- - Do you support our campaigning for the provision of
texts for vocal music (including surtitles, even for Opera in English)
and against distorting (and often unnecessary) amplification (Editorial
Reviewing the recent performance at the Royal Albert Hall of Schoenberg's
gargantuan Gurrelieder (Prom
13) Rick Jones (formerly the Evening Standard's provocative
music critic, and one time contributor to Seen&Heard) noted
in The Observer, as did some other reviewers, that some soloists, who
were provided with individual microphones for the radio and TV audience,
were drowned by the large orchestra. He asked "Why not
amplify them for the live listeners as well? It seems folly to
resist when the technology is there for the asking."
This prompted returning to thoughts about how listening, and listeners'
expectations, might develop in our new century, and whether identifiable
tendencies should be encouraged or resisted. The temptation to
make concert going an ever louder, and supposedly a more powerful, experience
has often been indulged, and its dangers were raised in Strictly
Off the Record before S&H existed.
There was a short-lived experiment a decade or so ago at the South
Bank Centre, with amplified orchestral concerts of classical music (a
Beethoven symphony and The Firebird etc) given by The Electric
Symphony Orchestra, directed by Richard
Gonski. Those were heady days!
London concertgoers who attended the concerts will certainly
recall how the musicians were made to kneel on special orthopaedic chairs,
purported to prevent back troubles - an exchange for the likely damage
to their hearing that they risked from the high volume. Gonski
writes on the web about ' - - the musical
revolution that occurred in the second half of the 20th century with
the advent of electric and electronic sound generation transformed the
way we compose, perform and listen to music - - ',
this article accompanying excerpts from his compositions
constructed of samples to explore the
sonic potential of various acoustic instruments.
Many relevant themes have been discussed
repeatedly in S&H since its inception; language
titling (-sur, -sub and -side) and translations will be returned to
once again below.
in S&H under Amplification and Enhancement
could make a good start to discussing Rick Jones' "folly to resist"
- it is essential to distinguish between those two at the outset.
Amplification risks seriously unnatural balance and - worse - distortion.
Although the technology available for live amplification is now superb,
it is often crude as experienced in actuality - e.g. Opera
North's Sweeney Todd and many Indian music concerts.
In the latter the musicians themselves (who may be badly placed to judge)
can often be observed to ask for the volume to be raised. Is it
the spread of pop that has made it rare to be able to hear the true
sounds of Indian instruments and voices, which are not trained as are
our Western opera singers? It is a comparatively recent development
that Indian classical music has been enjoyed in the sub-continent by
huge audiences of thousands, often out of doors. Recordings,
and the CDs made at most concerts, have encouraged an appetite for instrumental
detail, and - artificially - for volume and power, as expected elements
to heighten appreciation, a road to perdition that has been resisted
for the most part in western chamber music (but q.v. recent appearances
of the Kronos String Quartet!).
Indian classical music was conceived quite differently in ancient times
and has continued to be transmitted through the generations in its purity,
though now innovation and 'cross-over' are attracting younger musicians.
Nowadays, all too frequently, the ubiquitous amplification is crude
and excessive - the reductio ad absurdum we have experienced
was a recital on the gentle vina before a tiny audience at the
smaller of the Blackheath Halls, with the controls in the hands of someone
more used to pop concerts. I have had to remonstrate with the
'engineer' when an Indian bamboo flute was made to sound like a trumpet.
More widespread acceptance of Rick Jones' recipe may lead to an insidious
blurring of the different experiences of live and recorded/filmed music.
The equipment is indeed 'there for the asking' - at a price - but its
use by engineers (and many of them are not trained musicians) risks
their taking over a chief responsibility for balance from conductors
and subverting composers' intentions, especially for concertos and orchestral
works with singers, when the controls may be entrusted to recording
professionals who habitually listen to music on earphones or high quality
monitor loudspeakers, some of them aiming that a soloist's every note
should be heard clearly, which cannot be so in the concert hall.
My bench mark is Michael O'Gorman, the brilliant Irish sound engineer
responsible for the sound design of Riverdance,
who had explained to me, at a memorable choral concert by Anuna
in the chapel of the former Royal Naval College in Greenwich, his key
aim. The objective was to enhance the tone without making this
apparent, essentially by increasing the volume minimally, and by introducing
'delay' to create an illusion that the sound is heard as if coming entirely
from the singers themselves, not from the loud speakers. In Munich
those principles served brilliantly to fill a vast space with amplified
sound which preserved clarity and drew you in - no mean feat, in contrast
with, for example, the crudity of a painful Aida, which we did
not survive to the end, given by a visiting company in the Albert Hall
with excruciating distorted amplification. But it can be
done in the Albert Hall too; I have a wonderful memory of an all-night
Prom of Indian classical music with the musicians in the centre of the
arena and the volume level just right to create a magical feeling of
Perfect enhancement/amplification needs state-of-the-art equipment and
sensitive musicianship from its operator; the best ones deserve to earn
as much as conductors. Some composers, for whom technology is
an essential part of their creativity, handle amplifying equipment marvellously
(Stockhausen often sits at the control desk himself). But the
ever-present risks and uncertainties are nicely illustrated by the current
cover CD with the September BBC Music Magazine; a coupling of
two concerto studio recordings, made by the same engineer/editor earlier
this year, only a few months apart, both with the same orchestra and
at the same location in Manchester. The two soloists are slightly
enhanced for the Brahms double concerto, but are in close contact with
and actively in relationship with the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.
