Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Why the Compact Disc May Actually Sound Better than Vinyl": Are Audiophiles Hearing Something We're Not?

There seems to be no shortage of mysticism centered around the resurgence of the phonograph record listening experience. By experience, I mean just that, the sensory engagement from the whole of the auditory, to visual, to textural, to graphic, to physical connection of the weight and handling of the object. All of these are a pleasure, no question. I myself am a vinyl advocate and have had a higher-end turntable in my home stereo setup for almost 20 years. That said, there's a very literal and scientific difference between the nature of the turntable's representation of an analog signal to that of a Digital to Analog Converter and how these devices define that information, which is then sent to the amplifier to be broadcast by the speakers. So, as much as I might derive amusement from pieces like, the Detroit Metro Times' "Colored Vinyl is For Big, Spoiled Record Babies". It doesn't actually aide the discussion to simply call people out on their obsession with the appeal of "deluxe" limited editions and aesthetic appearances. Particularly while overlooking some of the deeper technical analysis of the playback process. In this we can thank Chris Cornelis' "Why The Compact Disc May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl" for the LA Weekly, and the article's critical look at both vinyl and compact disc hardware and the mechanics of how each produces the reproduction of a musical recording. What we're often seeing described in people's preference for vinyl's analog representation of the recording are the additional auditory artifacts, namely distortion and pitch variation, that LP playback produces in the the listening experience. Ad to this the rounding off of frequency extremes, at both the high and lowest end of the frequency spectrum. These are in-part produced by the inconsistency of the available surface of the LP itself over the duration of it's playback and the stylus' mechanical traveling over the progressively reduced surface of the record, "The vinyl disc is a steadily collapsing medium," says Bob Ludwig, Grammy-winning mastering engineer with credits on Patti Smith's Horses, Steely Dan's Gaucho and Jack White's Lazaretto, among many others. "The closer it gets to the label, the more the information is getting compromised, the high frequencies getting lost." To address the question of taste, as some people prefer it, Gizmodo's "Why Vinyl Is the Only Worthwhile Way to Own Music", detailing the hows and whys, but it can't be said that vinyl is a more accurate or 'more genuine' representation of the recording. In fact the opposite is true.
For the most accurate reproduction of a recording at the 21st century studio standard of a hi-bitrate 24-bit/192-khz sampling rate file, a quality DAC is the modern ideal. But this is often costly hardware and few people have had the foresight to convert, or purchase, their music collection as true high fidelity/high sampling rate files. For reference, the Rega Research DAC-R and Benchmark DAC2 HGC both reviewed favorably by those most rigorous of listeners, Stereophile Magazine will each run you, $1200-1995 respectively. Short of this solution, the Compact Disc is still probably the best budget answer to higher sound quality in a home playback system. Consistently, your average entry-level stereophile $300-350 CD player like the NAD C-516BEE will outperform, ie; more accurately represent, the same recording than a similarly priced turntable and cartridge setup. At that pricepoint, the best-of-the-best to be found in a turntable with the beginnings of stereophile engineering would be the award winning and critically hailed Pro-Ject Debut III and though an excellent budget turntable, it is outclassed by the C-516BEE on almost all fronts. To match the expressiveness, dynamic range, transparency and kind of realism heard in the playback of the NAD CD player mentioned above, you'd need to jump up to the $750-900 range of the excellent, Analog Source Component of the Year-winning, Rega Research RP3 or Music Hall MMF-5.1. There is also the option of finding a financial middle ground like the Rega Research RP1 or Music Hall MMF-2.2, either of which will deliver something approaching the fidelity of the NAD C-516 CD player, yet still fall short at a 25-30% price hike respectively. A majority of the people we might encounter are content with their thriftstore bought used turntable and vintage 1970's amp and speaker setup. And no question, these do the job of representing music and it's surface in a pleasing, room-filling sense. And depending on your ear, and experience, this could be absolutely satisfying. But then there's the opposite end of the spectrum. The almost equally mystical quest for total representational perfection to be had in the Audiophile pursuit. But even as Alexis Petridis asks "Audiophiles: Are They Hearing Something We're Not?" in the pages of Esquire, her experience plumbing the depths of fidelity mania, with all the absurd fanaticism and downsides of audiophile addiction – the ridiculous financial excesses, the mystical woo, the obsessive behavior – seem to evaporate in the face of hearing music which you once thought you intimately knew, becomes an experience anew.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banksy's "Dismaland" Bemusement Park at Weston-super-Mare UK: Aug 22 - Sept 27

