Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Sounds of Our Times

Emory Cook, a Dacron-Wearing Audio Geek from Upstate New York, Was the Perfect Man to Record the Sounds of Trinidad’s Independence

Discussed: A Velvety-Smooth Complexion, Dead Rooms, The World of the Ear, Kilts on Parade, Royalty-Free Records, Presence, Denizens of Panyards, Rum and Coca-Cola, Gin and Bitters, A Historic Verbal Duel, White Sounds, A Pure Heart

In the spring of 1952, as a generation of young men boosted by the GI Bill began buying new homes, and new big-finned cars to park outside them, the last great era of American capitalism was getting under way. The American business of recording and selling sounds was also changing. In 1952, teen fans of pop music, like “ethnic” fans of country western and rhythm and blues, were still wearing out 78-rpm singles, or lightweight 45s, on their barroom’s jukeboxes or bedroom consoles. But a new vinyl format—the 33⅓ Long-Play record—had begun appearing in stores, and a new consumer audio-equipment market was on the rise, aimed at getting those prospering veterans to spend their disposable dollars on home “hi-fis.” These developments didn’t just transform the soundscape of the United States; the rise of the LP shaped the culture and politics of hundreds of nations just then transforming themselves from colonies of old Europe into new member states of the U.N. In March of that year, the New York Times published a column (under the headline HIGH FIDELITY—DOES IT EXIST?) that laid out a new philosophy of sound for a hi-fi world.

The column’s author, though hardly a household name today, was as instrumental as his better-known contemporaries were in shaping the LP age. Emory Cook began his Times column lamenting the fact that the phrase high-fidelity, which was at the time plastered onto audio equipment and records of wide-ranging quality, had become “a banal expression.” In the early ’50s, advertisers were selling everything from “high-fidelity” lipstick to “high-fidelity” Dacron shirts. Cook counseled his readers that anyone could become an expert at recognizing “the fearful discrepancy between reproduced music and music.” To do so, he suggested, they need only go to a concert:

Listen there for the velvety-smooth complexion of the overtones of the string section; hear the abrupt rubbery sound of the rosin on the soloist’s bow; commit to memory the make-up of the piano note, especially the “attack,” or beginning of each note. Feel the physical sensation of bass in pitch, not boom. Listen, if you can, less for enjoyment this time, and more for memory—and for days afterward you will be an expert judge of high fidelity.

Cook bewailed the fact that “modern studios have evolved to the point where they are unnatural places in which to originate sounds.” He contended that recording music in an acoustically “flat” studio—a sound-absorbent space free from the world’s overtones and echoes—was a practice to which all music lovers should object. “We listen to [music] for its emotional or spiritual impact,” he wrote; “and, to be effective in that direction, the reproduction must lead us back in fancy to some concert hall or auditorium—or night spot—where once we heard it alive and in the flesh.” A high-fidelity recording, in other words, should capture not merely a sound itself but the context of its airing in the world.

Since Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, in 1877, many of Edison’s followers had pursued a recording ideal the obverse of Cook’s—the idea, as Edison put it, that “I can record the voices better than any person in a theater can hear them”: that the aim of recording a voice or viola should be to capture its “pure tones,” without earthly echoes or extraneous sound. Cook was hardly the first to reject this ideal: the debate over whether one could (or should) “record the room as much as the music” had enflamed audio engineers since the advent of electronic recording. In the postwar years, true-blue Edisonians may have been on the wane, but there remained plenty of enthusiasts for the foam-walled “dead rooms” they favored. Cook’s Times column was notable not merely for the depth of its animus against those engineers (“It’s like dying, being in a dead room”), but for heralding an emergent consensus among high-fidelity enthusiasts that sound and space were intrinsically linked: that a great recording could make of a listener’s living room another place and time.

During the following half decade, Cook came to be recognized as both the leader and primary symbol of the high-fidelity craze. That trend—which attended the large-scale movement of America’s populace from city apartments to new suburban homes, where, as the editor of High Fidelity magazine put it, “the living room was establishing… itself as the center of American recreational life”—was built around Cook’s ideas. And by the end of the 1950s, interest in high fidelity would forge the economies of scale needed to make high-end audio equipment a part of many Americans’ lives, midwifing the emergence of a new social type—the audiophile—and fostering the advent of “live” recording and stereophonic sound. Cook shaped these trends as a developer of high-end audio equipment, and then as a maker of records—which captured sounds ranging from choral singing to bullfrogs croaking in a pond—to evince his ideas about how best to use it. But perhaps the most interesting and persistent aspect of Cook’s influence is the resonance his ideas—and records—found in another place entirely.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a geographer and writer living in California and the Caribbean.

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