New Music on Old Speakers
I found a pair of stereo speakers on the street, heavy and woody looking. A quick internet search confirmed their date of manufacture, 1974-77; a short history of the company that made them, EPI; and many opinions of their designer on topics both worldly and spiritual.
“From my understanding of the science of loudspeaker design, I understand that there are more than (Einstein’s) four dimensions. By revelation, I understand that there are twenty-seven such dimensions.”
It was a remarkable trash day, to say the least. Dragged home, cleaned up and plugged in, these speakers may not have transported me to all twenty-seven dimensions, yet – but they are most definitely leaning on that Einsteinian fourth one: Time. Their sound rockets me back to the store where I bought my teenage hi-fi - a carpeted, dimly lit, vaguely louche place where a salesman dressed like Mike Brady touched a panel of buttons and shifted sounds from one pair of speakers, to another, to another. Let’s say there were twenty-seven of them. Which dimension are you going to choose as your own?
I am sure I didn’t actually have a choice. But knowing that there were multiple ways to hear the same music stuck with me. My entry-level bookshelf speakers were one way to listen. The many bachelor-pad fantasies on offer were another.
These salvaged speakers in fact remind me of a specific version I encountered in a friend’s older brother’s room. He liked Grand Funk Railroad, and had a subscription to Playboy. His room was carpeted and dimly lit, just like the stereo shop, but even more louche. My friend and I weren’t allowed to stay long.
I am listening to the song “An Invitation to Day Dream,” by Maya Youssef. The music doesn’t seem to be coming from these heavy, woody speakers. It simply feels like it is in this room. The speaker designer writes:
“I have always been more interested in the accurate reproduction of sound and less interested in stereo imaging. So much so, that I resisted adopting stereo when it was first introduced in the 50’s.”
It’s not a soundstage I’m experiencing, it’s the sounds of the instruments. The piano is particularly resonant, with the lowest tones in this small ensemble. Its notes hold on long after they’ve been struck, filling its wooden body with harmonics. The lead instrument, Maya Youssef’s qanun, ranges wide in tone but is plucked and dry in the air, with a harpsichord-like staccato. A frame drum picks up rhythms from both at its edges, and adds its own resonant strikes in the center.
I may have entered one of the dimensions from five to twenty-seven.
There’s a video online of this same ensemble playing “An Invitation to Day Dream” at the British Museum, which commissioned the piece in response to their exhibition “Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa.” Maya Youssef was invited to compose in the very rooms with the art – this particular tune was written for work from a series of paintings by Huguette Caland called Silent Letters.
It’s a treat to see pianist Al MacSween and percussionist Elizabeth Nott interacting with the composer in this filmed version - but the experience is strictly limited in its number of dimensions. Perhaps it’s YouTube compressing the twenty-seven down to… two? The screen is flat. The sound is narrow. There is a soundstage - we can see it with our eyes. But my ears don’t hear nearly as much as on the record playing in my own room.
Maya Youssef’s new release is called Finding Home, and she says it is “a concept album.” As a Syrian now living in London, she knows that she cannot return to her original home because of war. But that doesn’t mean she can’t find another version of home – or many others. This album, she explains, is “about the different ways that we find home.”
Recorded music, it seems to me, can be one of those ways. When I listen to Maya Youssef’s ensemble on these time-traveling, space-dissolving speakers, I might be moving through other dimensions but I am centered, between left and right channels, here in my house.
Is this perhaps what the 1970s salesman was really pitching - versions of home to choose from. Will you be listening to classical? Jazz? Grand Funk Railroad? He had models for each. And they had a special sales technique for speakers back then, I remember now: You could take them home with you for a trial period. See how they feel in your own space.
Listening to: Kintal da Banda, by Bonga
Cooking: with flowering herbs