My life is littered with music. (I was going to write that it is a tapestry of rich and royal hue, but Carole King got there before me.) But when I say ‘littered’, I mean that in the nicest possible way. Some of my musical litter is always at the forefront of my thoughts; other bits are just like real pieces of ordinary litter: they flutter past at the most unlikely moments. But perhaps ‘litter’ is the wrong word, and not what I meant at all. Whereas Prufrock measured his life with coffee spoons, I have measured mine with music.
I associate almost every significant event in my life with music. Sometimes it’s a whole song for a particular event; at others it’s just a single stanza or, perhaps, a chorus. Occasionally, it’s only a single musical phrase or, at times, only one bar. Strangely, there is often neither rhyme nor reason for my musical associations. However, just as few people ever forget the first time they hear the first movement of John Cage’s 4’33”, I can never, ever, forget the very first time I heard Variation 7 from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, though because I’d never actually heard the Goldberg Variations before, I knew only that it just had to be written by J. S. Bach and that it was the most insanely beautiful piece of music I had ever heard in my life. To get my first copy I had to go down to a music store and hum the variation so they could tell me what it was I should be buying. (Luckily, back in those days, the staff at music stores were pretty good at this type of musical detective work!) Two decades down the line I now have almost every version of the Goldberg Variations ever recorded and despite listening almost every week to one or the other of them, the work has yet to lose its magic… and my guess is that if it hasn’t by now, it probably never will… which is why I have included an instruction in my will that it should be played at my funeral.
I don’t think I am at all unusual in measuring my life with music. In the movie ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’, Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) and Michael O'Neil (Dermot Mulroney) have ‘their song’ which Roberts famously ‘loans’ to Kimberly Wallace (Cameron Diaz) in the closing scenes of the movie. (And no, it’s not the movie’s theme tune, it’s a little song written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936 and has since been covered by everyone who’s anyone, from Billie Holiday to Phil Collins.) Inevitably, some of the music with which I have measured my life is associated with bad times, either personal lows or the deaths of family and friends… but I still find joy in re-hearing music from such times: a joy tinged with sadness, but a joy nonetheless. Some songs have particular significance for me, such as I’m Out’a Here written by Cyndi Boste for her friend and mine, the late Chris Green, who, when he wasn’t playing or teaching music, wrote articles and equipment reviews for Australian Hi-Fi Magazine. In the song she describes Chris perfectly, with one stanza beginning: ‘I loved the singers and I loved their songs / They moved my soul, made right from wrong / And I could play them all before too long...’ [Pictured Above: Chris Green and Cyndi Boste playing Bellingen]
But although the joy to be had from music itself is obvious, many people find it difficult to see where the joy in owning a hi-fi system can be found. My answer is always that the two are inextricably entwined, because the closer a system lets you get to hearing the music, the more effectively the messages you get from the music will be transferred to your psyche. Musicians work insanely hard to produce incredible subtleties in their performances in order to ensure their music will deliver a very precise message. If the system you’re listening to cannot reproduce these subtleties, you will never be able to hear them: you will hear the notes being played, but not the actual ‘sound’ of those notes. For example, if a great pianist plays the same note repeatedly, every time he or she strikes the key, it will always be with a different force and different ‘speeds’ will be applied both during the initial attack and the release of the key. This is done so that each note will be slightly different not only in volume but also in its tone, because the combination of strike force, attack speed and release speed affects not just the particular fundamental note, but that note’s harmonics as well. If your system is not ‘hi-fi’, all you will hear is the same identical sound, repeated over and over, and not a series of different sounds at different volume levels. We should never, ever, forget that the word ‘hi-fi’ is not synonymous with ‘audio’ or ‘sound’: it’s an abbreviation of the words ‘high fidelity’: words specifically coined to differentiate a system that could reproduce sound with a high degree of fidelity to the original from an ordinary ‘audio’ system that would just ‘play the notes’.
As for the ‘joy’ itself, recent research reveals that it’s very real, very physical… and caused by drugs. A study at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, revealed—via the use of a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner—that when subjects listened to music they liked they unlocked a release of dopamine in the striatum area of the brain, effectively creating a ‘natural high’. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a hit… # greg borrowman
Pictured below, Chris Green, as depicted on the cover of Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, July 1989, Volume 20 No 7