Sound check: Is it loud enough?
The anonymous teacher who kept Mary Burwell busy copying his sometimes amusing observations on the lute (c.1668) had this to say in The 16th. Chap: Concerning Errours & Abuses that are committed about the Lute (f. 90):
The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but a few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine…
…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be
preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to
please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a
multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).
The fact is, professional lutenists of today nearly always play in venues that are too large for the instrument to be heard to its best advantage. This is probably the most difficult anachronism we encounter when attempting to convincingly convey the aesthetic of old music to modern audiences. Unfortunately, fellow musicians accustomed to the more robust sounds of their modern instruments, can sometimes exacerbate the problem with uninformed snap judgments that associate amplitude with quality.
The first piece on a concert program typically elicits some fairly predictable results and there is a distinct observable phenomenon among audience members. The initial audience reaction is that the music is not loud enough. There is a slight but detectable leaning forward, accompanied by creased foreheads. The performers can never be sure whether puzzled listeners are shifting into judgmental or problem-solving mode when forced to apply a bit of effort in order to hear the music. By the end of the first piece, it seems a level of comfort is reached, with some members of the audience probably making a silent mental note to have their hearing checked soon.
But if the performers are successful, the audience becomes more and more focused during the performance, and is drawn into the sound-world created by the musicians. Choice of repertory, pacing, variety and interpretive decisions are significant factors in creating this sound-world, but performers need to be constantly aware that they are the guides and, now that the audience is listening closely, every nuance must be controlled.
As an example, we excerpt below a message sent by the host of one of our concerts, an organist who was sharing his eloquent observations with other organists:
“Your concert was revelatory in several ways, especially as it
challenged our ears and hearts to enter a realm difficult to access these
days, where subtlety and elegance trump flash and flamboyance, and
content, rather than effect, is primary.”
“Your concert also prompted me to post a note to a pipe organ listserv
(over 1,300 subscribers) on which I am a very active participant. Here’s
what I wrote:
“We hear a lot about instruments with huge acoustic impact,
oceans of rumbling bass, batteries of big reeds, and all that. I
would be (one of) the last to say this stuff isn’t both impressive
and lots of fun. But I find that people are also profoundly moved by the
other end of the experiential spectrum…
“We had a related experience this evening at our small late
Victorian parish church with admirable acoustics, and our organ wasn’t
even involved. A couple who are wonderfully skilled in late-medieval
and Renaissance music for lute and voice offered a well-attended
program of works for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.
“Several in the audience said they thought it was clever of the
musicians to sing and play gradually louder as the program went on.
In truth, no such “crescendo” happened; what *did* happen was that we
all began to enter the delicate and subtle tonal world offered to us.
“I wonder how many organists or organbuilders today give even a
passing thought to such a possibility.”
It is indeed heartwarming when a fellow musician actually gets what we are aiming for.
Recently, we performed a few songs as part of a “showcase” concert that also featured a piano trio, an a cappella vocal quartet, a (wonderful) classical-jazz fusion pianist, and a trio playing middle-eastern music. Fitting in amongst these other relatively loud performers posed a real challenge in terms of holding our own, and there was no time for the audience to ease into our sound-world. Our solution was to offer a very brief spoken introduction, after which Ron played a few notes on the lute and asked the audience if they could hear well enough. The happy result was the volume adjustment was already re-set for the first song, and audience members were effectively prepped so they might enjoy the music straightaway.
Since we specialize in the more subtle end of the spectrum of historical music for voice and lute, the added factor of balance between instrument and voice is all-important. We’ll save this topic for a future post but suffice it to say, it enhances the listener’s receptiveness to the music and overall experience when there is a pleasing balance of both volume and tonal color between lute and voice.
The phenomenon of tuning into the music’s subtleties and tuning out the hectic noise of everyday life is a gift we are pleased to share with those who care to listen.