REMINISCENCE

Part 1 - The Early Ears

As a young person, I did not think of myself as musical or that I was growing up in a musical household. There was no evidence of either. We did have a piano, but most homes did in those days. My parents had paid for music lessons for the older siblings, to no avail. They thought they could give it a miss with me, and I had no problem with that.

Dad had a radiogram which might have had 20 LP records stored in it. He and mum sang in the church choir, but I could not say that music was a major feature of that time, before I was at high school. I remember there being a push for the conversion of the radiogram to play stereo. This was achieved by a new turntable fitted with a stereo pickup, and a separate, self-amplified speaker to serve the left channel. We listened to trains and ping-pong balls going from one side to the other.

New records started to appear, courtesy of a marketing arm of CBS called the Australian Record Club. This brought the very modern Ray Conniff into the house, with such 60's gems as S'Continental. Mantovani was joined by Billy Vaughn, whose La Paloma must be ingrained on many a memory from that time. Percy Faith (Theme from A Summer Place)was ubiquitous as well.

Most of what we heard was on the radio, and even then the nearest transmitter was 100 miles away. No FM existed. TV did not reach out that far into the sticks until ten years after the cities had it. There were lots of songs from broadway shows, which probably helps you to enjoy American jazz - so many of the show songs became launching pads for jazz musicians. The tunes are so recognisable, and are aptly called "standards".

In the pop field there was Pat Boone, Vic Damone, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and of course there appeared Elvis Presley followed by the Beatles! The sixties were incredibly varied in what was played on the radio as pop music. From ballads to rock & roll, and onwards, through black Motown styles to drug fantasy and Jefferson Airplane. A lot of it sounds too cute and twee today, but at the time it was heady fare for a young person.

Before the end of the sixties, I had a trip to Tasmania with my family, on the ship Princess of Tasmania. A music teacher making the voyage gave me an insight into the workings of the piano keyboard, so I took back to school (boarding school back then) some inkling of how to match melody and chords. Arriving at the school after this trip, I stayed up until dawn showed in the sky, trying to play some Beatles tunes on the old piano there. It was the start of my love for the piano. While at high school I was also introduced to classical via the usual sorts of things: Vivaldi's Four Seasons, 19th Century Overtures, Symphonies and Concertos. I first heard Holst's Planets Suite on the radio before school one day, and had to revisit it many times. Now much of that "romantic" repertoire is too familiar to me, and I have moved forward to more modern composers, and backwards as far as the Middle Ages at various times.

I found out what a really musical family looked like when I met a girl who played Bach preludes, and whose father was an opera buff. By the time I left high school for uni I was a pathetic self-taught dabbler at the guitar and the piano, with a growing interest in classical. I'm no better at playing instruments now, but enjoy the challenge of getting a tune out of things. I spent one holiday with a flute and managed to get to the stage where I could play the theme from Ravel's Bolero, but went no further.

It was during my university years and young adulthood that I got onto the serious stuff!

Part Two - A Level of Difficulty

As a student the main problem was how could you buy a record player and records with next to no money? My first record player was a cheap portable Columbia stereo LP player with a changer. The second speaker was part of the lid - you put it across the room to achieve some sort of stereo soundstage. It was an American model so had to be used with a transformer to adapt it to 240V.

At this time, a company called Music For Pleasure started to issue LPs for $2.99, which was about half the cost of full price editions. They were very successful, due to their being in every shop, and some were quite good. While I was at Uni, I signed up for a Musica Viva chamber music series, and was exposed to such things as the Beethoven Quartets for the first time. I was reminded of an old curmudgeon of a teacher whose opinion of most classical collections (usually box sets of various works) was that they were "magpie collections", and that if you were serious about music you listened to string quartets and such like.

