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Saturday morning quotes 2.9: Quiet, please

July 21, 2012

Our quotes today target the increasing intrusion of unwanted sound into our modern lives, with some words in support of the quiet and subtle intricacy of of the lute’s sweet sound.

We have discussed this topic before and commented on the phenomenon of drawing the listener’s attention into the relatively quiet volume of the lute, resulting in a more intense focus on the intricacy of the sound and a greater appreciation for the music.  Since we published that blog post last year, we have made it a point to keep our ears to the ground and listen attentively to audience reactions to the quiet volume of our music.  We’ve also noticed with dismay that the pervasiveness and volume of competing background noise just seems to get worse day by day.

We confess to having a certain masochistic desire to seek out and play for audiences who may be new to early music and to the lute.  For whatever reason, we feel a greater sense of accomplishment when people tell us that they had no idea music like ours existed, and that they intend to delve further into the genre.  When we coordinate with internet radio programs, we deliberately have our music sequenced with different pop and folk styles just to see if it results in new converts.  It does.  Although playing for non-specialist audiences requires a great deal more work, it seems to garner more dedicated fans, and we also feel as though we are doing good work for the promotion of early music.

As we posted recently to the lute discussion list, it is probably true that people who are not bombarded by a constant barrage of background noise, particularly mechanical noise, have hearing that is more acute.  Exposure to constant sounds at an audible level at any given frequency effectively results in loss of acuity, and we are constantly bombarded with the sounds of motors, ventilation fans, coffee grinders, sopranos, traffic, whatever.  We can assume that people in the 15th century who had access to musical instruments were not likely to have been subjected to the roar of a grist mill or other loud sounds in the course of daily life.  Of course unusual situations like building activity, warfare, or squeaky cart wheels may have factored in, as well as hearing loss due to illness.  But based on the typical exposure/hearing loss picture, they probably had better hearing than we do today.  By way of some supporting evidence, we cite a study from the 1990s that makes observations regarding the acuity of hearing within a control group not subjected to modern industrial noise:

We corresponded with baroque guitar specialist Monica Hall, who alerted us to the existence of Pipedown, an organization based in the UK dedicated to attenuating the barrage of background music one encounters in public places.  Pipedown has the support of such luminaries as Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry, who writes, “Piped water, piped oil, piped gas – but never piped music.”

So, while mulling the topic over, we encounter in our daily reading the article, “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar” published in the New York Times, July 20, 2012.  The article documents hearing loss and other maladies experienced by workers and patrons of restaurants and nightclubs where a high decibel wash of sound is featured as part of their appeal:

At the Brooklyn Star in Williamsburg, the volume averaged 94 decibels over an hour and a half — as loud as an electric drill. At the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten in the meatpacking district, where workers can log 10-hour shifts, the noise level averaged 96 decibels. No music was playing: the noise was generated by hundreds of voices bouncing off the metal skeleton of the High Line.

At Beaumarchais, a nightclub-like brasserie on West 13th Street, the music averaged 99 decibels over 20 minutes and reached 102 in its loudest 5 minutes. “It definitely takes a toll,” a waiter said.

“We definitely consider those levels able to cause damage and likely to cause permanent damage with repeated exposure,” said Laura Kauth, an audiologist and president of the National Hearing Conservation Association. “They’re experiencing industrial level noise.”

Is this level of noise a necessary component of an evening’s entertainment?  It’s a fact that restaurants and retailers ply their clientele with music designed to elicit a specific reaction, with a manipulative increase in tempo and volume at particular times of the day, causing customers to spend and leave.  The telling quote in the article was from a sound design consultant who specializes in programming music that will make you want to spend money:

“Are we manipulating you? Of course we are,” said Jon Taffer, a restaurant and night life consultant and the host of the reality show “Bar Rescue.”

“My job,” he said, “is to put my hand as deeply in your pocket as I can for as long as you like it. It’s a manipulative business.”

We tend to benevolently aim for a different result with the quietness of our music.  As we mentioned in our earlier post, we can clearly observe in our audiences the phenomenon of increased concentration leading to deeper appreciation of both the detail and the overall experience of our music.  We do it on purpose, not because we want our hand in your pocket, but because we want you to experience a commodity so rarely available today — quiet nuance.

If we consider the excellency of the lute…we shall easily believe that the Lute hath his derivation from Heaven…

The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

  1. Ned permalink

    There is a tendency among musicians and music programmers of less popular (eg. ‘Classiscal’) music to ‘enhance’ it (to amplify it, add certain popular instruments, re-orcheatrate it, etc.) to reach a larger audience. A wrongheaded approach, I think. What you do is the right approach, and the positive response you’ve gotten proves this.

    • Thanks, Ned. It’s always a risk to play it straight with no enhancements, but that’s the way it’s supposed to sound and there it is. It seems like some of the most harebrained judgmental reactions come from other musicians. For instance, I’ve been told by people up to and including Neal Zaslaw, who really should know better, that the lute seems a bit quiet. It’s a lute. Listen. I mean really: All those grand Mozartean 4-3 cadences with too many horns and oboes can really do your hearing a disservice.

  2. Right on. I’m reminded of PDQ Bach’s duet for lute and bagpipe.

    • Thanks, Ed. I somehow had blocked that one from my mind. Also, I really like his Twelve Quite Heavenly Songs Arie Proprio Zodicale, for Bargain Counter Tenor, Basso Blotto, and Keyboards.

  3. I am reminded of a concert back in the late 70’s .Julian Bream played lute and guitar at Zellerbach hall at UC Berkeley. ; a hall best described as cavernous. Mr. Bream walked on stage dropped his sheaf of music and started playing the lute . The first few moments you could see everyone leaning forward straining to hear. I did the same and thought ” this is impossible”., but after a few minutes in our concerted quietness our ears adjusted and one could actually hear quite well even in the cheap seats where I was.

    • Precisely, Mel. I don’t think many people get the adjustment that takes place until after they’ve given it a chance. We are always amused to see the looks on people’s faces at the beginning of a concert, since audiences are not usually asked to work so hard to hear the details of a performance. But that additional level of concentration nearly always pays off (we hope) with an enhanced appreciation for the details in the music. It’s dangerous to put oneself out there for such close aural scrutiny but well worth the effort.

  4. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Sunet, Zgomot, Tăcere, Muzică

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 2.11: More noise « Unquiet Thoughts

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