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Sound reasoning?

'Amplification' isn't a dirty word to engineer Mark Grey, who hopes to make 'El Nino' pleasing to every ear.

March 09, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Oakland — "I am devoted to the microphone," composer Steve Reich once said in an interview. "I am absolutely in love with the microphone. I intend to work with it until the day I'm dead, and anybody who doesn't like it can go to hell!"

That's an extreme attitude in the classical music world, where sound is supposed to be untouched by electronics and the A-word dare not be uttered.

So let's not talk of amplification -- polite concert hall coinage is "sound enhancement" or "sound reinforcement." But love or hate the microphone and loudspeaker, they are increasingly employed to compensate for acoustically troubled venues. And a new generation of composers and performers is attracted to the possibilities of electronically enhancing orchestral instruments and voices.

John Adams is one such composer. When his opera "El Nino" is performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson will have a body mike hidden in her hair, as will soprano Dawn Upshaw. Baritone Willard White doesn't have enough hair, so his gets wrapped around his ear. The chorus also will be "enhanced." And some 35 microphones will dot the orchestra in the pit.

In fact, the only performer -- other than conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen -- who won't be amplified is Mark Grey, the man responsible for all this technology. Grey is a composer as well as a sound engineer, and what he is up to has far-reaching implications for the direction that classical music will take this century. Adams, the Kronos Quartet and the venturesome Theatre du Chatelet in Paris have thrown in their lots with Grey, as has music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, which must provide technical assistance along with software to orchestras that want to perform music by its increasingly plugged-in composers.

"Ears are changing with digital technology," Grey says, explaining the inevitability of sound enhancement in classical music. "Having compact discs, being able to hear very clearly what's happening in an orchestral piece, that is affecting the way audiences approach concert music and opera. When they go to live performances, they bring those ears with them. It creates a new challenge for us."

Visiting him in the downstairs studio of his house, perched on one of the lower hills in south Oakland, Grey demonstrates an easy command of engineer-speak, but his studio setup is surprisingly modest: a Mac laptop, large loudspeakers, beat-up upright piano, well-worn electronic keyboard. His most important piece of equipment, he says, is his ear.

Grey is tall, sports a long ponytail and has a booming baritone voice. He is warmly enthusiastic, the kind of person whose response to any problem is "no problem." When he evaluates a hall for the first time, he bounds on stage and makes an immediate assessment of the space from the sound of his own speaking voice. He'll clap a few times to hear the reflection.

"Sound reinforcement," Grey explains, "is not a total science. Sound is always changing with humidity or whether people come in with their coats. It all comes down to really listening to the hall. I listen as we're physically connecting the sound system. I listen to people jabbering on stage, all the while getting a sense of where there are strength points and where there are weaknesses. I will then equalize the speakers to reflect the shape my ear is hearing in the room."

One of Grey's ambitions is to maintain sonic consistency no matter the venue. He often tours with the Kronos Quartet, and it is his job to achieve the trademark Kronos sound whether the string quartet plays in a Canary Islands cave, a smoky Oslo jazz club or Carnegie Hall.

"Even some of the greatest concert halls in the world have their flaws," Grey maintains. "It could be that the winds are completely buried in the mix. There are any number of acoustic phenomena that happen in concert halls or opera houses.

"But I always let the room do its work with the acoustic performers, and let the speakers fill in the gaps. It's more like bringing out the subtle colors that the hall sucks into its vaporous areas, or into the seats or people's bodies. If I can push the weaknesses out using the speaker, it feels very natural, not like there is a speaker blasting."

Making sound come to life

Blasting is pretty much what we've come to expect from amplified music. Rock, pop and even jazz thrive at sound levels approaching the threshold of pain. On Broadway, the attitude is that loud is good, deafening is better. Crude sound engineering artificially heightens "intelligibility" by boosting high frequencies to an earsplitting sizzle and relies on a thumping bass to create visceral excitement.

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