Hooked on Sonics

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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: