3/24 NYTimes article

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Posted by Mike on April 01, 2002 at 20:44:20:

A friend of mine sent me this article, I thought you guys might be interested in it....

March 24, 2002

No More Fortissimo? Europe Wants a Little Quiet

The European Union is coming down hard on Beethoven, Berlioz,
Strauss and all those other symphonic loudmouths. Politicians
think it's high time. The trumpets in Beethoven's Fifth
Symphony, the big bass drum in Verdi's Requiem, even
Tchaikovsky's squalling little piccolo in "The Nutcracker" have
poisoned our environment long enough. A little peace and
quiet, please.

The union isn't kidding. A directive being debated in the
European Parliament and getting a lot of support around Europe
would reduce noise in the workplace, concert halls and opera
houses included, The Times of London reports.

The bill calls for a workplace decibel limit of 85 without
earplugs, 87 with them. Some members of the parliament, Helle
Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark among them, think the directive
doesn't go far enough. He is looking for an amendment to lower
the level to 83.

European musicians are not happy. They say that noise in a
factory and the noise of a Bruckner finale are not the same
thing. (Biased listeners might argue the point.) The Times
quotes Libby MacNamara, the director of the Association of
British Orchestras: "It will virtually stop us playing any
loud repertoire whatsoever." The European Union, however, seems
to be closing ranks. The culture secretary will defer to the
health and safety executive, whose office sympathizes with
musicians, but adds: "Noise is noise. It doesn't matter whether
it's Tchaikovsky or a power drill." (And veteran concertgoers
will remember performances in which distinguishing between the
two was not that easy.)

Classical music has brought this problem on itself. The
business, beset by cultural competition of every kind, has an
increasingly hard time holding the listener's attention, and
being loud is one answer. How could one ignore the famous brass
section of the Chicago Symphony, especially when it was egged on
by its former music director Georg Solti? Trumpets and
and the people blowing into them, have found new ways to reach
earsplitting levels. One toot on a trumpet can reach 130
instantaneously, the Times report says.

Concert pitch is another culprit. In the interests of civility
and uniformity, the music world has long since agreed that the
note A equals 440 cycles per second. Yet naughty elements in the
symphonic and opera world have surreptitiously engaged in an
upward creep. Conscious violators are looking for ticket-selling
brilliance. Unconscious ones are often European orchestras,
whose wind soloists are highly competitive within their own
ranks and tend to push upward in the heat of battle. (American
players are usually more collegial and thus truer to A = 440.)

How the proposed laws would speak to rock concerts is an even
bigger question. Loudness at arena concerts has become a musical
property all its own. Turning down the volume at Madison Square
Garden would be the equivalent of deleting lyrics or taking away
guitars. Players are protected to a degree by standing behind
the mountains of loudspeakers, but their fans by the thousands
have fallen to the epidemic of hearing loss among the young.
(Rock critics take pride in their tailor-made earplugs.) Maybe
outdoor noise will not apply.

Were there ever good old days? Did our forefathers bask in
afternoons of a faun with sounds no louder than the pipes of
Pan? Did listeners once adorn their ears with flowers, not
earplugs? Pitch varied from place to place in the 18th century,
but it was usually lower than A = 440, sometimes much lower.
Bach's devilish high trumpets aside, most old instruments had a
grainier, less knifelike quality. At least they sound that way
to our ears. The 18th century probably had less noise
altogether, so perhaps what soothes us now caused headaches 250
years ago.

Let us not forget that the European Union's legislation has
more to do with musicians than with those listening to them. And
here the problem is very real. Hearing loss among orchestra
players is universal: the normal state of affairs rather than
any abnormal affliction. There is a longstanding joke about
backstage conversations peppered with "Huh?" and "What's that?"

Sharp-eyed concertgoers may from time to time have noticed
clear Plexiglas shields the size of music stands separating
brass players from the string players in front of them. You
seldom see them, because orchestra managements don't like the
message they convey to audiences. Some violists have an
alternative strategy. They mark the big trumpet and trombone
passages in their scores and bend down on cue.

One solution offered to the government-versus-music conflict
is weekly averaging. Tuesday's uproar would be mitigated by a
more peaceful Wednesday and Thursday. It would be like swapping
air rights in the real estate business. This would also answer
the eternal musical question of what "loud" and "soft" actually
mean. With decibel counter in one hand and the week's
tabulations in the other, monitors could calculate a "piano"
or a "fortissimo" in terms of the weekly quota, as a form of
rationing. If you want that quiet place in Mozart's Requiem any
stronger, you'll have to make that Mahler climax measurably less

The other solution to the noise quandary is fewer musicians.
Let's do away with those pesky second violin parts in Haydn
string quartets. What about the Two Tenors? I know which one I'd
drop. How about you?

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