Impromptus

Blown Out, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In a recent issue of National Review, we had a piece by Jay Nordlinger: “Down with Eleven: On the overamplification of American life.” In Impromptus this week, he is expanding on that piece. Part I was published yesterday. He concludes with Part II today.

Leave classical music and go to the world of Broadway — where musicals have been rock concerts for a long time. What I mean is, they are amplified to that extent. Singers prance around wearing headsets, with sticks at the side of their mouths. Have you seen that?

Let me give you a note from my friend Martin Bernheimer, the famed music critic:

The singers in the recent Broadway distortion of Porgy were painfully overmiked — even though the orchestra was small, the house intimate (certainly by opera-house standards), and most of the cast operatic by training. Distortion was shamefully enforced.

Am also bemused to see revivals of Broadway shows from the ’40s and ’50s in the same/similar Broadway houses that originally housed them. No mikes needed originally for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman or Guys and Dolls. But now the same shows are back and everyone is amplified.

Comparable issues with South Pacific at the Beaumont — though the sound at least was not deafening. Paulo Szot may not be Pinza (imagine miking that basso!), but one can hear Szot at the Met without a mike in his wig.

One more letter, from one more friend who is a famed music critic? This is from Sedgwick Clark:

Some 35 years ago I went to see Ethel Merman in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. To my dismay, it was miked. Merman, miked? Naturally, she had to scale down her voice to keep from overwhelming her fellow singers. But in the second act she stepped out on a runway in front of the mikes and let loose, pinning me to the back of my seat.

Another show I recall was Nick & Nora, which had all performing energy sapped out of it. The actors were wearing lapel mikes and we decided that they were underplaying their acting and singing because the microphones, rather than their voices, were doing the work of reaching the final row of the house. The actors didn’t seem laid back, as presumably intended, they seemed comatose.

I’ve been talking a lot about singing. I think people have forgotten how to speak, too — on Broadway and off. Earlier this season, I was in a grand old church on the Upper East Side (Manhattan), to review a choral concert. A priest came out to give introductory remarks. His microphone went dead. He stood there, silent, until another one was brought to him.

I don’t think it occurred to him to continue speaking, without a microphone. It’s not done now. But for years, priests and others spoke in that church, without benefit of a microphone. Did they make themselves heard? I bet they did.

Above, I mentioned rock concerts — and they’re another kettle of fish. Extreme amplification is part of the overall phenomenon. It is an aspect of the music. This is certainly true of heavy metal.

There is a loved moment in This Is Spinal Tap, the 1984 satirical documentary, or “mockumentary,” about the rock life. A guitarist explains that the knobs on his amplifier go up to eleven, rather than the standard ten. Why is eleven better than ten? Because it’s “one louder.”

Return with me to the Dakota club in Minneapolis — with Viva Brazil on the stage. In my opinion, there was hardly any need for amplification at all. The space is not that big. Yet they had enough amplification for a football stadium — for wherever it is the Vikings play. Everything was out of whack.

And the frustrating thing was that not everyone knew it. Or did they? One boy, who had come with his parents, had his fingers in his ears. That was the only visible sign of dissent. Everyone else . . . well, it was hard to read their feelings. Did they really think the volume was okay? Or were they pretending, ignoring, turning a deaf ear, so to speak?

Music is not a democracy, but I would have been interested to see a vote — by secret ballot. A secret ballot is crucial. If the room could have voted on whether to turn down the volume, by a lot, what would the results have been?

Bill Buckley’s most famous, most anthologized essay is “Why Don’t We Complain?” It was published in Esquire in 1960.

WFB begins by describing a train trip of considerable discomfort. It’s winter, yet the temperature inside the train is boiling. Everyone is sweating and miserable. But no one says anything to the conductor, as he passes through.

Writes Bill,

. . . when the temperature outdoors is below freezing, it takes a positive act of will on somebody’s part to set the temperature indoors at 85. Somewhere a valve was turned too far, a furnace overstoked, a thermostat maladjusted: something that could easily be remedied by turning off the heat and allowing the great outdoors to come indoors. All this is so obvious. What is not obvious is what has happened to the American people.

I had much these thoughts while sitting in the Dakota. For one thing, a “valve” was obviously “turned too far,” a musical thermostat was “maladjusted.” Later in his essay, WFB talks of sitting in a movie theater, where the flick is badly out of focus. Again, the people just take it.

Toward the end of the essay — you’ll enjoy reading it in full — Bill writes,

I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. . . . With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness . . .

It could be that most people don’t mind the amplification at ballgames, and at wedding receptions, and in restaurants, or elsewhere.

By the way, that “elsewhere” includes movie theaters. The films are no longer out of focus — but have you noticed the volume? And that the previews are much louder than the actual films? Rich Lowry, NR’s editor, recently said to me, “The previews are positively punishing. You can hear them through the soles of your feet.”

But back to my previous point: It could be that most people don’t mind what I consider “overamplification.” Maybe they even like it. But are we sure we would know for sure? That boy in the Dakota, with his fingers in his ears, has not yet learned to conform.

Please enjoy a note from another friend of mine, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the pianist and conductor:

We actually purchased a decibel meter to take with us to wedding receptions (pretty rude, I realize) to at least measure for ourselves if it’s really as loud as we think it is (yes) and to see if it will convince the authorities to turn down the volume a tad (no). The readings we see are routinely in the mid-90s, which I believe is downright hazardous.

I often get a sore throat after going out to a meal — it’s because I’ve been shouting all night to make my companions across the table hear me above the throbbing beats of the “background” music.

When I attended my first rock concert, I was pretty well blown away, within moments, by the excruciating pain in my ears. I stayed until the end so that my friends would not think me uncool, which may still be the bravest (and most foolish) thing I’ve ever done.

In general, I feel acutely the lack of silence in our modern world. I find the gratuitous noise to be particularly grating when I am held hostage, such as on airplanes, where the announcements can be insanely loud.

And sports! Every “idle” moment at a sporting event — i.e., every break in game action, such as a 20-second timeout in basketball — is an invitation to crank up the volume. It really does feel like “I can’t hear myself think.” Insane amplification is the absolute bane of sporting events.

Yes, yes.

One more letter, from one more friend of mine: Dennis Rooney, as exacting a music critic as you will ever find. After I sent him “Down with Eleven,” he wrote me the following:

Dear Jay,

Your observations and conclusions are correct, but your piece is too colored by another modern malady: accommodation, a desire to acknowledge a competing viewpoint. Error has no rights. Yes, aesthetic matters are tricky to negotiate, but things like amplified voices and instruments where there is no need is, particularly in opera and vocal music, a desecration. Broadway is, as you say, a leader in this matter, but the malign influence of Pop has befouled all sorts of entertainment genres. Jazz and cabaret, once civilized pastimes, are essentially off-limits for the very sensibilities who were once attracted to them. 

Speaking out, unafraid, as you have, is the responsibility of civilized men as the only possible way to check the forces of ugliness and benightedness that surround us. Thank you for your complaint about the “overamplification of American life.”