Blown Out, Part I

Nigel Tufnel's amplifier "goes to 11" in Spinal Tap.


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.


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