Hooked on Sonics

Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 05:15 PM

I am writing this dispatch to the accompaniment of jackhammers. Not by choice, of course, but because we as a society permit noise of untold decibels to be part of our environment. My windows are closed and I have put cotton in my ears but, even from twelve floors down and one block away, the din penetrates my space and overwhelms every other sound.

As it happens, I have been making notes for this post for more than three weeks. It was to be about volume and how we like it in some situations -- when it is sound -- but loathe it in others, specifically when it is noise. The jackhammers began pounding less than five minutes after I started writing, but I intend to stick to the original intention of my article.  

The inspiration for my musing on sound versus noise began at a thrilling performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Met on October 5. This is the visceral work of a young composer inflamed with the passion of nationalism and, I am sure, with discovering the genius he possessed as he put whole, half and quarter notes on the pages in front of him and heard, in his head, what they could represent.  

Maria Guleghina as Abigaille and her colleagues, along with Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Paolo Carignani, were completely inspired from the very first notes in Nabucco. The performance was loud but not overbearing.

Rather, it was in tune, gorgeous and in full cry. The volume made impact on this listener -- I could almost feel it on my face and vibrating in my feet planted on the floor. But it did not jar the eardrums. Part of the thrill came in knowing that no electronic amplification was used and certainly was not required to reach the 3,786 seats of the opera house. On that night, Guleghina was a force of nature and one of the reasons why we love opera.  

I still heard the music in my head a few days later, due primarily to Verdi’s melodic gift. I was walking to have dinner for one at a restaurant called Fishbones in a drive-up mall in Lake Mary, Florida. I heard the cars around me, but also heard the whipping of palm fronds on trees being blown about by unseasonal weather. The wind was loud, but impressive.   

As I have emphasized since my very first communication with you on this site, I believe profoundly in protecting and using our five senses to the fullest. They are among our greatest gifts and can provide immense pleasure and insight when they are not abused. All of mine were activated at Fishbones as I discovered, in this most unlikely place, that when smell, taste, touch, sight and sound work together, they create a sensation greater than they can on their own.  

My server was genuinely friendly and did not produce a litany of text by rote as if forced to by a manager. She really seemed glad to introduce herself with a simple “I’m Suzanne” but without “and I’ll be your server.” And I responded, as I never have in a restaurant: “and I’m Fred.” It was as if we were embarking on a project--my meal--together. We discussed the food and she responded in an informed manner and without a hint of salesmanship. Suzanne knew the vintage of the excellent Erath Oregon Pinot Gris even though it had been omitted from the wine list.  

The temperature of my food was perfect for what was being served, abetted by chilled plates for salads and warmed dishes for cooked seafood. The calibration of seasoning in every dish was such that it had flavor but did not massacre the palate (in other words, the tastes were sound but not noise). There was proper moisture and texture in the rice and vegetables. This all might seem obvious, but most restaurants inevitably get something wrong.   

I realized that my particular enjoyment of this meal was not just a result of good food and service. That can be found elsewhere too. As it happened, there was no music playing in the restaurant and, therefore, no backbeat or persistent thumping that seem to make people eat faster, chew faster and shout. The room was not quiet, but the sounds were agreeable. Diners were engaged in friendly conversation but no one (apart from the screeching laugh of one woman at the bar) was noisy. I could hear forks and knives at work. There was the distant clatter of pots and pans and the occasional voice of one of the servers. There was life here, but no soundtrack.   

As I departed, I sought out the manager and told him how good the food and service were and how great it was to hear the variety of ambient sounds as I dined. He apologized (“the sound system is broken”), not realizing that I was paying the restaurant a high compliment. I hope they never reinstate recorded music. In many restaurants and public spaces, omnipresent music that is either loud and throbbing or simply banal is akin to those still inescapable jackhammers.  

Several days later, back home in New York, I went to a play called “The Select (The Sun Also Rises),” a dramatized recitation of Hemingway’s fine novel. The stage was a simple playing space of what looked like a bar, with four tables, a few chairs, countless bottles and a handful of drinking glasses. Plus a pair of bullhorns of the bovine rather than sound-amplifying kind. The bullfight evoked by the horns on a table and a red cape was more exciting than watching the real thing because audience members were required to use their imaginations. How good, and rare, is that!  

In addition, there was a very detailed sound design created and operated by two of the actors. Effects such as pouring wine, clinking glasses and opening doors were narrated in sound. This would work, except that they were played at an intolerable volume, as if the sounds had to announce themselves and not just be heard. The voices of actors in this 199-seat theater (where I have attended many plays in which no amplification was used) boomed distortedly, making it hard to listen to them.   

By intermission, my ears were aching. Several people left because they could not stand the volume. I spoke to a technician (lighting, I think) who communicated with the two actors onstage who were controlling the sound. It was moderated somewhat in the second act, but was still joltingly loud. I am concerned that, if this cast is not spared this incessant volume, they will soon have to work for the National Theater of the Deaf.   

When I was a teenager going to theater in big houses on Broadway, the actors usually spoke and sang without microphones. One did not hear sirens of emergency vehicles racing by outside the theaters because they were not as loud as they are today. Now, when I attend shows in the same Broadway theaters, the actors and orchestras are fully amplified and yet I can hear sirens from the outside. This is because sirens are now much louder. Surely our firefighters, police officers, ambulance drivers and paramedics endure more noise than need be and it is bad for their health. I think we make sirens louder to compensate for the fact that the volume of everything nowadays is much higher than in the past.  