Being a bit adventurous, I borrowed a set of the Beethoven Late String Quartets (Hungarian Quartet, 1966 EMI - still my favourite, not just because they were the first - they have survived many comparisons with other versions. Update: I now have the full set by the (Australian) Goldner Quartet, and they are excellent. From what I've heard so far of the Danish Quartet they too will be great when they getaround to doing the full set). The music was strange and intriguing. It is alternately cheerful, sad, and often weird to the new listener. It must have puzzled his audience at the time, and remains both challenging and rewarding for player and listeners alike to this day. These are still my Desert Island Discs. Having bought myself some, I got to grips with them by putting a stack on the record changer and listening to them over and again as I drifted off to sleep. Beethoven is famous for his Symphonies, but the string quartets, along with the piano sonatas, are where you find the most profound expression. There are passages which seem to describe deep depression or melancholy, from which he drags himself back to hopefulness, and onward to new achievement. Listen to the third movement of No.16, Op135. Tearful stuff, followed by a very upbeat 4th movement. Since they were written during his more trying later years, after the onset of deafness, this is understandable and inspiring. From the depths of adversity he rallies and produces futuristic works, which took his audience a long time to catch up with.

The seventies were a rich period for pop music too, but I had left it for other pastures. Of course you soak it up anyway, as it is all around you. By then I felt that classical had much more to offer. There's so much of it to explore that a lifetime is insufficient.

I suppose you could say that the seventies were a period of exploring mainstream repertoire. It was also when I started to get some Opera excerpts and enjoy the big hits of such things as The Magic Flute by Mozart. It is still a work I love. The Queen of the Night can be so unearthly and chilling, Sarastro so rich and reassuring. Karl Bohm's wonderful recording for DG had quite a cast: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich, Roberta Peters as an Ice-cold Queen, and Franz Crass as Sarastro. Evelyn Lear as Pamina does a beautiful job of the aria No.17, yearning for love unfulfilled. Nothing immature or jokey about this Mozart aria. Anyway, I'd have to say that excerpts certainly help to introduce you to operas, which can go on a bit if listened to in full. There are exceptions - Carmen is full of good tunes and has very little padding. Likewise Hansel & Gretel by Humperdinck. And Verdi's Rigoletto, and ... lots more!

1976 was a major milestone for music lovers, as it saw the introduction of ABC FM in Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. This opened up access to quality music every day, and exposed us to all sorts of things we might not have otherwise pursued. I listened to heaps of things that way, and was devastated when we moved to a new house where reception was very poor. Experiments with antennae were to no avail. There was nothing for it but to expand the record collection. This move, and the deprivation of access to FM, was a catalyst for things to follow.

Part Three - Agents of Change

When ABC FM started in the mid 1970s, a friend said to me that they played a lot of obscure stuff. I listened, and found much to enjoy. It broadened my horizons, introducing music which I would not have known about or bought without that exposure. It also started to cover (in the early 1980s), the introduction of digital recording, and the imminent release of the marvelous new gadget called Compact Disc, or CD.

This was an exciting prospect, as we had all suffered from surface noise on records. Added to this was the new digital recording process, which the presenters were highlighting by playing LPs which had been pressed from digital master tapes. Companies like Telarc were prominent in those days, and the prospect of a twofold improvement (no surface noise plus better definition) had us all filled with curiosity and anticipation.

It was in 1983 that we moved to another, larger house - to accommodate the growing family. I did a cursory check on FM reception with a portable radio, and it seemed to be all right. It was only after we had moved in and set up the full stereo system that the bad news arrived. FM reception was marred by multipath distortion due to our "over the hill" location, and there might be no solution. I did not give up easily. Our neighbours (closer to the shoulder of the hill) were able to get fizz-free reception, so I reasoned that it was just a matter of getting the antenna up higher. A long steel mast and elevated antenna achieved a bit of an improvement, but high frequencies were still marred by that fizzy edge.

I studied antenna theory in the Defence Department library - I was working there at the time - and talked to whatever technicians I could get to take an interest in the subject. No solution was forthcoming, so I designed a huge screened antenna to reject reflected signal off surrounding hills, in an attempt to isolate whatever weak signal was coming over the hill. On seeing me struggle to erect the aluminium and netting monstrosity, my neighbour was pleased to find that I seemed even more eccentric than himself. The new structure, resembling half a chicken coop with a yagi array nesting in it, was unique in the district. The result was another small improvement but not the clarity that I had enjoyed in the last house with next to nothing!

It was in this despairing phase, with CD being launched, and musical riches being broadcast free to all those with good FM reception, that I found the rumoured Record Library! Like Atlantis, its existence was shrouded in mystery, and nobody among my circle of friends had actually seen it. I tracked it to a public access building on the edge of the civic centre, and went in. That building was home to all sorts of community groups, and the Recorded Music Society had been going since the days of 78rpm records. At that time the diminishing membership was debating about this new-fangled CD thingy, and it was into this moment of change that I stepped. The annual general meeting was about to take place. And, they needed a new Librarian!

I volunteered - this was the chance to steer the library into the brave new world of CD, and I was keen to do it. The AGM was attended by a few old and a few new members. Nobody seemed more keen to take on the office of librarian than myself, and so it came to pass that for the next few years I bought and catalogued the new CDs for the record library.

Part Four - Developments & Improvisations

The Recorded Music Society Library was only open for a few hours on a couple of days each week. We took it in turns to man the counter and deal with the issues and returns and the questions from the "public". I had nursed thoughts of going into some kind of business for many years, and dealing with people over the counter was not so scary. There was no way the library could be made commercial and remain legal, so I turned my planning towards harnessing the phenomenon of the times.

CD was starting to be popular, and it seemed to me that there would be an upsurge in the acquisition of CDs and, perhaps more importantly for a fledgling startup, the disposal of people's LP collections. I had seen what a thriving business Ashwoods secondhand record shop was (all through the preceding two decades). It was 1988 when I made the move out of Department of Defense and into my own small upstairs shop. A courageous move, as Sir Humphrey of Yes, Minister might have said. I was leaving the security of the public service for an uncertain future in retail, and had an unemployed wife plus three young children - the youngest only one year old at that point. I was buying LPs for resale from people who were selling them off, as well as selling new LPs and new CDs.

The shop was 60 square metres; two rooms, one of which had a view over the plaza and outdoor coffee shops. The other had a huge, immovable safe in it - a legacy from the previous tenant, a jeweler. Down the corridor were a pottery co-op run by ladies, a tailor, and a tattooist. Plenty of local colour, but, as a business, we had zero profile and no shopfront. By the end of the first year I could see that we would not survive on recordings alone. Some of the majors would not sell CDs to us since we dealt in secondhand. New CDs had poor margin. Secondhand LPs had good, and at times great margin, depending on how many you bought and under what circumstances. It was a challenge to field the many musical questions from customers, and I had to learn on the job.

The other direction the business could grow in was towards HiFi equipment. It could accelerate turnover by means of bigger individual sales. Larger premises would be needed, and that in turn would require more staffing.

After two years in the first upstairs location we moved to another one, this time bigger and with a bit more visibility. It had around 120 square meters and a corner location. Along the corridor were a hobby shop, a hairdresser, and the local branch of the Scientologists. So began the mixed business, with the space divided by glass partitions to allow HiFi listening areas separate from the LPs and CDs. It was all done on the cheap with recycled office dividers.

It was time to sign up with those companies who had hitherto not wanted to supply us with CDs because of our secondhand dealings. Over the next year we expanded the turnover in CD and HiFi to the point where LPs were only 10% of the total. That made the decision to let them go a lot easier. I would miss the good margins. It was in shop #2, as I call it, that two partners joined the company - I will respect their privacy and not name them, but one was a music specialist, and the other a hifi specialist. Both were new to the retail world, and we all continued to learn the hard way as we went along. It was during the "depression we had to have" - and we could not have foreseen our next major move, which was counter intuitive to say the least.

Part Five - From La Scala to The Ashes

Dealing in recorded classical music requires a good knowledge of your subject. Some of your customers will be novices and easily looked after. Others will be very educated, and not fooled by your insistence that the latest version by the current wunderkinder is the best ever! Opera lovers are a lot like cricket fans. They know all the singers, and which operas suited their voices, just as cricket followers will know the bowlers & batsmen (past and present) who perform well on particular grounds.

