from the uneven distribution of scientific knowledge among audiophiles. Like the anger directed at folks who who do not vaccinate, who deny climate change, who believe in so-called “evolution,” or who insist the gravity does not effect them, most people lack the training in science and engineering to challenge the scientific claims made by audiophiles and their opponents. This is profoundly undemocratic. It’s simply unfair that everyone’s opinion and methods for understanding the world are not equally valid.

Anger toward audiophiles often comes from practices used by those in the hobby to distinguish those inside the hobby from those outside the hobby. Particular language, access to the experience of high end equipment, and, of course, economic privilege likewise appear to undermine the universal experience of music.

So next time we read an irate comment on an audiophile blog or read about a scientistic A/B test that proves your favorite cable, component, or format is really no better than than listening to the neighbor’s internet radio through a closed window, take a moment to remember that most people are not arguing about sound, engineering, or technologies. They’re arguing for freedom.

How to Attract New Audiophiles

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column (which is a blog post with a fancy name) about gender and the audiophile hobby. People read it and I liked writing it. So I think over the next year, I’m going to include a monthly column on audiophile matters here on my archaeology blog. That makes perfect sense to me. 

In last month’s column, I addressed one recent hot button issue. I thought I might take on the other burning question among audiophiles recently. Folks like Scot Hull, Jon Darko, and Steve Guttenberg have framed the question: how do we get a new generation of folks interested in the audiophile hobby? 

The problem is not all that complex. Audiophile gear is generally expensive and relatively rare. It requires a certain amount of experience to appreciate fully and it is surrounded by a particular discourse that privileges the connection between listening and a basic technical understanding of how music-sound making things work. These issues should be in the forefront of any discussion of how to get new audiophiles into the hobby.

My experiences becoming involved in the hobby might be instructive. I bought my first audiophile grade equipment in the early 1990s from two Wilmington, Delaware stores: HiFi House and Overture Audio. From HiFi House I bought a Nakamichi CD4 and from Overture Audio, a pair of Energy C2 bookshelf speakers. I think the Nakamichi ran about $300 and the Energy C2 speakers were around $650. This is big money as a college student. Before purchasing the speakers, the guy at Overture sat me down and told me to listen to a pair of big Wilson speakers for about 20 or 30 minutes (I have no idea which ones; this was 20 years ago!). He just left me alone in a large room to listen. These speakers were, needless to say, badass. He then took me into their bookshelf speaker room and played as many pairs as I wanted urging me to compare their sound to the big Wilson floor standers. I then picked the pair that sounded best to me. My experience with the Nakamichi was similar except in that case, I listened to a range of slightly lower price gear ranging from Sony ES to Marantz before settling on the Nakamichi.  I eventually combined the speakers and cd player with a NAD 312 amp (also around $300) and had a reasonable system for about $1200. This was affordable to me as a university student  and then a graduate student who was seriously interested in sound and music.

I can take away from this experience a few key things. First, I purchased this gear after listening to a range of options. Next, I purchased it all from a brick-and-mortar store (it was all purchased, pre-internet). Finally, I relied on trade magazines and conversations with folks at hifi stores to make my purchases.

IMG 2666Audiophile bargains by Schiit stacked atop a vintage (aka used) Marantz 2235B.

So how does this relate to getting new, possibly more frugal folks into the hobby:

1. The Stereo Store is Key. I live as much of my life on the internet as humanly possible because I live in small town in North Dakota (seriously). I purchase everything from books to music, food, adult beverages, clothes, and stereo gear online. The nearest stereo shop is about an hour away and the closest concentration of shops is 3 or 5 hours away. So I don’t get a chance to listen to new gear very often. 

For better or for worse, developing taste and knowledge of stereo equipment requires listening – mostly back-to-back – to different equipment. And for better or for worse, much of the recent generation of affordably priced stereo gear is sold direct to consumers. The way these companies claim to keep their prices low is by selling direct and cutting out store markups. I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds like something that could be true. So there’s a problem here. While I recognize that most internet direct companies have generous return policies and even encourage you to try out their gear, this is not the same as listening to gear in a store.

Moreover, the recent trend toward crowdfunding gear and allowing (encouraging?) consumers to purchase audiophile grade equipment without even being able to hear it suggests that direct sale online guys understand that a substantial group of audiophiles are willing to purchase moderately priced equipment without hearing it at all. 

