Magazine | April 7, 2014, Issue

Down with Eleven

On the overamplification of American life

It’s not our biggest problem, or even in the top ten, or top 100. But it’s still a problem, I think: the overamplification of American life. I have long held this view, but have been spurred to write about it by recent events.

I went to the New York Philharmonic to review a performance of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim musical. (Every season or so, the Philharmonic will stage a musical, for variety’s sake, I suppose, and maybe for the box office, too.) The cast was a mixture of classical and Broadway performers. In the title role was Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone. It was a shock to hear him sing into a microphone. The sound was unnatural — Terfel-like, but not quite Terfel. There is no hall anywhere that he can’t fill, naturally. Was it really necessary to mike him? To gild that lily?

Soon, the entire company came in, and the hall shook, so great was the amplification. The crowd cheered, excited. It was a little vulgar.

But as amplification goes, the Philharmonic’s Sweeney was tasteful. Certainly as compared with the next night — when I found myself in Minneapolis, at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant. My friends and I enjoyed a nice dinner, then settled back for the show. Onstage were the musicians of Viva Brazil. They were good, and so was the music they played and sang. But the volume was absurd — painful, assaultive, and anti-musical. We had to leave, and quickly.

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?

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 of mine asked me to go with him to hear Pat Metheny, a jazz guitarist. My friend said he was first-rate. That night, he may well have been — but the amplification was so great, I could hardly hear him. I could not really listen to the music. It was a question of enduring the sonic assault (which I could not do for long).

Much later, I went to a concert by Lyle Lovett. He has written and sings so many excellent songs. Why would he want to smother them in overamplification? Why would he want to drown them, and render them offensive? He did.

There is a place for loud in music, of course — a big and wonderful place. Richard Strauss 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. He calls out to the conductor, “Louder, louder, I can still hear the Heink!”

Years ago, I interviewed Beverly Sills, and the subject of Birgit Nilsson came up. Sills was talking about her Elektra or Salome — one of those Strauss roles, I forget which. She said, “You wouldn’t have believed the sheer volume of that voice. It was so loud. It simply blew your ears back.” I said, “But her Salome [or Elektra] — was it musical?” Sills made a face: “It was cold.” She quickly brightened again: “But that sound! It was so loud!”

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 in Wagner’s Ring. The orchestra in the pit was the Berlin Philharmonic. 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. After one performance, a friend of mine said to a singer friend of his, “You sounded almost miked!” The singer admitted she had been. This is not merely a matter of “cheating” — a matter of using artificial means to do what your technique fails to do. Miking distorts, warps, or at least alters sound.

#page#For a long time, Broadway musicals have been rock concerts — amplified to that extent. Singers prance around wearing headsets, with sticks at the side of their mouths. Even the plays are routinely and heavily miked. People seem to have forgotten how to speak — on Broadway and off.

Earlier this season, I was in a grand old church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, 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 this church, without benefit of a microphone. Did they make themselves heard? I bet they did.

Above, I mentioned rock concerts, and those are another kettle of fish: Extreme amplification is part of the phenomenon. 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.”

At the Dakota club, with Viva Brazil on the stage, there was hardly any need for amplification at all. The space is not that big. But they had enough amplification for Yankee Stadium, and beyond. Everything was out of whack. 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. Were they only pretending to think that everything was okay? Or did they really think it was?

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

William F. Buckley Jr.’s most famous essay was written in 1960 and has been anthologized many times. Its title: “Why Don’t We Complain?” The author begins by describing a train trip of considerable discomfort. It is winter, yet the temperature inside the train is boiling. Everyone is sweating and miserable. Yet no one says anything to the conductor as he passes through. Writes Buckley,

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, Buckley talks of sitting in a movie, which is badly out of focus. Again, the people just take it. Toward the end of the essay, Buckley 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. Incidentally, that elsewhere includes movie theaters. The flicks are no longer out of focus. But have you noticed the volume? And that the previews are much louder than the movies? A friend of mine — it was Rich Lowry, National Review’s editor — recently said, “The previews are positively punishing. You can hear them through the soles of your feet.” Maybe most people don’t mind what I consider “overamplification.” Perhaps they 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.

They say the unexamined life is not worth living; I say the overamplified life is nuts. Buckley asked, “Why don’t we complain?” I am, Bill, in your magazine, and maybe someone will hear, over the awful din.

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