Opera was designed to be a full evening's entertainment, with a couple of intermissions for refreshment and socializing. The combination of music and drama (or comedy) creates a special magic and carries the potential for emotional impact unmatched by any other form. Opera "highlights" may be scorned by serious adherents, but I am not ashamed to admit that they were the entry point for myself, as they are for many others. One LP or CD full of the best tunes from a particular opera gives you a great primer. Working full-time, I still find it hard to sit down and listen through a whole opera. There have been times when this is possible - if you are working around the house you might run through one over a couple of hours. There have been times when I sat down with the full libretto and went through word by word, but not recently.

Our third shop was the big one, our La Scala. From the modest beginnings we had grown to a point where it was possible to contemplate going mainstream - into a street-level shopfront. I had never seen us as having a future in a shopping mall. Rents too high, conditions too onerous. But there was a vacancy which seemed right for us, and after lengthy negotiations we managed to get an agreement we thought we could live with. We settled on a double frontage on the outside of a large mall, on the street rather than inside the centre. At 280 square metres it was big enough to allocate space to CDs and to HiFi, with several listening areas including home theatres. We recycled some elements of the previous shopfit and superimposed new carpet, new glass internal walls, and new display racks. It was everything we wanted, and we experienced triumph and despair, comedy and tragedy - set to music - against this backdrop.

1993 and 1994 were a struggle to get ahead. We were in a bigger ball game, with turnover needing to grow to meet the larger cost structure. By 1995 we had achieved a measure of profitability, were achieving better figures each year, and felt confident enough to renew the lease for a further three years. Even our accountant was happy with the way it was developing. By the end of 1996 we had misgivings, and by mid 1997 our dreams were turning into ashes due to local political and economic factors.

The pressures of small business take their toll on many things in your life, and your enjoyment of long and sometimes rather serious pieces of music tends to be reduced. I found that jazz took over. It is a quick fix, there's plenty of upbeat stuff, the musicianship is of the highest standard, and as someone with a brain that likes improvisations I readily flow along with the soloists. There is a lot to explore, a good 80 years worth of recorded jazz legacy. From greats like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, beginning in the 1920s, you can trace the development of jazz through its various phases and find much to enjoy in all the styles and the unique artists that have come and gone.

By early 1999 we were gone, as a business. The decision to close and move on was hard, but times keep changing, and both the recorded music and the HiFi industries have, since then, had to adapt to a new technological landscape, and the accompanying "business climate" change.

Part Six - Movements & New Beginnings

The last movement of Brahms' 1st Symphony has a beautiful sequence for Horns. It is said that his inspiration for this was the Alpine Horn, which he heard playing such a theme while out walking in the hills. It is tinged with sadness, as if something fine is coming to an end, but there remain some golden rays of a glorious day. He doesn't dwell too long on the melancholy, but having shown it concisely, strikes out bravely in a completely new direction with a full orchestral march.

This played in my mind as I drove away from our home of twenty five years and saw the Brindabella Mountains in the rear-view mirror. I thought I was leaving the music and hifi business behind too. Sydney beckoned, and there were, I thought, other enticing prospects. This became a bumpy period, with a combination of exhaustion after closing down a shop and selling the home, moving an unwilling family to new and, to them, unsatisfactory surrounds, and an overlay of low income and some acute health issues. Within a year I was disillusioned - and back in the hifi business, although working for one of the true gentlemen in the industry, Len Wallis.

Our move coincided with the onset of the Tech Boom, later to become the Tech Wreck. I registered this domain name and kept it on ice until a few years ago. I was fascinated by the potential, having waited for the music business to embrace the new technology and make everything easily available instantly. It has taken more years than I could have believed for this to happen. It seemed so logical and achievable that record companies could stop physical distribution but keep selling their huge backlog of recordings by direct download. Instead, they dithered while file sharing stepped in and cut the ground from under them. In late 1999 I was talking to an owner of a chain of CD shops, with a view to managing one of his stores. I asked him what impact he thought the internet would have on his business - he felt it was not an issue. The record industry has had many bad moments since then.

