Cats (feline and cool)

August 13, 2004. My current wife Nancy is in Toronto at a conference. My daughter Alexis is working late. It's almost midnight, and I'm all alone, sitting in the living room with the cats. They are, as usual, zonked out.

I put on a digitally remastered CD of Miles Davis's 1956 Kind of Blue--haven't heard it for, oh, going on 6 or 8 hours now. I fire up my early-'70s McIntosh preamp-amp (130 watts/channel) combo--and ratchet up the volume. The first cut, "So What," always gives me goosebumps. This album defines cool. I am immediately transported. I cannot resist snapping my fingers beatnik-style and bopping around the room, wagging my head like Stevie Wonder. I check to make sure the shutters are closed.

The McIntoshes drive a set of Cambridge Audio speakers (2 massive woofers, 2 cute tweeters). By no means can they run with the big dogs, but they tootle along valiantly. I have ensconced them in the built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the living room. It has for some time irritated me that when the volume spikes at a not particularly high level, it creates a vibration in the bookcase that I cannot isolate--or, to be more precise, that I am too lazy to isolate. I recently hit on a new theory, based on my observation that every automobile has a particular speed at which it vibrates (a function of wheelbase, tire balance/imbalance, and harmonics unique to the vehicle), such that if you drive slightly below or above that speed, the vibration will cease.

Having recently cruised Puget Sound with an old college friend on his magnificent antique wooden cabin cruiser, and having passed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that replaced the infamous "Galloping Gertie," which rent asunder and crashed into the sound in 1940, the physics of vibration has been much on my mind in the past few weeks. My new theory is that rooms have their own frequency, too. As a scientist, I of course feel compelled to test this hypothesis. I could never carry out this experiment when spouse and progeny are at home, so I see a rare window of opportunity tonight to push the boundaries of human knowledge, if only slightly. I take a deep breath, and decide that I am up to the challenge.

I crank the volume up. Way up. And the vibration stops. Or maybe I just can't hear it any more because it is drowned out by the glorious music. But I notice two things immediately: (1) The moulding trim at the top of the living room walls is beginning to separate from the ceiling; and (2) the cats are freaking out, their ears flattened against their heads. Cosmo (the chocolate point) cannot take it for more than a few seconds: he bolts up the stairs, no doubt to cower under Lexie's bed. Zoë (the lilac point) makes a valiant effort to ride out the audio hurricane, gripping the back of the sofa for dear life, head jerking left and right, eyes wide and wild, as she tries desperately but vainly to determine the source of the booming bass. The mark of good woofers is, of course, that they can be placed anywhere in the listening space because the ear cannot locate their source. And it has been my experience that cats simply cannot fathom audio omnidirectionality. I conclude, moreover, that these particular cats just are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the contribution of Miles's groundbreaking late-1950s combo (with 'Trane, Adderley, Cobb, Evans, Chambers and Kelly).

Zoë's stark terror goes on for half a minute or so. Finally she tear-asses up the staircase. Ever analytical, I develop a related hypothesis: Not only bridges and rooms, but also Siamese cats, resonate to a particular frequency. And I conclude that the two specimens we own just aren't ready for modal jazz.

I make a note in my laboratory journal to try some early '60s Brubeck on them, as well as something from Getz's Brazilian phase. But it is not likely that they will be able to handle Ornette Coleman or--God help us--Eric Dolphy anytime soon. We'll definitely have to work up to those guys, a little at a time.

I resolve to put together an experimental protocol this weekend.


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