Art Dudley: Some Memories of a Virtual Friendship

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Art Dudley: Some Memories of a Virtual Friendship

14 April 2020 is a sad, dark day for those of us in the fraternity of audio reviewers and reporters. Around four that morning the cancer over which he was once victorious finally claimed the life of Art Dudley. Unlike his colleagues at Stereophile, which carried his “Listening” columns and equipment reviews since January 2003, or several of mine at The Absolute Sound, where he worked for a year in the mists of time, I never met Art in person or even spoke to him by phone. But for his YouTube videos—this one will give you a nice introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0zwPWJdUXw—I wouldn’t know what he looked like or the sound of his voice. Yet for several years we had a lively, lovely, albeit very sporadic email correspondence that developed into what at least from my end I considered a friendship. It didn’t hurt that we admired and, what matters more, enjoyed each other’s writings, despite the fact that our tastes in equipment were far from congruent. He surely scratched his head over many of mine as I did over many of his, though we did lock arms around the one classic component on which there is universal agreement as to its greatness: the original Quad ESL, which we both owned. I restored mine by writing a check to Wayne Piquet, but Art did the job himself—a down-to-the frame rebuild—and wrote up the odyssey in a two-part “Listening” column (#42-43, June-July 2006) that is still the best do-it-yourself audio article I’ve ever read.

Art was first and foremost a personal writer who made no pretense to being “objective” and no apology for being subjective. He appeared not to give a farthing about such typical audiophile concerns as frequency response, neutrality, colorations, measurements, transparency, even noise and distortion (provided, I assume, they weren’t positively, intrusively gross). As for imaging and soundstaging, well, he dispatched them in a column (#94, October 2010) about a Shindo preamplifier, declaring, “Some day, listeners who respond to the sound of Shindo gear may help reclaim the art of critical listening from the ninnies who think it has something to do with ‘locating images in space.’" The mention of Ken Shindo, whose idea of a powerful amplifier was 20 watts, suggests that the one typical audiophile category that really mattered to Art a lot—he was explicit about this on a YouTube video—is dynamic range, hence his preference (Quad ESLs not withstanding) for vintage horn-loaded loudspeakers (Altec Lansing Valencias and Flamencos among his favorites), the better to be driven by the low-powered SET tube amplifiers he loved (again, Shindo’s). For Art, at least as I interpret his writings, a principal, if not the principal requirement from equipment when it comes to reproducing music is rhythmic connectedness and melodious flow, a togetherness of surge, pulse, and beat that is what I assume he meant by “timing,” a descriptive he frequently used. Hence his preference for vintage record-playing gear, notably Garrard 301 and Thorens TD124 turntables, with their powerful motors and idler-driven platters.

Art surely knew that a good bit of his thinking was, shall we say, unorthodox. But he also knew that his opinions, though strongly held and beautifully articulated, were just that: his opinions, expressions of his personal tastes, priorities, likes and dislikes. And that knowledge plus a personality seemingly incapable of being other than soft-spoken, truly well intentioned, and genuinely friendly all conjoined to keep his work from becoming arrogant, pretentious, nasty, or insulting. When the mood was on him, however, he could certainly be prickly, as that crack about “ninnies” suggests. Here’s another: “17 years of writing about audio have left me believing that most ultra-expensive turntables, amps, speakers, and even cables are junk. Even the ones that sound good are usually incapable of doing what I expect from a hi-fi: emit a string of notes and beats convincing enough that I can mistake it for music.” That is from his first column, “Listening” #1 (January 2003)—talk about a shot across the bow! (“Junk” is unduly harsh, but I’d have to lie to say that my experience of a helluva lot of ultra-expensive gear doesn’t mirror his.)

For the most part, however, his essays and reviews were marked by a conviviality rare in audio writing, where prejudices far too often fuel, and rule, passions. Some audio reviewers write to convince you they and they alone are right; my impression of Art is that he wrote merely to share his pleasure. (You may decide which is the more reliable motive.) If anything kept him awake at night, I suspect it was a fear that something he had written might make a reader feel bad about said reader’s own equipment, especially if that equipment brought him the enjoyment of music. I doubt Art ever wanted his readers to become “Audiophiles.”

It’s the poor critic who has never felt about his endeavors the way the poet Marianne Moore occasionally felt about hers: “I too dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Art’s columns and reviews are filled with just enough references to his wife, his daughter (we exchanged photographs of our daughters at various ages), his friends, his pets, his houses, his musings on life, art, philosophy, ethics, automobiles, guitar playing, and other enthusiasms to make us realize that while audio was a part of his life, it was by no means his whole life. He ideally mediated earnestness and irony, and he had a wry, sly, and subtle sense of humor that far oftener than not he turned on himself more than on others. One of the things we discovered early in our correspondence is that we both appreciated the pleasures of a martini, and not the James Bond forgery, but the real thing, made from the spirit infused with juniper. Art was partial to Bombay Sapphire—no argument here, but I always hoped that one day I’d be able to introduce him to the pleasures of Plymouth and The Botanist.

By every available testimony Art was a generous man, and this is something to which I can personally attest because I was a recipient. He was a bluegrass enthusiast (from all reports, a gifted performer of same). What I know about bluegrass wouldn’t overflow a thimble, so one day I emailed him asking if he would recommend a few recordings to get me started. I heard nothing for several weeks until he emailed back asking for my shipping address. He had finally tracked down an LP of The Dave Grisman Quintet, “the perfect starting point for investigating bluegrass.” He apologized that the copy “isn’t quite perfect” but hoped I would enjoy “this slightly flawed late-birthday present.” My birthday had come and gone about six weeks earlier, and, no, I have no idea how he knew it. What particularly struck me about this gift was not only the obvious thought and effort that went into it. He could as easily have given me the compact disc, and it’s also available on Qobuz and Tidal, any of which would have been perfectly satisfying. Rather, it’s that being a vinyl man, he believed vinyl the best way to experience this recording, which he loved; and since I was a friend and a friend moreover whom he knew to be discriminating about sound, nothing less would do than the format he deemed best for introducing the music to me. This speaks volumes about his values and the standards he must have set in other areas of his life as well.

The last communication I had from Art is dated 22 November 2019, one year to the day after the belated birthday gift. We’d had an agreeable exchange about an audio designer over whose accomplishments the merits of which we did not agree. I shall always cherish Art’s closing salutation: “I still look forward to the day when you and I can debate this over a couple of good gin martinis!”

When my copy of Stereophile is delivered each month, I always go immediately to “Listening” because I know that most of the time I’ll find a fresh perspective, a way of listening or thinking about music and sound that hadn’t occurred to me, an interesting recording, some weird component that only he could discover, or just because it is such great fun to tag along as he rambles and ruminates. Now, beginning with the July issue, I’ll have to decide to whom or what I’ll turn my attention first. But maybe not just yet. I think what I may do instead over the next few months, as each new issue arrives, is reread one or two of Art’s columns—there are 210 to choose from, after all, without even counting the formal equipment reviews. It won’t be like it used to be, but in the short run it’ll do.