I understand, of course, that the internet has not just a space for selling stereo gear, but also a place for talking about it. While I still look forward to the monthly arrival of Stereophile, I spend much more of time reading Part-Time Audiophile, The Absolute Sound (online), The Digital Audio Review, and Audiophiliac. At the same time, I recognize the reading a great review, even from a reviewer that I trust, is not the same as actually hearing stuff myself. One learns to listen better only by hearing, and one develops one’s own taste in gear by connecting specifications with the sound that one likes. The more gear someone has heard, the more someone is likely to be able to figure out through an online review or a product description what one is likely to enjoy. This is something that comes with experience, and, right now, affordable level gear directed toward audiophiles who are new to the hobby or less inclined to drop big-bucks on stereo gear is much more likely to be sold online than in shops.   

Without complaining too strongly about a business model that has benefited me personally (I own Zu speakers and have a growing gaggle of Schiit gear), I am concerned that this is not a good way to grow the hobby. After all, the hobby is based, at least in part, on our ability to talk about our tastes, to compare different equipment, and to identify aurally things that we like. 

To get more people into listening to high-end, stereo gear, we have to make sure that brick-and-mortar shops are thriving and these shops stock entry level gear. This, I would guess, is a risk for the shops, because entry level gear most likely offers smaller profit margins, and for the manufacturers who currently sell direct on the internet. Regional audio shows certainly help, but again, these shows are not necessarily going to attract someone who is audiophile-curious. 

2. A Hobby is a Conversation. With the growth of online communities, the audiophile hobby seems have access to a medium for growth. At the same time, I think that the audiophile press remain the crucial catalysts for expanding the audiophile hobby. They are, of course, beginning to take entry level gear a bit more seriously, and there is no doubt that many of their hearts are generally in the right place. I’m sometimes skeptical about their ability to maintain a focused interest on gear that is not aspiring to be “perfectionist quality” or “summit-fi,” but is designed to provide better sound within the reach of everyday people. 

To take entry level gear seriously, the audiophile media needs to resist the temptation to compare every $100 USB DAC to a DAC costing many, many thousands more. This is the equivalent of reviewing a Honda Civic, and adding a paragraph or two reminding the read that it is not nearly as good as a Porsche Panamerica or Aston Martin DB8.  Of course, this is incredibly reassuring to a Da Vinci owner that their five-digit DAC is not bested by a $100 USB doojaggy, but it does little to make the entry-level audiophile feel like their investment in their system should be taken seriously. Including this new group in the conversation involves meeting them where they are in terms of desirable products and moving just a bit away from the exotica.

Anyway. I understand the draw of the exotic and fun of enabling audiophile voyeurism, but we can learn a thing or two from Steven Mejias’s late “The Entry Level” column over at Stereophile (and Steve Guttenberg’s work over at the Audiophiliac). Both manage to review entry level gear with enthusiasm, communicate the excitement of affordable gear, and avoid humbling comparisons to audio exotic or suggestions that various gear is “perfect for use in the pool house.” 

3. Recognize that Low Price is Not a Silver Bullet. Some of the recent enthusiasm for low-priced, audiophile gear seems to be detached from a realistic understanding of how entry level audiophiles purchase gear.  They seem to think that serviceable $50 Dayton Audio speakers and $20 Lepai amps will somehow draw people to the hobby (and I do get that some of the focus on super-affordable gear is just a way to say that better sound costs almost nothing). But, again, I’m skeptical that focusing on such inexpensive gear is the way to attract new audiophiles.

Most people who like music are already spending money on CDs, vinyl, downloads, and whatever (even assuming that some of their music is purchased used or pirated), and even cheap CDs and downloads would cost a significant portion of these inexpensive stereo systems. People interested in getting better sound are already spending a couple or few hundred dollars on headphones, so it’s a bit silly to think that they wouldn’t spend at least a much on a home system, and maybe more. 
As I noted in Point 1, part of the goal of engaging the new audiophiles is engaging their passion for music in a realistic way. Entry level audiophiles want to be part of a conversation that reflects their commitment to music and not some race to the bottom. 

4. Celebrate Used Gear. The best way to get people into our hobby is through used gear. I know, used gear does not attract advertisers, but it does provide a relatively painless way for new audiophiles to get into our hobby. Moreover, for dimes on the dollar, used gear provides access to brands that make up the audiophile firmament and instantly involve new audiophiles in the brand conversation around which so much of our hobby revolves. 

