A couple of weeks ago my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo (Caroline Chin and David Yang) and I were doing a quick sound check before a children’s concert at the Two Rivers Festival.
Our young peoples’ concerts are one aspect of the group I enjoy the most. David Yang, normally our violist, is the founder of a group called Auricolae (meaning ‘little ears”). Auricolae is a musical storytelling troupe comprising violin, cello and narrator. David, the group’s artistic director, is also the narrator, trading his viola for a rather astounding range of voices and accents. Any readers with children between about 4 and 12 would be well advised to buy the first Auricolae disc (I’m not on it, and have no stake in it), which is absolutely enchanting, full of wonderful music and a lot of humor.
Since David founded the group about 10 years ago, he has commissioned, occasionally composed and premiered quite a stack of wonderful new works for this combination. For us as a string trio, it’s a fantastic fit. Caroline and I get to play (and occasionally act in) all kinds of witty and delightful new pieces while benefiting from David’s long experience with these pieces and his rare combination of theatricality and musicality.
Generally speaking, even in large halls, we find amplification is unnecessary with David’s powers of projection and a little bit of restraint from Caroline and me. However, there are always going to be exceptions- some rooms are simply too big, too dead or too boomy, and some pieces are just too thickly written for David’s text to be heard clearly over the strings. This was the case the other day. We were doing a beautiful setting of an Indonesian folk story. It’s lovely music and a touching story, but it is problematic to perform live- David has long stretches of narration in a relatively gentle tone of voice over quite lush and lyrical string writing. It would come off perfectly on recording (and will, when we record it, I hope), but in a large room full of kids, we need to amplify David to have the text heard.
The school’s theatre technician had set up a very modest PA for us and off we went. After a few bars, I had to stop. David’s voice, the speakers and my left ear were interacting in an instantly painful way. The PA wasn’t particularly loud- it was just that combination of directionality, resonance, proximity and the like. To make a long story short, it took about 15 minutes of moving speakers, turning knobs and re-setting chairs before I could play without serious, violent pain. Interestingly, in the end, the solution was one of eq, not volume. I was able to find the frequency David’s voice that was creating the resonance between the speaker, the room and my head, and essentially zap it. Until I did that, even at very low levels, it was still painful.
What really struck me afterwards was how instantly emotionally volatile I had become. Such volatility is generally considered to be extremely un-Ken. It took all my self control and deep breathing to not snap at my colleagues while we sorted it out. Every time we’d make a change, we’d start playing, David would start speaking, the pain would hit, and I would feel this wave of anger. Fortunately, I was able to keep it together, but only because I was in a position to stop the proceedings every time I felt the pain.
I was reminded of this experience when I read the tragic story of the great viola smashing and heckling incident now making its way around the blogosphere. What first came notoriety as one of those quirky internet stories of life dishing out the irony- violist in audience heckles violist onstage who smashes viola- has turned out to be a much more tragic story. I can’t help but feel awful for the performer, JHNO, who lived the nightmare we all have of being turned on by our audience. All the more painful for him must have been the fact that he was playing his own music. (I enjoyed exploring some of the music on his website- very beautiful stuff).
It turns out the heckler was Benrard Zaslav, longtime violist of the Fine Arts Quartet. In a comment on the blog that broke the original story, Mr Zaslav responded:
… I feel I do owe an explanation for my reaction to the intolerable pain I endured at this concert. I also owe an apology to JHNO for my inability to tolerate the level of decibels his work entails, since I seem to have been in the minority. I repeat; my actions were caused not by anything but the need to STOP THE PAIN in my ears and there was no escape.
When JHNO began his work and then increased the volume gradually to earsplitting, unremitting decibel overload (please note that our artist was standing BEHIND the speakers and that they were directed at us) I was literally trapped, sitting in the front row of a small, crowded and darkened theater, and after perhaps 5 or 6 minutes of this agony, and needing my cane to depart the scene, I was obliged do the only thing I could think of to stop the excruciating pain to my ears, which was to applaud and even venture a few “boos” as well. With everyone shushing me, the artist fled the scene, apparently throwing down the viola he was holding, which I never actually saw him play. I am always sorry to see any musical instrument being broken, but the source of this agony was NOT a musical instrument; it was the hugely over-amplified electronic bombs that were being emitted by a MACHINE within a dark, confined space. An engineer came up to me later, showed me a pair of earplugs, and said that the amount of decibels that were emitted in that space would be considered illegal in any factory setting in this country.
