A PAIN IN THE EAR
Some Reflections on Amplified Sound
Amplification at musical events is frequently over the top: not just too loud, but ugly, even painful. Those who go regularly to musical shows often grumble about it. And yet the punters rarely complain to the management, particularly if it's a special occasion – having shelled out well over a hundred quid a couple, including transport and dinner, they don't want to 'spoil the evening'. Instead, they grit their teeth and endure an ear-blistering performance which they might well have enjoyed more at home on the hi-fi.
The reasons for the steady crescendo in our theatres and concert halls are complex and take us into the areas of history, economics, drug addiction and sex. Although humans have always been fascinated by the massively overpowering, even the mediaeval mega-producers who gave us the gothic cathedrals were content to provide them with relatively small vocal and instrumental ensembles. Not until the nineteenth century was there a determined effort to make music as loud as possible. This took the form of massed choirs, the hugely augmented romantic organ, and the modern symphony orchestra, its traditional instruments multiplied and redesigned to make them louder and grander. All this had to be paid for by larger audiences in larger venues which in turn required still larger forces. Once you had arrived at Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and the Mormon Tabernacle organ, you had more or less reached infinity.
Then came the microphone, the amplifier and the loudspeaker. At first their quality was so atrocious that they were useful only to cabaret singers and demagogues. ('Without the loudspeaker,' wrote Hitler in 1938, 'we would never have conquered Germany.') A crew of rough-and-ready technicians emerged whose single brief was, Make it loud! Given the primitive equipment, making it beautiful was out of the question.
Thus electronic amplification evolved along with political rallies and pop music. Technology is a steady accretion of solutions to specific problems, and the parameters were set by people whose requirements precluded subtlety and refinement. Both politicians and pop producers demanded an irresistibly addictive visceral excitement. Like other drugs, the effects wear off and more volume is needed to produce the same high.
In the short term, the brain has a built-in 'limiter' which gradually reduces noise above a certain level as if by a volume control. If the levels of amplification are unchanged, they appear to be lower at the end of a rock concert or rally than at the beginning – and so, like Alice, you must keep running faster to stay in the same place.
In the long run, the protective mechanism is more drastic. Listen loud and long enough, and you go deaf. The professionals who control the sound at most public events, as well as the musicians who participate regularly in amplified concerts, are at varying stages in this process and the audience, like passive smokers, must share the pollution.
'What about the 1812 Overture then?' asks the educated rocker. It is true that a symphony orchestra may be loud for brief intervals, but a rock concert reaches maximum level at once and stays there for the rest of the evening. It's the difference between eating Mexican food and knocking back chili sauce.
Finally – I hadn't forgotten – sex. The man behind the desk is not merely obeying orders. Most sound engineers are macho males who get a large charge out of the number of kilowatts they control with their dancing digits. Around them are thousands of adolescents whose excitement they can raise to fever pitch with the flick of a fader: it's even more satisfying than straddling a souped-up Harley. The question I get asked most often by the pop freaks at a concert is 'How many watts have you got?'
ONLY within the last few years did quality improve to the point where amplification of traditionally acoustic music was tolerable. A big incentive was the escalating cost of public performance, requiring venues of a size which made intimacy an expensive anachronism. Now that miniature radio mics are more or less reliable, even opera, along with musical comedy, is fair game. Unfortunately for music lovers, many of the technicians who operate the equipment at classical concerts are still trained in the pop world and earwashed by its conventions. Furthermore, even classical musicians, being human, are corruptible – once they have tasted the power of pandemonium, some are loathe to relinquish it.
The disease is also endemic to jazz, including gigs in small venues where the bands are quite loud enough on their own. Even sadder, classical Indian musicians often lose their cool in front of a microphone, demanding sound levels which destroy the subtlety of timbre and dynamics they have spent a lifetime acquiring.
The serious avant-garde succumbed long ago to the aesthetics of the Big Bang. Festivals of electro-acoustic music are as likely as heavy metal marathons to send you away with your ears ringing. One university-owned amplification system has been given a circumlocutory name which contracts to the deliberately aggressive acronym, BEAST.
In between, the middle-brow spectaculars follow the same bandwagon. The Eureka Event of Excellence [sic] in Rotterdam, graced by the presence of Queen Beatrix of Holland and President Mitterand, was a synthesizer concert by Vangalis which boasted the 'largest computer controlled sound system in the world'. Precautions were taken to prevent access by boat to the area surrounding the loudspeakers, where peak levels were estimated to reach 150 decibels, well beyond the threshold of pain. Rainbow Warrior, where were you when we needed you?
TWO anecdotes frame my thesis. First, I went unwillingly to a West End performance of 42nd Street and was amazed to hear amplified sound of such purity and restraint that during the interval I went looking for the sound engineer. She [!] proved to be a girl in her early twenties whose tympanic membranes had not yet been violated. I hope she has preserved her innocence.
The second story, alas, is the usual denouement of the first. I was asked to provide amplification for a highly respected classical composer who often tickles the ivories at classy New York night spots. The volume he demanded from his stage monitors (the loudspeakers that performers use in order to hear themselves) made even the back rows of the audience uncomfortable. A friend of his apologised that years of loud amplification had left him too deaf to realize what was happening.
It doesn't have to be like this. There are now specialists in 'sound enhancement' who never approach such ear-splitting excesses. One of my most satisfying concerts was with an early music ensemble at the Queen Elisabeth Hall, providing a modicum of invisible and undetectable assistance. Non-pop audiences don't want all that racket: in thirty years I've never had a concert-goer complain that the amplification wasn't loud enough.
PERHAPS it's time to organize a protest group. If the infamous right-wing preacher Jerry Faldwell hadn't got there first, I'd call it The Silent Majority. Fortunately, there's an alternative.
A remarkable American composer died a few years ago. He was large in stature, unrestrained in appetite and vociferous in opinion, but his compositions, sometimes several hours long, rarely rose above a mezzo-piano. You could sit through a concert of his delicate music and gradually readjust your sensory threshold to a level of sensitivity that our noise-polluted society rarely permits.
In his honour, I would like to launch the Morton Feldman Society. The logo will be the international 'prohibited' sign (circle and oblique line) covering a microphone. We will gather periodically at, perhaps, a Friends Meeting House, arriving by bicycle. The proceedings will open with meditation, followed by a performance of John Cage's 4'33". The minutes will then be read silently by all from a projection screen and voted upon by a show of hands. And we'll nod to each other on the way out.
©1995 John Whiting
Five years after I wrote this I was the sound designer for a production at Frankfurt Opera. The music was provided by two percussionists wielding chrome steel hammers against an array of enormous steel sheets and rods. The opera’s eminent German composer instructed me that during the last ten minutes I should take the sounds they produced and amplify, distort and multiply them, raising their volume and density to the point where the audience would be driven out. The work would thus conclude with an empty hall.
I followed his instructions with enthusiasm. The audience remained riveted to their seats. At the end they applauded politely, as though they had just been treated to a Mozart string quartet, and quietly filed out. One or two stopped at my mixing desk at the rear of the auditorium and asked questions about my treatment techniques. I’m sure their response would have been no different if I had brought blood from their ears.