March 2000
A Couple Of Audio Moments
Fidelity Isn't Always in the Specs

by PAUL D. LEHRMAN
George Antheil & Jean Shepherd
The Bad Boy (L) and the Voice in the Night
ANTHEIL PHOTO COURTESY THE ESTATE OF GEORGE ANTHEIL
SHEPHERD PHOTO © FRED W. McDARRAH

How do you define audio fidelity? Is it the signal-to-noise ratio, the frequency response, the distortion? Is it the number of channels, bits or samples marching by per microsecond? Or do you perhaps take a different approach and define fidelity more subjectively, as the ability to re-create an aural experience--to stimulate thoughts and emotions that cause the listener to be transported, completely and faithfully (for such is the origin of the word), to another time and place?

In our business, we sometimes pay so much attention to the numbers and formulas of the former, that we forget about the latter, figuring that if we do the tech stuff right, the emotional stuff will take care of itself. But sometimes one can have a transcendentally high-fidelity experience, despite a signal chain that is decidedly low-tech.

In the past few months, as it happens, I've had two of these. They have brought together many of the things I have loved and worked with--radio, recording, avant-garde concert music, the Internet, writing and storytelling--and that's a big reason why they were so meaningful. The technology and the delivery systems, while certainly useful, were decidedly minor players.

For the past two years, as I've been telling anyone who will listen, I've been doing a very exciting project with G. Schirmer, the music publisher. Schirmer recently acquired the rights to a historically significant piece of music that exemplifies the word "outrageous": the Ballet Mécanique, by George Antheil. Although the piece was written in 1924, until recently it had never been performed in its original version. That's because the score calls for--besides seven percussionists, two pianists, seven electric bells, a siren and three airplane propellers--16 synchronized player pianos. Antheil, who lived in Paris at the time but was actually from Trenton, N.J., thought he was composing something playable, but he was wrong: The technology for synching up two player pianos, to say nothing of 16, simply did not exist.

So he rewrote the piece several times, first in 1926, replacing all but one of the player pianos with pianists, and then in 1952, getting rid of even the last one. The 1952 version is performed fairly frequently, and I first encountered it as a teenager when a percussion teacher at a music camp gave me a tape of it. Listening to it was a great thrill, especially the airplane propellers. From an early age, I loved uncategorizable modern music, the noisier the better, and for many years, I hoped that I would someday have the privilege of hearing this extravaganza performed live.

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman