“Eh? Speak up, I can’t hear you…” The problem? Hearing loss from too-loud music. The culprit? Composers! All our fortissimos are endangering the very people we rely on to make our music. From a recent St. Louis Dispatch story:

Seated in front of the percussion section, and subjected to “ferocious” sound, [bass clarinetist James] Meyer worried about the effects on his hearing. He did research at the library and talked with people at 17 different orchestras around the country about their setups. He drew diagrams. He took readings of decibel levels. “The threshold of pain is (about) 118 decibels. I took a lot of readings (on stage) over that.” [....] Many contemporary works rely heavily on percussion and high volume, notes [percussionist Rich] O’Donnell. The orchestra played a lot of them during the Leonard Slatkin years, in particular. “I think there are a lot of composers who have trouble writing a soft piece,” O’Donnell said. Conductors can be prickly, too. O’Donnell recalls bringing up noise issues at a meeting with Slatkin and getting a glare: “He said, ‘Are you trying to limit my artistic expression?’”

While we may side with Slatkin and pooh-pooh this as over-worried hype, better think again if you’re hoping to have that European performance; As the NYT reported recently, workplace noise-protection regulations there now apply to symphony orchestras just as much as to factories:

They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed. Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable. So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

3 Responses to “Say What?”
  1. Brian Vlasak says:

    ““I think there are a lot of composers who have trouble writing a soft piece,” O’Donnell said.”

    I would whole-heartedly concur with this assessment. Isn’t that one of the great things about common-practice era music: the highs vs. the lows? All too often, when I hear contemporary orchestral music (esp. American), it’s big, brassy, and LOUD. Give me silence any day! (Besides, I’ll be more inclined to listen more attentively if I have to work for it!)

  2. David Salvage says:

    Integrating dynamic contrast into your music: a challenge too many composers just shluff off.

  3. Marcos Balter says:

    When I first read this article, I jokingly said to a friend that, if that meant more Salvatore Sciarrino and Jurg Frey, I would be happy. But, jokes aside, I think that canceling pieces rather than continuing to look for possible logistic solutions is a mistake.

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