Somehow topping the monthlong citywide New York exhibit that was Banksy's “Better Out Than In" in Fall of 2013! Making for yet another grand gesture in a career of celebrity (and controversy) for the anonymous artist, this month his largest and most audacious exhibit yet "Dismaland" opens as a “family theme park unsuitable for small children” on the Somerset seafront. Cryptic and shrouded in secrecy during it's construction, local residents were led to believe that the installations being built in a disused former tourist swim center called Tropicana, were part of a film set for a Hollywood crime thriller called "The Grey Fox". Instead when it opened they found themselves with, "Banksy's Dismaland: Amusements and Anarchism in Artist’s Biggest Project Yet" which Banksy has conceived as “A showcase for the best artists I could imagine, apart from the two who turned me down.” as his offering in "the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus." The map depicting the galleries, rides and subversive installations of "Dismaland: Inside Banksy's Dystopian Theme Park" details the thematic sections featuring works by 58 contributors including Damien Hirst and Jenny Holzer that have been installed across the 2.5-acre site. Another of Mike Ross' massive truck sculptures balances precariously in the air, Julie Burchill has rewritten a 21st Century iteration of Punch & Judy, Darren Cullen has installed a pocket money shop offering loans to children at an interest rate of 5,000% and Jimmy Cauty of British art-pranksters (and notorious money burners) The KLF, presents his contemporary spin on the fantasy village, complete with 3,000 riot police.

Banksy himself creating some 10 new works for the exhibition, including the Cinderella Pumpkin Crash at the centerpiece castle, a grizzly accident with the heroine and horses splayed out and the paparazzi madly snapping away. Other highlights depicted in The Guardian's "A Theme Park Unsuitable for Children" photo essay include a broken down police van with extended escape chute, a model boat pond loaded with corpses and massed crowds of asylum seekers fleeing strife in the Middle East and Africa. To even enter the Dystopic theme park requires going through a cardboard mock-up of airport security, guards insisting that "all squid be left behind". Banksy funded the entirety of the exhibit, with a 4,000 tickets a day limit at the defiantly low cost of £3 each, there is little chance of recouping costs or making a profit over it's 36 day duration. Running until September 27, the bemusement park also plays host of a series of concerts on Friday nights. The music roster including, Sleaford Mods, Peanut Butter Wolf, Kate Tempest, Pussy Riot and Massive Attack by degrees all deal in work that tackles political themes and urban stratification, class frictions, the fallout of globalization and ecological destruction found throughout the park. The show's curator himself interviewing Killer Mike and EL-P for The Guardian, "Banksy meets Run The Jewels: ‘The Bravest Artists have Always been Graf Artists’".

Sunday, August 9, 2015

J.P. Sniadecki's new documentary "The Iron Ministry" at Grand Illusion Cinema: Aug 28 - Sept 3

The documentary continues to take major evolutionary strides, some of the most striking of it's new forms in the 21st Century have been the visual essayist films issuing from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab and their Film, Visual and Environmental Studies Departments. The vanguard of this observational cinema can be seen in the work of the department's Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel and Libbie D. Cohn and their "Leviathan" and "People's Park" of 2012 and 2013 respectively. Whether it be the effect of time-distention in Montana's rolling grasslands as imbued by "Sweetgrass", "Foreign Parts" self-made enterprise of the Willets Point industrial zone, the gondola-aided pilgrimage to the venerated "Manakamana" temple in Nepal, the cosmic space-like depths of night off the New England coast, or a summer afternoon in Chengdu China, Cohn, Sniadecki, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor presented these locales as though seen through the eyes of an off-worlder. The Earth as a place of wonder, danger and mystery. This is a cinema that is tangible, time-specific and very much about our place within it all. Both Dennis Lim's New York Times piece, "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World" and Irina Leimbacher's "The World Made Flesh: Toward a Post-Humanist Cinema" for Film Comment go some way to convey the richly political, anthropological, physical, auditory, visual, experience of their singular body of work.