Used gear is readily available from places like Audiogon and Ebay, but right now most chatter about used gear centers around user generated threads on forums rather than in the proper audiophile media. This is a shame. While there is plenty of interesting chatter on these forums (and not a few experts, self-proclaimed and otherwise), there is still no authoritative voice on used stuff among the mainstream audiophile media. Stereophile still fills out their online offerings with vintage reviews, and one of the British audiophile magazines has some throwback discussions on classic pieces, but these rarely take into account what is available at a reasonable price to an audiophile on the market today.

5. Write about Resale Values and Upgrade Paths. Talking about used gear is not just about purchasing used gear, but it also involves thinking about how new audiophiles get involved in the hobby. Most of us get into the hobby through constructing systems that are designed for upgrades in a realistic affordable way. For most audiophiles, this involves selling off unneeded components to fund upgrades (rather than storing them in that magical closet that all audiophile reviewers seem to have filled with old gear). 

So part of a consideration when someone buys new gear to build a system is to understand the combinations of upgrades and resale moves necessary to continue to improve one’s audio experience. There is data out there, of course, that could be scraped from Audiogon, Ebay, or other used sites. A combination of that and the authority of trusted audio media sources would make this an invaluable resource for the starting audiophile. With all due respect to the folks at Your Final System, I’m always thinking of how to make my system just a little bit better and having some advice on upgrade paths would be brilliantly helpful. I might ignore the advice, but the philosophies behind the selection of complementary equipment would be very helpful in getting a starter audiophile on their own route to audio bliss.

In the end, attracting new audiophiles to the hobby is as much about how we engage people potentially interested in our hobby as the actual products and music that we’re all so passionate about. Much of this is bound up in the large audiophile ecosystem that includes manufacturers, advertisers, reviewers, and, yep, bloggers (or columnists, as I now claim to be). While my observations here might be wide of the mark, my point of departure – thinking back to how I got involved in the hobby – is as good a place to start as any. After all, even audiophiles had to have a first time.

My Year in Music

This was a pretty fun year in music for me. (For last year’s fun, go and read my 2013 post!)

I upgraded the ole stereo with a pair of new Omen Def Mk.I.B. speakers from Zu. Like the Omen Dirty Weekends that I had last year, these speakers combine with my Audio Research VSi60 to create a genuinely remarkable sense of immediacy and enough detail to satisfy my vague hi-fi tendencies. The most fun has been listening to some mono recordings from Miles Davis and The Who. Since I’m not a turntable guy, I haven’t quite managed to get myself fully aboard the mono band wagon (and obscurely, but seemingly wonderful mono cartridges) much less the 78 rpm revival movement, but I can understand the excitement. 

110214 f gfh punkarchaeology 2 0Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald

I also updated my source after my long-serving Mac Mini died. It had be running continuously for almost 5 years and had barely complained, but it finally gave up the ghost. So after a brief period of mourning, I decided to go with a dedicated, audiophile-grade, digital source for my music and got a Sony HAP-Z1ES and finally retired my old Cambridge Audio DacMagic. Needless to say, the Sony sounds much better than the Cambridge, and has brought me into the 21st century with the ability to play DSD files as well as absurdly high resolution files in other formats. As much as I’ve loved hearing great high-res versions of my favorite music (the high-resolution version of the Bill Evan Trio’s “Waltz for Debby” is breathtaking), I can’t help but still love my old Nakamichi CD4 spinning shinny, plastic disks and decoding through its almost-ancient Analogue Devices 1864N chip.

I also have this idea that I might write a monthly column here on the blog about audiophile things. I know it strays a bit from the “archaeology of the Mediterranean world” theme, but I also figure that, you know, it’s my blog and I can do what I want (or, that some diversity might build a bit of a different audience, or maybe I’ll try to look at audiophile trends and media with a historians’ eye or something). In other words, I have a few more ideas that I hope to develop over the next few weeks.

