Herb Reichert - Learning to Listen

Reading books, studying art, watching films, and listening to recorded music are ritual acts distinguished by the thought-filled solitude of the experiences they demand.

I discovered the full significance of these solitary acts while screening my all-time favorite film The Turin Horse. Made in 2011, The Turin Horse is a black and white philosophical meditation directed by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr and his wife Agnes Hranitzky. It is two hours and twenty-two minutes long and contains less than twenty minutes of dialogue; which occurs all in one intense scene roughly half way through.

Tarr’s masterpiece is set against a bleak mise-en-scène of relentless wind and apocalyptic dust. The film portrays an aging farmer and his beautiful daughter, in a rugged stone house on a desolate plain, eating potatoes, fetching water from a well and caring for an obstinate horse that refuses to eat or leave the barn. Much of the film’s action involves the daughter boiling potatoes and staring out a dirty window. Imagine two hours of slow moving silence, abject loneliness, and nihilistic despair.

I forced a friend to watch this film and he bailed after thirty minutes, saying, “… It has no plot and no dialogue, not even a real soundtrack. What am I watching this for?”

“To access the horror of your mind.” I told him. He moaned and changed the subject.

János Derzsi and Erika Bók in The Turin Horse

Bela Tarr’s film illustrates clearly the difference between art and entertainment. The later of which is carefully engineered to distract us from our thoughts and make time pass quickly as a result of our narrative-induced absorption. Fine art on the other hand, uses sense-oriented non-narrative pleasures like movement, lighting, atmosphere, color, texture and sound, to slow time down and lure us into meditative introspection. Rigorous (non-decorative) art shows us our anxiety when confronted by the inscrutable and unknowable. It forces us to be alone with our thought stream.

(The abject horror of an infinite silence is likely the root cause of our fear of death.)

Obviously, most humans go to extreme lengths to NOT be alone with their thought stream. News, melodrama, social media, and pop music are just a few of the tools we use to dissociate from the anxiety of introspection.

But today folks, I want to advocate for the anxiety of introspection – especially if you are an audiophile. I want to show you how to be just you and your thoughts in that sweet spot between your stereo speakers. I want to illustrate how to listen mindfully to the force and quality of sound energy that pulses through the space around you. I am going to do this by explaining, step-by-step, how I do it.

In the realm of persons who audition hi-fi equipment for pay, two things distinguish me from most others: Firstly, I am a professional artist that makes oil paintings on wood, sculptures of wood and wax, and silver-gelatin prints from analogue-film negatives. What this certifies is: I spend a lot of time alone – experimenting, studying, and pondering – hoping to recognize a quality art object when it appears in front of me. I could not make my art effectively without the extensive art and philosophy vocabulary I learned in graduate school. I think in words and pictures and the more images and word meanings I have stored in my scull, the more I am able to distinguish if the art I am making is any good.

These ritual art-making acts of studying and repeatedly assessing the aesthetic of an INERT object are perfectly analogous to the act of sitting alone with two speakers pondering the form and nature of the ACTIVE sonic forces pressurizing my room. I can’t tell if a hi-fi system sounds good if I have never experienced a good sounding h-fi.

Secondly, I have imagined, then built with my own hands, over one hundred audio amplifiers. The amp-building processes of conception, fabrication, and testing are exactly the same as making art or composing a story like this. To successfully design and build an audio amplifier I needed to first be able to imagine – then recognize – when the amplifier is doing a proper or improper job driving whatever speakers I am using in the design process. To create a good amp, I needed first to become an experienced listener.

Q: How can you become a good listener? A: Practice.

Anton's picture

This = awesome: "I think in words and pictures and the more images and word meanings I have stored in my scull, the more I am able to distinguish if the art I am making is any good."

Other page one things: I think we can appreciate something as "good" without prior experience of similar things.

Another. Don't forget, what we call 'classical' was the pop music of its day. Think about how commonly we see bits of Haydn in kid's music. "Pop music" is an artificial way, and arbitrary term used to separate music from music. I don't favor that.

Page two: Agreed, music indeed induces "wandery" or exultation. I have discussed this with fellow audiophiles, and many tell me they can concentrate solely on the song and sound for an entire song. I am dubious regarding the veracity of such claims! Put me in your category. They don't call it a musical journey for nothing!

Page three: Disagree on this..."the only good reason to spend audiophile money on a stereo is to gift yourself the opportunity of experiencing as much as you can of the art and sound of humans playing handcrafted musical instruments."

I admit to enjoying things like electronic music, John Cage conducting boat horns, etc. What you describe is completely fine, however. I don't mean to undermine your direction!


I agree about doing 'everything' in a state of mindfulness, but then I also approve of sometimes slipping away from that. I had a wonderful art professor in college who would watch us while we worked. Sometimes, he'd come up to a piece and artist and say, "Stop thinking!"