As I write this in 2008, there is now some sort of order imposed on the market. In the USA you can now use Rhapsody legally, while in Australia you need to fudge it. Digital Rights Management opened the door to iTunes, but now must be discarded if further progress is to be made. Digital wireless networks enable you to tap into your music stored on hard drives (and if uncompressed this is audiophile quality, not just for computer-oriented facilitators) and to play almost anything that's ever been recorded from legitimate subscription libraries like Rhapsody. Update: there are now many more streaming sites of amazing range than there were in 2008.

Record companies have amalgamated and are under pressure from all sides. Classical is suffering and some orchestras are releasing their own material via websites. Pop artists release albums and ask the buyer for "what you think it's worth". This will continue. I still suffer from lack of time to fully enjoy long classical works, but hope to return to them in my semi-retirement, whenever that takes effect! I'm still listening to jazz, and playing keyboard with some workmates in a beginners band - in search of fame and fortune, but for now a garage will suffice.

I resisted the iPod for years, but eventually bought one and it's now absorbed into my kitbag of handy items - partly for professional reasons - it is an adjunct of many mainstream sound systems now. For so many people the convenience of devices like this outweigh the drop in quality stemming from compressed data. It is one of the ironies of our age that as our power to command that any piece of music appear and play now (this instant) increases, our time to actually sit and enjoy it decreases. I now spend two hours each day travelling, so the iPod has a role to play there.

My main music system will (hopefully) always be a heavyweight amplifier (pre & power) driving large floor standing speakers. Whether I play from LP, CD or uncompressed Hard Drive is of little consequence for now. I have around two thousand LPs which I'll hold on to for as long as possible. But one day I know they'll become too large a stock to accommodate in my downsized, empty nest dotage. Technology will ensure that the music collection can be efficiently shrunk for storage when the time to enjoy it increases.


Part Seven - The Road Less Travelled

After two careers, one in the Defence Department for 17 years, then the past 23 years in the music and hifi business, it's got to the stage where I have moved to part time then retirement. There are a number of pursuits I want to devote more time to in this phase, and this website is one of them. Listening to more music, and playing my Yamaha Clavinova are also on the "must do more of" list, as you'd expect. I'm a DIY type, so there are various projects on the go, including some speakers, which I build for enjoyment of the process, and the results so far have been very good.

I'm also more available to write for any magazine, newspaper or website that needs work done. However, the real purpose of this chapter is to look at what I've learnt over time.

Lesson One: Things Keep Changing.

Technological change will always be there, and it was the transition from LP to CD that set me off from my safe but boring public service career into the wilder world of small business. I wanted to be more involved with music, but became more involved with technological change! No sooner had I broadened the scope of my shop from discs alone to add hifi than the surround sound scene started up. Change hasn't stopped since. Laserdisc, DVD, component video, front projection, rear projection, digital surround, plasma screens, digital TV, widescreen, HDTV, HDMI, Blu-ray and that's just on the video side.

Hifi music has seen SACD, DVD-A, ever-increasing sophistication in digital to analogue processing, 24 bit / 192kHz and High Definition downloads. We've had the iTunes/iPod tsunami which advanced availability but threatened quality - until we learned how to overcome the basic MP3 syndrome. Now wireless multi-room combined with online music libraries make nearly everything available any time, which is what I dreamed about back in the 1990s. Asynchronous links in modern DACs mean that your computer can be a quality source, provided your storage algorithm is a good lossless type.

Lesson Two: The Music Or The Hardware Matters Most?

Regardless of the product, be it cars, watches or hifi, there's always a better one than the one you have. But we have probably all come to our love of music through - at least initially - pretty basic equipment. In my case that was mono radio, at portable transistor level! Getting a stereo record player (portable) was a big advance, and that set me on the road to serious music appreciation. I could then start to enjoy a growing record collection which quickly went from bouncy overtures to string quartets and opera. I met my wife at that early stage, and "our song" was Rimsky-Korsakoff's symphonic poem in four movements, Scheherazade. Forty years on, we're still married, and still take some musical gear along with us whenever we travel. It may be a little thing, like the Geneva XS, but we enjoy some music at the end of the day, probably over a glass of wine, wherever we are, even on a modest setup like that.