Finally, for the folks who miss my “What I’m listening to” feature in my Quick Hits and Varia, here’s my complete list of albums that I enjoyed over the past year:

Duke Ellington, (with Charles Mingus and Max Roach), Money Jungle.
Bob Marley, Kaya.
Wooden Shjips, Back to Land.
Frank Sinatra, A Swingin’ Affair.
Laura Marling, Once I was an Eagle.
Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat.
Frank Sinatra, Songs for Swinging Lovers.
Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours.
Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine (Recorded 50 years ago this year).
Bob Dylan, Times They Are A-Changin’ (Released 50 years).
Angel Olson, Burn Your Fire For No Witness.
Nina Simone, Sings the Blues.
Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul.
Beck, Morning Phase.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent.
The New Puritans, Fields of Reeds.
Beck, Sea Change.
The Twilight Sad, No One Can Ever Know.
New Order, Low Life.
War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream.
Unwound, Rat Conspiracy.
Lanterns on the Lake, Until the Colors Run.
Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Herald Recordings.
Bamboos, 4
The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient.
Mac DeMarco, Salad Days
The Budos Band, III.
EMA, The Future’s Void.
The Moles, Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of the Moles.
Amen Dunes, Love.
Black Keys, Turn Blue.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Sea When Absent.
Owl John, Owl John.
Phosphorescent, Here’s to Taking It Aasy.
Half Japanese, Overjoyed
Ty Segall, Manipulator.
Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends.
Duke Ellington, Ellington at Newport 1956.
Aphex Twin, Syro.
The Velvet Underground and Nico.
Nick Drake, Pink Moon.
Willie Nelson, Stardust.
Underworld, Dubnobasswithmyheadman.
The Vaselines, V for Vaselines.
Ex Hex, Rips.
Jawbreaker, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
Melody Gardot, The Absence.
Thurston Moore, The Best Day.
The Twilight Sad, Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave.
Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins.
Arca, Xen.
Mekons, Curse of the Mekons.
The Who, The Who Sells Out.
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street.
Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground 45th Anniversary Edition.
Anthology of American Folk Music
Steven Gunn, Way Out Weather.
Matthew Ryan, Boxers.

Maybe you can find something that you like!

Audiophiles, Women, and Domestic Space

Over the last couple weeks there has been an interesting gaggle of columns and blog posts on the lack of women in the audiophile hobby. For those of you more comfortable with terms like “post-depositional processes,” audiophiles are folks who are really into their stereo gear and producing good sound. Generally, this has been a male dominated hobby, and as the traditional customers for this gear gets older, the industry and industry media has become concerned about the hobby’s future.

The industry and audiophile media have been quiet self congratulatory when it comes to attracting young people to the hobby through “head-fi” (that is audiophile quality headphones and related gear). With the youth market more or less covered, audiophiles have turned their attention toward the lack of women in the hobby. So far, the reasons put forward range tend to focus on the broadly cultural (women are raised differently).

A number of posts have focused on the rather unfortunate phrase “wife acceptance factor.” When I read this post by Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenny, I was up to my chest in reading about masculinity and suburbia (starting with John Higham’s classic article) as I work to revise an article on domestic space in the Bakken oil patch. So I posted a rather lengthy response exploring the relationship between audiophile gear, gender roles, and domesticity from a historical perspective. My blog today is an expanded version of that comment. 

According to The Wikipedias, the term “wife acceptance factor” first appeared in Stereophile magazine in 1983 but its origins appear to date to the 1950s. This makes the idea of the “wife acceptance factor” is so old school to almost be vintage. This notion has clear roots in the idea that women are in charge of the house and play a key role in establishing domesticity in the American home.

Domesticity represents the opposite of male encoded space of work, and this division first developed in the context of the industrial revolution when the workplace shifted from the home to the factory. With the rise of the middle class, people constructed homes that did not serve as workplaces and, more importantly for us here, conformed to different standards of presentation and decor than factories or offices. In fact, guys like Henry Ford went to great pains to distinguish the life of work from domestic life and created model towns to house their workers and families. These “Fordvilles” provided a space for the playing out middle class values and “civilizing” men who carried out the “brutish” work of industrial labor. For Ford and other early 20th century industrialists, the domestic represented the civilizing the domain of women, and stood as a civilizing counter point to the industrial.

So “wife acceptance factor” evokes the traditional domain of women: the home. The home, and the traditional middle and upper class house in particular was the place where the civilizing influence of women and family overwrite the dirty and competitive world of work (and perversely, make that work more efficient by maintaining the moral order and health of the men responsible). Most middle class homes went to great lengths to disguise the working parts of domestic life. The walls hid electrical cables, heating and cooling ducts, and water and sewage pipes, as well as the structural components to the house. More than that, the organization of the  house hid the places where the real work of domestic life took place. In traditional homes from the first part of the 20th century, garages, carriage houses, boiler rooms, storage, butlers’ pantries, and above all the kitchen were located out of sight from the main living spaces. Upper class homes developed parallel service areas that allowed maids, butlers, and other domestic personnel to move unseen between living spaces. By hiding the working parts of a home, the serene and effortless nature of domestic life was insulated from “working,” industrial life. This had the additional effect of occluding the role of women and their role in maintaining domesticity from the public view, and this allowed men to claim control over the economic productivity and public life. The home was not a place for wires, cables, ugly black boxes, protruding tubes, knobs, industrially inspired speakers and the like.

