Impromptus

Blown Out, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

In a recent issue of National Review, I had a piece called “Down with Eleven: On the overamplification of American life.” Why “Down with Eleven”? Well, this relates to an old movie, This Is Spinal Tap, about which, more in due course.

(Do you recognize that Buckley formulation? “. . . about which, more in due course”?)

I would like to expand on this piece, and these ideas, here in this space. And I have been complaining about the “overamplification of American life” for a long time. In restaurants, at wedding receptions, on Broadway, everything is TOO LOUD! Overamplified, overmiked. This spoils music, and it spoils enjoyment in general.

You’ll be in a little restaurant with a flat roof. Say it’s by the sea. A small musical ensemble will be setting up. You are probably looking forward to it. And then they use enough amplification to fill Yankee Stadium, and maybe the entire Bronx.

Why? Don’t they realize they’re in a little seaside restaurant with a flat roof? Why do they need any amplification at all? And why don’t patrons rise up and say, “No!”?

Anyway, let me start, not at Yankee Stadium, but at Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic . . .

. . . which staged Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim musical, about a month ago. Every now and then, the Phil. will do this: stage a musical. It must aid the box office — plus, it’s a jolly good time (to borrow an antique phrase).

The cast was a mixture of classical and Broadway performers. In the title role, Sweeney, was Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone. He sang first, as I recall. And when he did, I was shocked — shocked to hear him sing into a microphone. I had heard him a billion times, but not like this.

He sounded like himself, sort of — but the sound was not entirely natural, not entirely Terfel. It was distorted. Why in the world was he miked? There’s not a hall anywhere that he can’t fill. Did he have to be miked because the Broadway people were? An even-steven kind of thing?

Quickly, the entire company came in — and the hall shook, so great was the amplification. You could feel the amplification, physically, in your body. It seemed to come from the ground up. The crowd cheered, excited. The whole thing was vulgar, in my opinion.

One more note on this Sweeney: Sometimes, a singer would traverse the stage, singing all the way. And the sound would stay in one spot — not traveling with the singer. I found this confusing (and I may have been wrong, about the sound).

(For my blogpost on this show, at The New Criterion, go here.)

But listen, the Philharmonic’s Sweeney was a tender kiss compared with what I experienced the next night. I was in Minneapolis, and some friends took me to a jazz club: the Dakota. We enjoyed a nice dinner, then settled back for the music. Onstage was an ensemble called “Viva Brazil.” They were good, and so was the music they played and sang.

But the volume was absurd — painful, assaultive, anti-musical. We had to leave, and quickly. I felt sort of gypped out of an evening of music.

Why would someone have done that to music, and how could others have sat there? Why didn’t it seem wrong to audience, management, and, maybe most important, the musicians themselves? They’re musicians, right?

(I’ll have more to say about the Minneapolis experience later on.)

Complaining about the sound of music — not in the Julie Andrews sense — is a classic expression of fogeyism. But I can plead this: If I’m a fogey, I have always been.

When I was in high school, a musician friend asked me to go with him to hear Pat Metheny. My friend was a very good pianist, cellist, and composer (classical, I guess I should say); Pat Metheny was a jazz guitarist. My friend said he was a seriously talented musician.

He may have been, and he may be still. But I really couldn’t hear him that night, because the amplification was so great. The amplification drowned out the music, so to speak. For me, it was not a question of listening to music; it was a question of enduring a sonic assault. (I didn’t hold out for long.)

Okay, flash forward, many years later: I attended a Lyle Lovett concert. He is the composer, and singer, of many good songs. Why would he want to smother them in overamplification? Why would he want to render them offensive? He did, at least in my opinion.

I had to go home and listen to a CD. What was the point of buying a ticket?

There is a place for loud in music, of course — a big and wonderful place. Take Richard Strauss. He was notorious for writing orchestrations so heavy, they drowned out the singers in his operas.

The story is told that he attended a rehearsal of his Elektra, in which Ernestine Schumann-Heink had a part. (Schumann-Heink was formidable.) At a certain juncture, Strauss calls out, “Louder, louder the orchestra, I can still hear die Heink!”

And I have to tell you something about Birgit Nilsson (the formidable Swedish soprano) — via Beverly Sills (the formidable, though in a different way, American soprano). I will excerpt an appreciation I wrote of Sills in 2007:

Somehow, we got on Birgit Nilsson — whom I never heard in the flesh. Sills said, “You wouldn’t have believed the sheer volume of that voice. It was so loud. It simply blew your ears back.” I am a bit of a Nilsson skeptic, so I said — about her interpretation of a particular role — “Was it musical?” Sills made a face: “It was cold.” She quickly brightened again: “But that sound! I can’t overemphasize how loud it was! You really had to be there, to absorb the impact of it.”

The loudest music I ever heard in a concert hall or opera house — unamplified — was in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. The opera was Das Rheingold, the first installment of Wagner’s Ring. The orchestra in the pit was the Berlin Philharmonic. The conductor was — fitting last name! — Simon Rattle.

When the giants (Fasolt and Fafner) came in, the ground shook, thrillingly. And when Wotan and Loge descended into Nibelheim, I thought the house would break apart. It was beyond thrilling — and entirely musical.

Of course, these were just moments, not an entire evening.

There were no microphones on that night, as far as I know, but, more and more, microphones are creeping into the opera house.

Last summer in Salzburg, I could have sworn that Anja Harteros, the Elisabetta in Don Carlo, was miked. She came wafting through the orchestra (and other voices) in an unnatural, amplification-y way.

But I might have been wrong. I was wrong about Carnegie Hall the other month. The Vienna Phil. was doing a concert performance of Salome, and I thought the singers were miked. I posed this question in a blogpost — the Carnegie folk quickly told me “nope.”

But listen to this: A musician friend of mine heard a performance elsewhere in the United States. He said to a friend of his after, “You sounded almost miked!” The singer admitted she was.

This is not merely a matter of “cheating,” mind you — of using artificial means to achieve what your own technique fails to achieve. Miking distorts, warps, or at least alters sound.

Oh, there are a thousand more things to say about this subject. I’ll say a few of them tomorrow.

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