There can be a lot of mindfulness in mindlessness, it turns out! One can start working on something without knowing a final intention or artistic destination and then discover where one's own mind takes one without the artist/creator even 'knowing' it. I admit to having finished some things and only then realizing, "Oh, so that's what that was." I think making art can create a sense of insight 'after the fact' for the creator as well as other times creation being an intentional expression of meaning or intent.


Anyway, thank you for another great piece. I am still synthesizing my own way of thinking about sound in the context of your past descriptions of what a piece of gear is drawing your intention to, and how that can be intertwined with our own natural propensity to drift in and out of objective attentiveness. I guess you could say I am trying to find the whole where the sound gets in and allows my mind its wandering, where it will go.

Thanks again for another beautifully done, insightful, and thoughtful/thought provoking article - we couldn't ask any more of you.

Everclear's picture

The Art of listening? :-) .........

Herb Reichert's picture

I agree completely with every one of your observations. I wish you could have told me these things before I finished I would have written it differently. I really mean that. Especially, the part about mindlessness as a higher form of mindfulness.

I exaggerated the "mindfulness" concept for effect because I wanted to start newcomers on the road to seeing/hearing their music as a whole continuous vibrating event that should not be separated from the the inner and outer vibration of just Being in the world. And of course it is like my favorite Zen poet Yogi said, "I can't think and hit at the same time." Thank you very much for your thoughtful reading.

peace and Mr. MaGoo,

Iholatris18's picture

Your articles, in general, are infused with perspicacity, incisiveness, sensibilities and knowledge - qualities that I admire and have no hesitation in apportioning them to deserving exponents such as yourself.

I would like, however, to make some points in relation to this particular article. Firstly, my wife, who is an amateur artist ( painter ) thoroughly enjoyed and related to your opening thoughts, but ...became progressively "disengaged and disorientated" as you entered into our hard-core hobby!

Secondly, I have recordings of the mentioned labels with a prevalence of M.A recordings ( 15 in total ). I have the particular CD by Milcho Leviev and your points are valid and entirely endorsed by me, although tracks 5 and 6 might have been more appropriate examples ( track 10 with prepared piano is my favourite ). And of course you could have used a number of other M.A recordings, such as "With Space in Mind" and " The Old County".

Thirdly, epicentral to your thesis is, as you state, "mindful and critical listening"....Agreed. However, you avoid the phrase "analytical listening". I am aware that this is often used pejoratively to refer to pedantic and obsessive assessments of the playback components but, in my view, " analytical listening" is not a dirty phrase and can, in this case, be synonymous wit mindful \ conscious listening.

Fourthly, all these fine and discreet points that you are rightly advancing will be much facilitated ( if not entirely dependent upon ) a good....a very good...an excellent system to render and expose them to the astute listener. I am fortunate to have such a revealing, transparent Martin Logan CLX ART based system in an acoustically conducive room, which allows me to hear and appreciate every element of the recording - spatial, temporal, rhythmic, melodic and emotional.

Finally, whist your dictum (as an end in itself): "You can't hear what you are not listening for" is persuasive and aphoristic, it is in my view incomplete because it leaves out the required medium, that of a highly resolving playback system.

Be always in good health and enjoy your chosen music in both sound and silence. May I also urge you to continue living out of curiosity and NOT habit. I apologise for any antithetical views expressed. Your article was brilliant.

I listen, always learning. Cheers, Kostas Papazoglou.

wakulla's picture

He has quite a sense of humor. And I hear he enjoys a nip. Bet he'd be great company down in your Bunker.

wakulla's picture

... are really wonderful, btw ... and why I keep reading Stereophile and its related sites. Not only yours, but any of the really thoughtful philosophical pieces. More, more, more ...

Anton's picture

They have certainly enhanced how I pay attention to how I listen.

wwc's picture

for your fearlessness (in sharing with the world that your favorite film is The Turin Horse)-- and humor (in describing your friend's reaction to The Turin Horse)-- and you willingness to dig deep where most audiophiles dare not go...

I struggle with the discipline needed to experience the most from music. It is, as you say, a conscious meditative experience. Music is often a "soundtrack" for me as I go about getting a variety of work done. I shift in and out of acute awareness-- sometimes for just a few seconds. But those few seconds can be deep and wondrous.

When I make the time to try and give total focus, I get the best results when I abstract the music from narrative or associations and just become aware of pure sound, rhythm and the interplay among musicians at play. This is where I try to go when listening to jazz or modern "classical."

It's the same way I listen to singing birds in nature-- pure, abstract sound. Bird sounds were one of the primary influences on the great French composer Oliver Messiaen, btw.