I enjoyed it, but found its companion, Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto
with the equally fine conductor Vassily Sinaisky, unlistenable to.
There the balance is upside-down, as if one is almost under the piano
lid with Ashley Wass, whose recital career S&H had been following
with considerable pleasure; he might as well have been in a separate
hall from the BBC Philharmonic!
Microphone placement is crucial, and balancing afterwards equally so.
I have this difficulty with all too many concerto recordings on CD -
BBC engineers in live broadcasts, especially from the Proms, often do
far better to my taste, which is based upon a lifetime of attending
Musical experiences in concert halls and opera houses differ greatly
according to seating positions. It can be illuminating to know
where a critic sat, and I sometimes try to move at the interval to check
how it sounds for others in less expensive seats. Audibility
is affected by positioning in most halls, greatly so in the Royal Albert
Hall, less in some state-of-the-art purpose built halls such as those
designed by Russell
Johnson at Birmingham and Lucerne.
Rick Jones appears to assume that the same microphones might serve the
live audience as the radio/TV audience; that this is far from so is
exemplified by my account of the complexities of Decca's live filming
d'amore for DVD and its subsequent recording for CDs
in the same venue, quite separately straight afterwards, aiming to achieve
a different and more appropriate aural perspective - and surely no-one
would want the present-day veritable forest of microphones on the concert
platform to be further proliferated, indeed doubled!
Texts and Titles (Sur-, Sub- and Side-)
It is not long since surtitles in the opera house were anathema, but
now they are widely accepted and people have got used to looking at
them or not as they prefer. No longer do average opera-goers (not
to speak of visiting tourists) have time to purchase and study libretti
in advance, as was usual in the 19th century. Films in English
shown in the cinema and available on DVDs, not infrequently have optional
titling to help those who may have some difficulty (our local cinema
advertises which screenings will be sub-titled.. There is a strong
movement urging provision of texts for opera in English (provided for
Billy Budd at Covent Garden, but this is still resisted at ENO, where
audibility varies between poor and worse). There is all the difference
between picking up a few words from time to time and being able to follow
their full import in context easily, thereby freeing more attention
for the music.
Today's opera lovers have had their lives transformed by high quality
sound and pictures on DVDs, which routinely provide the option of subtitles
for those who like them, those in the original language or translated
into one of several languages of choice. These capabilities are
sure to influence live opera going too. Another innovation is
to be found on the new DVD of Tamerlano,
a rare Handel opera. It allows a novel option, useful for studying
baroque opera performance conventions, in which pages of the original
score pass before your eyes whilst the singers continue to be seen behind
the music, as fainter ghost-like images!
Long having accustomed myself to read parallel texts comfortably in
CD booklets when they are set out properly, and grateful for venues
such as the Wigmore Hall that always provides them, I wonder if there
is any technical obstacle to offering dual translations on DVDs, ideally
that of the sung language above another chosen by the viewer - together
with the ability to switch them off completely, which is not always
an option? We have experienced dual language texts offered in
opera house, easily ignored if you wish.
Finally, some lateral thinking for sports loving musicians to ponder!
The Guardian (7 August) signalled The
end of grand prix because Juan Pablo Montoya's controller in
the pits decided to lift briefly the restrictions on his rev-limiter:
"to enable Juan Pablo to get past Kimi Raikkonen on lap 11 we gave him
even more revs for a while". The writer found this so portentous
and disillusioning as to have reduced grand prix racing to 'little better
than a game of Scalextric;
all Montoya had to do was to 'hold the steering wheel while some guy
on the pit wall provided him with a temporary advantage' - adjusting
a few minor things that the drivers (q.v. musical performers) shouldn't
have to trouble their heads about; in actuality, the boffins co-driving
the cars. In every aspect of life, 'technology there for
the asking' is the thin edge of a wide wedge.
Peter Grahame Woolf
(PGW has embraced technology in his enthusiasm for
hyperlinks, scattered generously through this article; supplying those
in his report from the Cheltenham
Festival brought him a gratifying and generous mail bag , confirming
their usefulness to readers - MB)