FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Silent Nights, Noisy Nights
Wednesday, December 28, 2016 - 08:57 AM
In this year-end period, even in busy urban environments, it is possible to suddenly experience the blessings of quietness that elude us for most of the year. We might extol the beauty of a silent night, yet we accept so much noise — a sort of omnipresent din — in our midst that tranquility and calm have become luxuries we have sacrificed in our modern lives. This is bad for our health and also bad for the spirit.
"The soul is a creature of silence,” says Arkel in Pelleas et Mélisande.
That I am a sensitive man should not surprise you. I revel in my very acute senses and have prioritized them in making choices in my life. I have always gone to great lengths to protect my senses and never assume they are invulnerable.
Our five senses inform our knowledge about so much in our world and feed that wonderful sixth sense known as intuition. But there is a distinct difference among the senses in that three of them — sight, touch and taste — can go unused if one wishes. But the other two — hearing and smell — operate whether you like it or not and are the ones that can provide great pleasure, but also cause great suffering.
Hearing is a gift that we must prize and protect. If we cannot hear, we cannot listen and that is a tragedy. Because I am eager to protect my hearing, I make every effort to avoid loud places. One way of doing this is an app on my smartphone that is a decibel meter. On it, the threshold between safe and dangerous is 70 decibels, although it is possible to tolerate 75 decibels more readily and for a longer time than, say, 85 decibels. Some experts say that we enter the risk range at 80 decibels.
To give you a sense of the average decibel count for certain sounds, according to estimates by the National Institute on Deafness and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: whispering is 30 decibels; average conversation is 60; a washing machine 78; heavy city traffic 80-90; a snowmobile or hand drill 100; a chainsaw or rock concert 110; an ambulance siren 120; and a jet engine at takeoff is 140, which is considered the pain threshold.
In my case, I experience pain when I have prolonged exposure to sound at 85-90 decibels. My ears start to throb and the pain radiates to my jaw and I get what feels like a toothache. In some cases I even develop nausea as a result.
It is important to point out that beautiful music or horrible noise occurring at the same decibel level can both do damage.
I avoid most restaurants because we have come to accept noise as part of the dining experience. I feel very sorry for servers and staff who work long shifts in such din. It is terrible for their health. Public transport conveyances in New York are hideously loud. In fact, our buses are often louder than the subway. Sanitation trucks that grind garbage at all hours of the day and night are completely unnecessary. Other cities gather garbage in quiet plastic bins and trash is not pulverized on streets where people live.
Sirens are louder than ever. I know this because 20 or 30 years ago I never heard sirens when I was inside Carnegie Hall or a Broadway theater. Now I always hear outside sirens, even though most Broadway shows are amplified.
What prompted this article was my recent attendance at a performance of Holiday Inn, presented by Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. The production is an absolute delight, with a talented cast singing blue-chip Irving Berlin songs and dancing up a storm. The direction, costumes and sets were great. The only problem was that the show was unbelievably, painfully LOUD.
When one cast member spoke and sang, the amplification brought him to 93 decibels. When full cast and band performed, the volume rose to 110. (In contrast, when I attended the unamplified Nabucco at the Met, with orchestra, chorus and four soloists at full cry in the first act, the decibel count was only 82.) At the intermission of Holiday Inn I spoke to a technician who referred me to a nearby staff member who contacted the house manager. I was offered a change in seats, but the volume still would have been horrific. The manager communicated that the decision would be up to the stage manager. I have worked in enough theaters in my life to tell you that this was a genteel brush-off because that is not the person who controls volume in a show. These choices are made in a rehearsal period and the stage manager does what has already been arranged.
Hearing loss is a widespread problem in the workplace, as documented in a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control. On Dec. 24, there was a report on NPR that American hearing loss has declined somewhat, although some of this is due to the disappearance of jobs in noisy environments. In my view, unemployment is not a good cure for hearing loss; we must devote more effort to reducing noise in all settings.
Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist who is one of my favorite guests on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show, wrote to me, “There is evidence that noise levels raise blood pressure, heart rate, and have other physiological effects on people and animals. The question that cannot be answered by the animal studies is whether or not the effects are due to the noise itself or if it is the effect of a perceived danger associated with the noise. And that may also be a complicating factor in the human data.”
I believe that constant noise or even pleasant sounds at high volume represent a serious threat to our health and we ignore this in public policy. In the new year I will investigate this topic further and you will hear from me again soon.