There is an epidemic of hearing loss among baby boomers and I fear that young people, who tune out the world by blasting music in the “buds” jammed in their ears, will experience deafness at alarming rates. Certainly, they will not have the pleasure of the memory of melody from Nabucco or the delight of ambient sound in a cheerfully busy restaurant. 

Here is an exercise to help you appreciate the gift of your hearing: Turn off all sounds in the space you are in. Listen to The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Adjust the volume so that you can hear it with no excess volume. Play it soft enough so you must listen to it rather than hear it. Close your eyes, if you wish. Let your mind run free and you will discover new worlds.

Photo: Maria Guleghina as Abigaille in Verdi's 'Nabucco' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Weigh in: How does ambient noise affect you? Do you have ways of coping? Have you ever been inspired by noise? Leave your comments below:


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Comments [12]

Ashley from England

Some people seem to be able to tolerate noise better than others. I work in a room with 7 other people. The radio is played all day everyday because "that's how it's always been". I'm new there so I don't get a say in whether the radio is on or not or even over the volume level. The guy who sits next to me doesn't like the radio, but he seems to be happy to tolerate it. I, on the other hand, frequently find myself feeling stressed because of the noise. They play undesirable pop music and have heated debates which lead to arguments all day. I feel like I'm being assaulting, not physically by touch, but audibly by sound.

Like you, Fred, I love certain sounds. It gives me great pleasure to here natural ambience or listen to a beautiful song like "The Lark Ascending"! It stands to reason that people who are sensitive enough to achieve a great sense of peace or pleasure from sound are also susceptible to sound induced stress, discomfort or even pain.

Apr. 29 2012 10:02 AM
michioryo from Japan

But I like these types of lively restaurants!

Nov. 23 2011 02:59 AM
Anne Mendelson from North Bergen, NJ

Movie theaters are the pits. What's scary is knowing that nobody under the age of maybe 45 KNOWS that the level of sound is grotesque, distorting, and actually damaging. Being accustomed to loud noise makes you crave still louder and louder noise.

Nov. 04 2011 06:29 AM
Dinko from NE

Thank you Fred. The "Lark" is a magical music creation.
"Noise" is an excellent topic. We are bombarded and surrounded by prodigious amounts of it daily, constantly. As if we were at war! It impairs thought and life. Short of libraries, quiet spaces and noise canceling headphones, there is no easy or quick solution. If we keep raising the issue, momentum will build for change (spoken as a true optimist!).

Oct. 30 2011 11:54 AM
meche from MIMA

The number of responses sure indicate that you have touched a nerve Fred, the auditory nerve. We should buy stock in companies that manufacture hearing aids and get rich! Meanwhile, I use a noisy air-conditioner, an air purifier and a white noise machine to get to sleep. I avoid Broadway musicals and restaurants with loud "sound tracks", nothing I would call music, for sure. I think the police force could outlaw amplification on the street without compromising free speech.

Oct. 28 2011 11:07 PM
ستيفن from Isfahan

Great post, Fred. Has anyone else been listening to The Lark Ascending all day? What an enchanting, hypnotic piece of music. I'm feeling drugged.

Oct. 28 2011 02:46 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I agree wholeheartedly!! Setting aside for anothe time the ubiquitous flat screen TVs that are thrust into everyone's awareness in so many venues, the upswing in decibels in general, but particularly in the palces you mentioned (restaurants, movies, theaters) is uncalled for but unstoppable. Every time I am in a Broadway house, particularly the older, smaller ones that we (my wife and I) know were built to aid in unamplified projection of voices, I ponder how the goal seems to be to make deaf those who are not already so. I also resent the fact that everyone's voice seems to be coming from the same place (usually the top of the proscenium). Movies, especially previews, are also louder than anything needs to be, but there is no way to stop it, it seems.

Oct. 28 2011 01:48 PM
Rob Jones

I'm with you 200%. I always try to avoid businesses that play loud music, and loud restaurants.

Oct. 28 2011 12:24 PM
Rich from The Bronx

Amen to John's comments on how loud movie theatres are. Over the last 5 or so years I have always taken cotton with me to the movies to put in my ears. I have always had to use it. Some theatres I will not go too because of this. In particular a bunch on East 86th Street in Manhattan where the sound level is as high as the price of their popcorn.

Oct. 28 2011 09:50 AM
John Cheek from Berkshires

How I wish there was some way of reducing the trend. Movies are just as bad. Previews often sound like an artillery barrage. Many theater sound systems are just harsh and ugly.
I have lived in the country for quite a few years following some 21 years in NYC. When city friends visit they are sometimes unable to sleep because of the quiet. But still noise intrudes on us here. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers and chainsaws shatter our peace. Only winter brings real silence if you are lucky enough to not be be near snowmobiles.

Oct. 28 2011 09:39 AM
Michael Meltzer

I have noticed over the years that very often, a noisy restaurant is the result of one noisy table, which causes a domino effect. When the people at such a table get up and leave, very often the restaurant quiets down to a very pleasant level.
It's too bad that proprietors aren't on to this, they could at least print a little note about it in their menus.
But, I'm not sure the usual offenders would notice.

Oct. 28 2011 08:38 AM
kay from westchester, ny

My husband and I both hate and try to avoid the usual noisy restaurants that seem to be the norm these days. We recently had dinner with friends at a place right across the street from Lincoln Center on a Saturday evening and by the end of the meal we could no longer talk to the friends we were with unless we leaned across the table and shouted. We ended up sitting in silence because noone could sustain that type of screaming conversation for long.
What a pity, and what is the point? Who actually likes and wants these decibels?
It is a scourge on dining in most places these days.
What can be done?

Oct. 28 2011 08:20 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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