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Saturday morning quotes 7.25: Noisier

June 8, 2019


High summer is nearly upon us, and one wishes to take advantage of moderate temperatures and prise open long-shuttered windows and doors for a breath of fresh air before the onslaught of mid-American heat and humidity.  But instead of cool, calm gentle breeze, we are assailed with the constant yip of the neighbor’s yap dog, the macho revving of the other neighbor’s prize Harley, and the sadly omnipresent whine of lawn care machinery. Hay mucho ruido.

One is of a certain age when one recalls learning to use human-powered lawn care equipment like hand pruners, push mowers, foot-powered edgers, leaf rakes, and friendly but demanding straw brooms.  And having been reared as a child slave-laborer, I (RA) had the dubious privilege of learning to mow acres of grass with a sharp scythe, cultivate acres of garden with rake and hoe, spread manure with a dangerously sharp pitchfork from a wobbly tractor-pulled trailer, and pitch bales manually during high hay-fever season.  But, except for the tractor, it was all relatively quiet work.

As one who learned of practical necessity to conserve resources, I feel a sense of moral outrage when I see a neighbor (who could really use the exercise) standing still for endless hours waving his 160 decibel lawn blower in the laconic pursuit of three leaves that had the utter audacity to land on his lawn.  At least he has a minor jot of intelligence and uses hearing protection, but I have to close every window and door in order to minimize the horrible noise to where we still have to shout to one anther to be heard over the racket outdoors.

Why do we care about noise?  Because we are specialists in 16th-century music for voice and lute, and we have worked very hard to create an optimal balance of sound with a natural voice and a quiet instrument.  We value quiet.  And we value our hearing.

“According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.””

– James Fallows, “Get off my lawn”, The Atlantic, April 2019

To catch up on the issue, we are re-visiting part of an earlier blog post that was not part of our Saturday morning quotes series.

As specialists in 16th century music, the narrow compass of our medium—voice and lute—offers us a bit more latitude for interpretive decisions but also a much less forgiving frame of reference for generalized comparisons.  Categorized as “classical” musicians, we are held to the same performance standard as a string quartet or, more aptly, a performer of art song with piano accompaniment.  Many of our non-early musical colleagues have difficulty getting past the relatively low volume of sound that is characteristic of our music, and blithely offer up suggestions for amplification.  We’ve learned that musician-colleagues fall into two general categories: 1) those who get past the initial quietness and are happily drawn into the aesthetic of our performance, and 2) those with irreversible hearing loss.

Regular readers of this blog are aware that our interpretations are entirely based on hints that we faithfully glean from historical sources.  But it is fairly obvious that public performance of music for solo voice and lute in large reverberant churches and concert halls constitutes an historically inappropriate performance practice.  Historical sources indicate that the tastefully balanced natural voice and lute are meant to be heard in small chambers with a select number of connoisseurs listening.  To that end, we gravitate toward performing house concerts or in very small venues whenever possible.

Returning to the rhetorical question: Given that it is impractical to follow historical modes of performing early music for 21st century audiences, what is the point of trying?  When it is difficult to hear the nuance of music sung in what Ronsard preferred as the natural voice accompanied by the ravishing sound of the lute, why not compromise and use a pushed but audible bel canto production and accompany with the full sound of the modern guitar?  The answer is because we care about the historical context, about the poetry and the music, about the personal and intimate aesthetic, and we care about our audiences.  We think our music offers listeners who are willing to put away their electronic gadgets for a moment just a glimpse of a rare and precious historical artifact that is increasingly difficult to find today—quiet subtlety.

Visit the original post.

And below are links to a few other posts on the topic of too much noise and not enough quiet.



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