Does this mean I'm immune to the lure of better gear? Certainly not. Having worked with all levels of hifi up to and including the frighteningly expensive, I can hear what every level has to offer. The more lifelike it sounds, the more exciting or satisfying it gets. But we each have to find a level which we can afford and be happy with. It has been my job to try and fit the right combination of gear to the customer's needs. I've been sensitive to the fact that people have budgets, but also willing to point them at the next level up in order to show them what the improvements yield, and let them decide whether to step up further or not.

I've arrived at a pretty satisfacory set of stereo gear for music - although I have to admit it's all secondhand! The current configuration is Audio Research SP14 pre-amp, McIntosh 2100 power amp (old but great!) and Alon V speakers. The Technics SL110 heavyweight turntable has a Dynavector 501 arm and at present a Supex 900MkIV MC cartridge - the poor man's Koetsu. CDs and SACDs are played from a Marantz DV7600, with the CD's digital output going via a Theta D S Pro basic II (an old DAC - may need to upgrade that at some stage!). Although this is all older equipment, I'm not slumming it by any means. I know this is "hypothetical", but if you made me choose between having a more moderate system with lots of music, or a top notch system with a limited selection of music, I'd take the moderate one.

Lesson Three: People Are a Mixed Bag

Everyone who's spent time in retail knows this, having been on the receiving end of all sorts of approaches from all sorts of people over many years. The view from the customer's side is something we have to see too, and yes, people in retail are also a mixed bag! But one thing you have to say after so many years behind the counter is that it gives you more empathy for others who are in this demanding role.

It's good to be able to assist people to find the right products, music or hifi, things they'll enjoy for years to come. I'm always happy to help those who want help, and try to tolerate those who want to be a bit more assertive, difficult, distrustful, or even combative, up to a point. Patience is a virtue, and it's amazing how the relationship can change within a short space of time.

Lesson Four: Look Forward, But Don't Forget The Past

At present at home I have the ability to play all of the physical formats as follows: 78rpm, 45rpm, 33.3 LP, Reel To Reel Tape, Cassette, VHS, CD, Minidisc, SACD, DVD, DVD-A, Blu-ray and, if I decide to go into HD Tracks, I'm sure it will be no great problem.

Len Wallis, who I admire for many reasons, has a storehouse of old machines which has been referred to for many years as the "Museum Section". These items at present have no space to go on display, but are archived, bubble-wrapped, in the bowels of the building. I do hope they can go on display one day, and that someone donates an Elcaset machine! It's one of the few things missing from the collection so far.

When I first opened my secondhand LP shop (60 square metres, up the stairs, overlooking Garema Place, Canberra, with the tattooists down the corridor) in 1988 I had LPs, CDs and Pianola Rolls! I'd heard that the Mastertouch mob were still going in Petersham, a suburb of Sydney, and went there for a chat. I can't say that the pianola rolls were a raging success, although one or two people were glad to find them. But I can still point to the display of their production gear in the Powerhouse Museum (Castle Hill Annexe) and say I used to stock their product.

Lesson Five: Music Matters

Music is not just a distraction, an entertainment, although it can be. It has been taken to much higher places by composers and songwriters. It can communicate profound things, or the everyday. They say that certain things that cannot be said can be sung. But more than that, music can communicate non-verbally, and transfer feelings. Our emotional responses to music may not be explicable in everyday terms, but they are there. It is an art form which at its peak is incredibly complex to program - and I'm in awe still at the ability of the great composers to put together the code for a symphony, or to weave the additional magic of orchestra and voice and drama which is opera. Or to distill the essence of all that down to four strings in a string quartet, as Beethoven could do, and move me to tears.

In music there is profound truth when told by a master of the subject, a complete master, who can bring into his music the experience of a human life, and teach us by example, placing descriptive musical pictures in front of us. It might be a scene from nature, the city, or an emotional personal self-portrait. Or it might be enjoyment of the sounds for their own sake. Music speaks to us in a special way, sometimes serious, sometimes trivial, but it's certainly addictive - in a healthy way!

To Be Continued? Yes. Maybe. No longer working, but this gives me more time for listening!