This morning my wife and I entered a gallery in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district, and signed our names on a ledger. We were the only patrons. Jazz music played in the distance.
We passed by a series or modern sculptures and entered a room separated from the rest of the gallery by curtain. In the room there was one exhibit. The sound system by Devon (Ojas) Turnbull. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme played on a vintage Studer tape deck. For a few precious minutes we had the room to ourselves.
Before I consider the cultural importance of listening to Devon’s system in a high art gallery in NY, I want rewind and review how I came to write these words neither as an art connoisseur or audio reviewer.
My journey with vintage audio systems goes back to my early 20s. Like a lot people in this hobby, I had a friend who had a friend, but my childhood friend had a 1920s warehouse. And in that warehouse he stored (and still does) thousands of pieces of vintage home audio, and maybe more importantly, cinema sound system gear. He went down a deep hole, building parabolic horns from fiberglass, and listening to Western Electric drivers in the near field on tennis rackets while trying to convince anyone who would listen about their sonic capabilities.
This was the early days of the Internet and the global flea market. Vintage cinema gear wasn’t valued in the U.S. Single screen cinemas were being torn down in every small town in America, and often the equipment went with it. My friend was part of small group who were salvaging gear.
But I was in college. I didn’t have time, money, or space. I had an appreciation for what he was up to, but could only look in from the outside.
When I bought my first house, he packed a beautiful Leak Stereo 20 (which he still probably owns) and drove it cross country. We installed and attached some B&W speakers. The seeds were sown.
Life happens. Interests change. Responsibilities become more pressing. A lot of my friend’s and his contemporaries collections are now on display in Akihabara or on eBay ready to pack and ship back to the US. Is it an outcome I am happy with? Not necessarily, but I am also happy they didn’t end up in the dumpster. Hell I’m happy when I save a lowly Fisher tube receiver meeting its untimely demise.
Fast forward 20 years. My wife, who is Venezuelan, and I decided to buy a house in Miami to make easier to host her family visits. I was working from home and COVID had increased everyone’s interests in home audio. Part of my requirements for our home was to have a dedicated audio room. And when I went to build out that room, I went back to my memories in that warehouse — tubes, high efficiency speakers, and analog.
Unbeknownst to me, Devon Turnbull had been studying the culture which had been on the buying end of the U.S. equipment, and slowly creating a following for his high efficiency kits and horn speakers. I became aware of his work via Instagram last year. I was building my system around a vintage pair of high efficiency Altec speakers, but they lacked the ability to play low frequencies effectively and it was hard to match them with modern subwoofers because of their high efficiency design.
Which is how I came to contact Devon. On his IG, he started posting pictures of a huge speaker in a massive box. Looking at the design, I knew this woofer was the way forward with my vintage speakers. I pinged Devon and he very graciously explained what it was and where to get it. I week later a semi-truck rolled up to my house and unloaded the 31” speaker on a pallet.
Which brings me to the Lisson Gallery. In a month preceding the exhibit, Devon built a full system around a set of custom horn speakers and, of course, the massive woofer. The system is an interactive display at the Lisson Art Gallery. I’m not a religious person per-se, but walking through the curtains and into the empty room with a 15 IPS reel-to-reel tape playing John Coltrane on Devon’s system was nearly a spiritual experience.
Since I had this experience during a gallery exhibit, I have to ask the question: are audio systems art? When I personally think about building and listening to my system, I don’t think of it as trying to reproduce a live event. I’m not even sure what that means in the context of some of my favorite modern compositions by artists like James Blake and Floating Points. Instead I view it as working with the artists to present their work — their art.
For me the audio system is more like a canvas or a frame than a theater. But some frames are more exceptional than others, worthy of their own admiration, and that’s where Devon’s system resides. The frame is so beautiful, you have to have to recognize the work which went into the frame. So in a meta sense, I can view the distribution mechanism as the art itself. At least the folks at the Lisson see it that way.
The exhibit changes a few things:
- Vintage audio design aesthetics are going to become mainstream. If the rest of the audio industry isn’t paying attention to what is happening here, then they are purposefully ignoring it.
- Audio reproduction will (probably rightfully) be viewed as art in and of itself.
- The act of listening will start to become de-commoditized.
The third point requires more investigation. In the U.S., listening has been relegated to the background of life. In someways recorded music is everywhere, but it lives nowhere. Rarely is listening to recorded music the forefront of the activity. Devon’s approach changes that, and brings the Japanese listening room experience to the U.S.
While they are fewer in number Jazz Kissas, which are cafes where the act of listening to recorded music is the focal point, are still prevalent in Japan. The concept goes back to post World War II when audio systems and space were in limited supply in Japan. Cafes opened to listen to the latest music on the latest audio components imported from the U.S. while sipping tea or a drink — maybe with a snack. Not only do these style of cafes still exist, the tradition of using vintage audio gear, similar to Devon’s, still exists as well.
While the concept is starting take hold in the U.S. with a few Jazz Kissa style bars opening around the country, the closest I’ve experienced to an actual Tokyo Jazz Kissa in the U.S., was at the Lisson Gallery.
After John Coltrane finished, I had the pleasure to meet Devon himself and talk about this system prior this his friend Russell Fine taking over the turntable.
Russell is a record collector with an impressive selection of original Blue Note jazz records in pristine condition. Russell introduced records and cued them while passing around the sleeves for people to view and read. And we, the audience, participants in the exhibit, sat and listened. Some even clapped at the end of a track. It was by far the most connected group recording listening experience I’ve ever had. Nothing I’ve ever experienced comes close.
There is a term I’ve heard Devon use in conjunction with this style of listening. He calls it a practice. Just as yoga, or meditation is a practice, cueing and listening to recorded music can be a practice as well.
- Select the recording
- Pull from the record from the sleeve
- Put the record on the table
- Clean record with brush
- Set volume to zero
- Put stylus on record
- Adjust the volume to listening level
- Listen to the recording
- Evaluate how the recording impacts you
- Remove the stylus from the record
- Replace the record in its sleeve
This is an active form of listening. I see Devon’s approach of actively listening as a practice. I think the term applies.
I view the exhibit as a turning point. For the industry, it is return the roots of audio reproduction. It is also the point at which audio systems will be viewed as art. Culturally it is return to listening to music as an active pastime. In my opinion this represents a significant shift in the hobby and industry, and I’m excited to see where things go next. I will stayed tuned in, and continue the practice.