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The journey to your ear

(published 28 March 2010 in The Buenos Aires Herald)

In the old days, after the artist, it was about the instrument. That’s why people would go to such lengths to steal a Stradivarius. Today, in the era of amplified and recorded sound, much of the action takes place once the sound leaves the instrument and begins its long journey to your ear.

The ability to make beautiful sounds is power, just as the gift of turning words into poetry is power. Art is power. There are those who chase financial power; others chase political power; but the most ambitious and arrogant are those of us who chase artistic power because art trumps all those lesser powers and even trumps death. (Just ask Orpheus.)

In writing there is the pursuit of the perfect word, the word that through its ingenuity, unexpectedness and perfection, pierces the reader’s heart like an arrow. In music, it is the pursuit of tone.

Anyone can make a note. Most can learn to place a few notes together, but that is just the beginning of the adventure. The real action is what you say with that note and how you say it. A single note can say it all – if it is said right.


Anyone can make a note. Most can learn to place a few notes together, but that is just the beginning of the adventure. The real action is what you say with that note and how you say it. A single note can say it all – if it is said right.


I am testing out a new piece of equipment for my harmonica. It is a small black box with an array of buttons and knobs on it and a foot pedal (like the gas pedal on a car) on the right side. There are LED lights that tell me which section of the device is active or not and there is one LED that flashes in time to the tempo. (The black box is called a VOX ToneLab, which will mean something to you if you are a gearhead, but is immaterial since it doesn’t matter what it’s called: it’s about what it does.)

I plug the cable of my harmonica microphone into it and another cable takes the sound to an amplifier or PA system. I play my harmonica into the mic. The signal travels through wires and electronics and comes out the other end. In the middle, I have only a vague, layman’s understanding of the magic process, but what comes out the other side thrills me. I play with the dials and discover sounds that move me to tears.

It is a mystery to me why this happens. It is enough for me to know that it happens, to let it happen and to be grateful that it does.

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