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Saturday morning quotes 2.11: More noise

August 4, 2012

Our weekly series of quotes aims to report on the convergence of really old things and the very new, and to shine an acceptably diffuse beam of light on the bits of flotsam and jetsam we observe from this crashing together of historical eras.

Today, we quote from a current news article that has no small relevance to our musical mission.  The topic at hand hearkens back to our discussion of background noise levels, and how a constant competing hiss-hum-crash-rattle-buzz not only interferes with our ability to hear nuance in quiet music circa 500 years ago but also, in a broad and sweeping sense, destructively degrades our overall ability to concentrate.

From an Op-Ed contribution titled “Sound Bites” by Katherine Bouton, published in the New York Times and dated August 2, 2012:

Noise causes hearing loss, and hearing loss itself is bad for your health. There are 48 million hearing-impaired Americans, over 15 percent of the population. Those affected include teenagers (nearly 20 percent of whom experience some level of hearing loss), people ages 19 to 44 (the most common period for the onset of hearing loss), and the elderly. Hearing loss is itself associated with depression, dementia and even heart disease.

Some researchers speculate that what we think of as age-related hearing loss is merely the accumulated damage of a lifetime of noise. Studies in Sudan and Easter Island in the ’60s and ’80s, respectively, have found populations where age-related hearing loss seemed nonexistent or limited. Though there may be genetic explanations, there was a marked difference between the hearing of Easter Islanders who had lived only on the island and those who had spent some years on the industrialized mainland.

Ms. Bouton’s article concentrates on how hearing loss affects one’s ability to function in public.  But by extrapolation, we note how degraded hearing limits the full appreciation of very quiet music.  However, we also see how audiences adapt over the span of a concert, and have been treated to observations such as the following from an organist who hosted a performance by our duo:

“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.”


  1. Really interesting last quote–you didn’t crescendo, your audience adapted to the quiet.

    • Thanks, Ed. We’ve said before that we take perverse pleasure in performing for non-specialist audiences, people who probably have no context for Early Music. Ever since we stepped backed and made an attempt to understand just what attracts audiences to our music, we have noticed an interesting phenomenon among listeners that goes something like this: 1) Frustrated puzzlement at the quiet level of volume; 2) Extra effort applied to listening; 3) Enhanced concentration; 4) A generally quieter audience; and 4) Relaxed appreciation for the music.

  2. Dan Winheld permalink

    Reminds me of instructions- read many years ago, source forgotten- on how one learns to listen to and appreciate the extreme, micro subtle nuances of the clavichord. I have still yet to find a satisfactory recording of this instrument, with the single exception of a very old one by Thurston Dart.

    • I used to have a recording on Teldec in their ‘Das Alte Werk’ series of Rolf Junghans playing pieces by CPE Bach on clavichord. I also had recording of Daniel Chorzempa playing Das Wohltemperierte Klavier on a variety of instruments, including some pieces on clavichord, but he sort of banged on the poor thing.

  3. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Despre… mai mult zgomot…

  4. When I last played a sequence of short pieces (about 25 minutes, from the Siena lute book, at the Lute Soc party) I asked for no applause until the end, because I know how applause destroys the adjustments that people’s ears/brains have been making. I linked pieces in unrelated keys with short improvisations, to keep the music more or less continuous (I would really have liked to memorise the whole thing, to leave no gaps in the music at all). The lack of applause helped me, as well as the audience, to achieve a state of mind that would not have been possible if it were constantly interrupted by loud noise. There’s a special kind of stillness which is more wonderful and gratifying than any clapping of hands.


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