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Jack Smith

Sound and Fury : A Lone Voice Cries Out Against the Tyranny of Loud Music

June 21, 1987|Jack Smith

Speaking of deprovements--so-called improvements thatzactually make things worse--high on my list is the amplification of sound.

It has its purposes. In its most minute application, it helps the hearing-impaired to hear. In great open spaces, it can bring a speaker's voice to the multitudes--assuming that they really want to hear what he or she says.

I remember reading that Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which he delivered on that battlefield, was heard by only a few hundred people who were close to the speaker's stand.

I have always imagined that the crowd straining to hear the President, or not even trying, having just been harangued for two hours by the orator Edward Everett while their children and dogs ran about shrieking and barking.

Mr. Lincoln had reason to believe it when he said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here."

The applause was light. Few in the crowd realized that the President had just delivered one of history's great speeches. Some newspapers even dismissed it as trivial. But the words survived the circumstances, and today the speech is a national treasure.

But the speeches of most politicians might just as well drift across the fields unheard, to mingle in space-time with all the banal public utterances of history.

Amplification also raises the sound level of radio signals so that we can sit comfortably in our living rooms and watch a movie or MTV or listen to a golden oldie or hear the President talk. It also makes telephone conversation possible.

However, amplification not only destroys the purity of sound, it also damages the ear, so that in time the ear is incapable of making distinctions.

I realize that amplification is an intrinsic part of hard rock music; loudness is essentially the message. It is a music that assaults the flesh as well as the sensibilities. For it to be effective, the listener's bones must resonate. Conversation must be obliterated.

Style is style. A whole generation of rock fans has grown into middle age, and new ones keep coming. We who have lived on the fringe of rock music all these years are not likely to see it go away. "Cheek to Cheek" is not coming back.

What I am complaining about is not rock music but the extreme amplification of traditional music.

Recently, my wife and I attended a banquet in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. There must have been 1,000 people there. Surprisingly, since there were many young people in the crowd, the orchestra played music of the 1930s, '40s and '50s for dancing: "Begin the Beguine"; "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered;" "In the Mood."

The dance floor was a patch of hardwood in front of the bandstand. If the orchestra had played without amplification, the dancers would have heard it quite well. But the orchestra played with such high-level amplification that every drumbeat, every bleat of the clarinets, every rumble of the bass viol was blasted to the walls, galvanizing flesh, vibrating eardrums, deadening conversation. We were obliged to shout to one another just to exchange the most basic pleasantries.

Why? If the music had not been amplified, it would still have reached the outermost tables, arriving sweet and light and making a pleasant background to conversation.

Years ago, before amplification, I remember going with my parents to a restaurant downtown where a string trio played Viennese waltzes. The musicians wore blue serge suits and looked like Sigmund Freud. Their music was faint, distant, romantic.

Later, when I was in my teens, I went to the Palomar or the Rainbow Gardens to hear Benny Goodman. There was no amplification in the contemporary sense. But the music was loud enough all over the ballroom, and if we wanted to get closer, to feel it thump, to feel an intimacy with Goodman, we danced closer to the bandstand and just stood there in a pack, swaying back and forth like sea plants at the bottom of the ocean.

I remember reading, years ago, that the Viennese scholar Ludwig von Kochel first heard Mozart's music while strolling through a Vienna park one Sunday afternoon. It was "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," and Kochel realized at once that his life had been changed. Soon after that he began his exhaustive cataloguing of Mozart's music.

I wonder whether Kochel would have been so stricken had "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" been pumped through the park by powerful amplifiers. There is a sweetness, a delicacy, a lilting quality about that serenade that cannot survive massive amplification.

Years ago I went to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire out in the West Valley. Here and there a musical group would be playing Elizabethan airs, without amplification. Amplification was not allowed. It was regarded as anachronistic. The music floated over the hills and vales like a leaf on the wind--sweet, gentle, poignant, seductive. That's the way all music must have sounded in Elizabethan times.

I don't object to rock music's lyrics, its themes or its beat. But I can't take its loudness. It's meant to demoralize us; it's meant to be loud.

Loudness, like smog and toxic wastes, is a destructive product of our technology.

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