My pain was such that, literally being unable to flee the scene, I had to find surcease. Having had a recent fall with attendant vertigo and balance loss, hemmed in in the dark, and afraid to use my cane, I did the only thing I could do to stop the pain. There was lots of invective hurled at me, but things settled down in the intermission and I discussed this rationally with several audience members, some (but not many) of whom agreed that we were being subjected to intolerable noise levels. Decorum is certainly necessary in a public space, but so is the rational level of amplification by an artist. Many young (and older) folks have suffered hearing loss because of this thoughtless (or perhaps planned) over-amplification, as has been well documented, and by my own audiologist as well. They may be your ears,but you’ll miss them when you get older and wish you’d been wiser. In this case, “suffering politely” was simply not an option; I would invite anyone to try sitting in my seat before those speakers and deny this.
I have to say that as soon as I read Mr Zaslav’s comment, I was reminded of my recent experience with the trio. What would I have done with that pain had I not been in a position to stop it after a few seconds? The artist on stage in this case, JHNO, made clear he was sensitive to the issues surrounding amplification:
The piece I developed for this concert involves the use of long drone notes, delays, and feedback through the instrument. It requires a certain level of volume in order to work at all. I carefully checked the sound level, pointed the amplifier at the ceiling, and listened carefully from the seats while sound checking. I am very sensitive to loud volume levels myself and so I feel I set them conservatively.
But the problem is that amplified sound is not like acoustic sound- the dispersion can be quite irregular, and also more strangely directional than acoustic sound. In our rehearsal, Caroline was sitting only 4 feet from me playing. I had pain, at only moderate volume, she didn’t. It wasn’t a question that the engineer had been careless- amplified sound can just be very dangerous and unpredictable. The only way to be really certain that it is safe for everyone is to check your entire dynamic and pitch range from just about every seat in the house- otherwise, you run the risk of painful hotspots like the one Mr Zaslav describes.
In commerce, we used to hear a quaint, and now generally forgotten maxim “the customer is always right.” Where amplification is concerned, I think we have to accept as a matter of safety and respect that the PA system is always wrong. I’ve done countless gigs over the years where musicians or audience members have pleaded for monitors or mains to be turned down, only to be told “it’s not that loud.” Well, if it hurts, it’s too loud. Or, as was the case with our children’s concert setup, even if the volume isn’t the problem, the amplification is. (Frankly, I wish sound reinforcement training would teach engineers to start from zero and turn up just until everything can be heard, rather than start from way too loud, and turn down until people stop complaining)
There was a much-discussed article last year in the Guardian by composer Jonathan Harvey that suggested that amplification could be a great tool for bringing young people into the classical concert world. I would strongly suggest that that is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.
Let me close with a bit of personal background. As many Vftp readers already know, I played guitar (and occasionally other instruments) professionally in a number of rock bands from the age of about 15 into my early 20’s. In addition to doing all the kinds of amplified pops concerts we in the orchestral world we all do, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of fully amplified, fairly loud rock gigs. I’ve played in some very aggressive and intense bands. My old Legend amp was famous for both it’s tube-ish warmth and it’s incredible volume. It’s not like I haven’t had some serious experience of amplification.
However, in rock and roll, you’re dealing with things like solid body guitars and electronic keyboards, which are designed to be amplified. You’re not dealing with things like the violin family, which are designed to project acoustically (although violins and their cousins have a proud place in rock music). You are playing in venues designed or adapted for amplification, which are ideally dry and neutral, where concert halls are designed to ring and resonate. A speaker in a concert hall is a loaded weapon.
Of course, amplification and the use of electronics opens up a lot of room for creativity and experimentation. It’s just good to remember that the safety and comfort of our audience and performers is infinitely more important than that artistic agenda.