Later this month The Grand Illusion will be screening their foray into the landscape of China via the rails of "The Iron Ministry". Filmed over three years on what will soon be the world's largest railway network Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab associate, J.P. Sniadecki traces the interior of a country on the move as they pass through extended rural stretches punctuated by massive industrial and agricultural endeavor and some of the world's densest urban enclaves. Adding to his long project documenting Chinese public places that have rarely been screened outside film studies and museum retrospectives like MoMA's Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions and Harvard Film Archive's Ghost Towns and Steel Rails: J.P. Sniadecki in China, Sniadecki edited tens of hours of footage into a concentrated 82 minute kaleidoscopic sensory experience that's by turns observational, engaged, assaultive and humane. He spends as much time talking to the passengers about social issues as he does creating a removed audio-visual blurring of three years of time spent on the state run rail system into an impressionistic environment of sights and sounds. This vacillating between engagement with it's subject and the ambient drift is detailed in "Chinese Society Takes on Metaphorical Dimensions in 'The Iron Ministry'", IndieWire notes Sniadecki's approach is significantly more critical of its setting than many of the Sensory Ethnographic Lab projects with which it has a kinship, yet the result again is that he turns the chaos of modern China into dense, frantic poetry. One which A.O. Scott's New York Times review praised as, "Neither boring nor confining, which is just to say that it’s not a long trip through a faraway country. It’s a work of art: vivid and mysterious and full of life." and Cinema-Scope's Jordan Cronk called, "An undeniably virtuoso accomplishment. More importantly, as an empathetic portrait of perseverance, it’s a humane, often illuminating transcontinental chronicle."

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Joshua Oppenheimer's new documentary "The Look of Silence" at Northwest Film Forum: Aug 7 - 13

This week Northwest Film Forum presents a one week run of  Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to his award-winning surreal work of documentary reenactment, "The Act of Killing". Returning to the subject matter of the Indonesian purges of 1965-66 in which over a million alleged Communists were massacred following the failed coup and ensuing lockdown by the Suharto regime. It watches as a revealing, bizarre, surreal, disconcerting, humorous, (yes if you have a conscience, you'll laugh, in the most terrible way) exhibition of those who perpetrated one of the most brutal of the Cold War purges of Communist citizens in all of South-Eastern Asia. One abetted, like many of them at the time, with aid from the United States. The real-world events beyond nightmarish in their scope. Further reading on Oppenheimer's incursion into Indonesia's past to be found in Nick Bradshaw's "Building My Gallows High" in the pages of Sight & Sound, Stuart Klawans' "The Executioner’s Song" for Film Comment and Carrie McAlinden's drawing of parallel's with Walter Benjamin’s philosophies of historical awakening, "True Surrealism: Walter Benjamin and The Act of Killing". Where "The Act of Killing" peered into history's enabling of genocide via xenophobia, Cold War politics, economics, racial hatred and superstition, his "The Look of Silence" is a more intimate, personal study of the family of Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed in the purges, as he quietly confronts the killers and their leaders. Oppenheimer had begun to gather stories from victims’ families as far back as 2003, but found that his subjects were threatened and feared for their lives. Anticipating repercussions, he then shot “The Look of Silence” before the first film was released and at the advice of human rights activists, has not returned to Indonesia since.

While he was born after the bloodshed, Adi is marked by it, as is his diminutive mother, their contained humiliation, fear and rage we only witness in brief glimpses as it surfaces in the course of this quest of, "'The Look of Silence' Confronting Individuals and Ideology of Indonesian Massacre". What we see of the encounters are, for the most part, unnervingly calm and conversational. Adi making use of his background as a obstetrician while asking questions, his professional bearing enabling his gentle, insistent manner of interrogation. In intimate, sometimes even theatrical and boastful detail, regional military authorities, neighbors, even relatives and friends show the blood on their hands, and acknowledge as much. A few go further, telling of how they drank their victims’ blood, a established superstition believed to save them from the madness that afflicted some of their colleagues. When pressed, the village's retired militia members say they were fulfilling the mandates of their superior officers, while the regional politicians who profited grossly from the murders and the acquisition of land, insist that the slaughter was the spontaneous expression of popular will. As seen in the American interview footage of the time, some even going as far to suggest the “Communists” offered themselves up, asking to be killed as punishment for their transgressions. The nightmare of these accounts is framed by a simmering, hypnotic tone matched by Adi's outer countenance as we observe his reviewing of Oppenheimer's footage. As noted in both Film of the Week reviews for Film Comment and Sight & Sound the silence of the title is echoed by moments in which Oppenheimer cuts out sound from the footage and replaces it with the insistent ambiance of jungle noise, as in the eerie night shots that bookend the film. It's one of his documentary's great strengths that Oppenheimer opts for these intermittent moments of composure and beauty to offset the horror. Conveying a sense of life’s tenaciously continuing on in the shadow of atrocity, injustice and grief.