Avoid Amplification- Viva Viola

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.


Click to listen to David Yang narrating his own composition, The Prince Rooster, with violinist Beverly Shin and cellist Cheng Hou Lee

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.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

9 comments on “Avoid Amplification- Viva Viola”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Thanks for this Ken. Bernie Zaslav is a very good friend of mine, and a person who has had his ears open to new music since long before most of the people passing around the “ViolaGate” story were born. Bernie had many an audience member not be able to stand the music he championed during his long and impressive career (in addition to being the violist of the Fine Arts Quartet, he was a founding member of the Composers Quartet, and commissioned a great deal of important 20th century music), but the assault was never one that involved dangerous decibel levels.

    The customer IS always right when it comes to matters of safety. When the customer is an iconic musician like Bernie, his response shouldn’t be made the object of anything other than respect.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Many thanks, Elaine. It just sounds like a sad situation all round, and one for all presenters and performers to learn from. We have to remember that it’s better not to take it personally, but to take it seriously when an audience member raises a concern. I hope Mr Zaslav is not too distressed or saddened by this incident, and also wish JHNO every future success. I’ve had some traumatic moments with broken instruments- it is a very close bond one has with an axe, and I hope he’s not too upset either.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    I also chimed in at Elaine’s blog with the following

    Hi Brian
    Thanks for your even handed coverage.

    It is pretty clear from your reports that things were said other than “can you please turn down” which were probably hurtful and inappropriate.

    I guess one of the main things I wanted to share in my blog post was just how hard it is to stay rational and in control when experiencing ear pain in a hotspot. As I said, in my rehearsal experience, I never had it for more than a few seconds, and could stop it at any time, yet it pushed me right to my breaking point almost right away.

    It just seems like a lot of compassion is needed for all parties here- both artist and audience.

    Surely the right thing to do in these situations is to pause, address any safety or comfort concerns, even have a brief dialogue, then resume the performance?

    Likewise, its good for all to remember that something that just seems like a funny incident could be a tragic and hurtful experience for the people involved, and whether one is a blogger, twtterer or facebooker, in this day and age, we all ought to be compassionate and considerate of all sides, and to think about how our social media reactions affect the lives of real people.

  4. Tom Knott

    On Friday 9th July 2010 I did a piece “The Return of the Mad Tankies” which dealt with this issue. We both have problems with much of the amplified sound and have given up cinema, let alone avoiding music where problems could occur. There are a good many people around who are sensitive to anything at over 70 db let alone what else is going on with the sound. One thing that many people to not realise is the neurological implications. This is because if a TIA occurs they simply do not realise it. What is disturbing is that it is assumed now that amplification is necessary for all performances whatever the size and nature of the hall. The barmiest we encountered was ENO with a full orchestra and large chorus amplifying 1950’s musicals that did not need it. We walked at the interval.

  5. Lora

    Sometimes I feel like having what used to be considered normal hearing is now a handicap, and I have left places more than once because noise that other people didn’t mind was actually painful for me. I remember when I was younger sitting on the steps of a church to listen to a band that was playing in a park more than a block away, and right now I am having trouble listening to a TV show because somebody down the street is playing his music so loud. I hope that nobody takes Harvey’s suggestions about adding amplification to classical concerts, and wonder if it would attract enough new people to make up for those of us who would be driven away.

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