IMG 2485

Today, of course, we can roll our eyes at these traditional ways of organizing house and home. My wife and I have generally lived in 19th century or turn-of-the-century homes variously modified in various way to accommodate “modern life.” For example, our first house had the wall between the kitchen and what had been the formal dining room removed and the wall between the dining room and the front parlor removed to create a more open plan. We added to this by removing an unsightly fake wall to expose a forced-air heating duct. We joked about adding some industrial chic to our home. Industrial lofts in major cities now fetch top dollar. Kitchens have become areas for display and socializing. Many new homes have even adopted the “two car garage with attached home” appearance that is the bane of so many suburban subdivisions. Many homes now have “home offices” designed to allow the laboring classes to bring work back to their previously serene domestic bliss.

What’s interesting to me is that while our ideas of domesticity are changing (as our notions of work and life are changing) why have views founded in traditional notions of domesticity continued to persist in audiophile circles?  Well, some of it must have to do with demographics; audiophiles tend to be older and (let’s say) more thoroughly invested and steeped (nostalgic for)?in traditional gender roles. Audiophiles also tend to me upper middle and upper class which tend to be more conservative groups within Western society.

IMG 2484

I wonder, though, whether there’s more than that playing out here. First, I’d argue that notions like the “wife acceptance factor” are cut of the same cloth as the “man cave.” Audiophile gear is part of the changing discourse of domesticity: the notion that stereo cables, crudely functionalist industrial design (like my Audio Research VSi60 integrated amp), are the violation of certain norms of proportion and effortless propriety have located the audiophile home stereo to the realm of the industrial and, by extension, the masculine. Women, in our historical and stereotypical treatment, become the guardians of an effortless domesticity that carefully guards the working interior of the home from outside eyes. Men, with their industrial, non-domesticated tendencies (born, I’m sure, by their longs hours in the factory), are relegated to specific places: the garage, the “den”, or the “man cave” where they watch sports, behave in uncivilized ways, and ignore aesthetic traditions of the home.

The curious irony is this: we know that the idea that “man stuff” is relegated to the “man cave” is bunk in a modern domestic context. Since the 1960s, modern homes have celebrated industrial design elements, kitchens are no longer hidden, but prominent social spaces, and traditional differentiation of spaces has given way to a proudly functional aesthetic. In other words, the tradition of relegating men to (or the need for men to claim) some kind of designated space is rhetorically and architecturally outmoded as hiding the kitchen behind a swinging door. Stereo equipment has likewise enjoyed this shift toward the functional in their design with elegantly constructed, furniture grade cabinets giving way to exposed tubes, grill-less speakers, and cables too bulky (and expensive) to hide from view. So rather than stereo equipment lagging behind modern domestic expectations and requiring an adjustment to gain “wife acceptance factor,” most high end gear (and big box gear as well) has long adopted the industrial design standards appropriate for the modern, functionalist home. 

We continue to use this language, however, because entire structure of work and life among the American middle class has become unsettled. This nostalgia for a long ago abandoned architectural and design vocabulary represents a persistent unease with changing gender norms, dual incomes, domestic partnerships, and increasingly blurred lines between work life and home life. As the life of the American middle class is eroded by shrinking incomes, volatile labor markets, new expectations, and work cultures, we stick to these traditional stereotypes (see my pun there) and revel in our man caves, wife acceptance factors, as we beat back the work life from the tempting expanse of the formal dining room table.

Our concern with women in the audiophile hobby is not just the late arrival of the audiophile media and industry to modern conceptions of domestic space, but the flailing of a culture that finds its basic structures and expectations increasingly out of sync with economic and social realities. That we’re having this debate at all reveals its ultimate irrelevance. Women and men will enter the hobby and industry (or not) based on their resources, aesthetics, and interest rather than some kind of gendered notion of the home or overdetermined nostalgia. All this is to say, that we should invest more time in being inclusive rather than attempting to justify the exclusivity of our hobby. Treat women who are interested in sound and music just as you’d treat men interested in sound and music. 

More on this conversation here.