Our Sophisticated Scream
In the mid 1960s my friend Tommy Johnson lent me a number of the components for playing electric tuba. The possibilities with the sounds and effects that were available seemed endless. And I could play loud, it was unbelievable how loud I could play; while using only enough air and energy for a very conservative mezzo forte, I was able to play many times louder than I could ever have played on my own power. I never really tried to play at the maximum forte possible, I was afraid for the windows in the house, I was afraid for the neighbors and I was afraid for my ears. I used this equipment several times in the Hollywood studios. For each component that I used: fuzz tone, octave divider, ring modulator, amplifier etc, I was paid a double; I was making money with this toy, but what a toy it was. However, time soon put this fad to rest but it was great fun while it lasted. Somehow I was relieved the trend had come to an end, or almost to an end.
Ten years later my good friend Fred Tackett wrote a jazz-rock concerto for tuba and rhythm: electric piano, electric bass, drums and guitar, called Yellowbird. While setting up for the first rehearsal I was surprised when they gave me a mike. Naively, I thought, since I considered myself a powerful symphonic tubist, I wouldn't need a mike; I learned quickly how wrong I was. When I began to play with the quartet, even though it felt like I was playing I had to admit that I could hear no difference in the sound of the room whether I was playing or not. When I accepted using the mike everything worked.
Is the world making a poco a poco crescendo?
In 1966 I played a radio recital and gave a masterclass in Reykjavík, Iceland. On a free weekend I was invited by the president of the Icelandic Band Association to spend a few days at the home of his in-laws in Reykholtsdalur, a very small village with houses set at great distance apart on the hillsides, over looking a stream of steamy volcanically heated water that flowed through the center of the sparse community.
My host's father-in-law was 84 years old and had only been out of Reykholtsdalur once in his life; in 1918 he went to Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland. He left Reykjavík after just a few days to return to Reykholtsdalur because Reykjavík was too hectic for him! To most urbanites in the world, Reykjavík, even today, would appear as a very quiet small town. The old man had never met a foreigner before and even though he had read all the wall-to-wall books in his home in English, French, German and Scandinavian languages he had never tried to speak anything other than Icelandic until my visit.
Certainly, Reykholtsdalur is the quietest place I have ever been. when this old man spoke his voice was clear, resonate, full and very very soft; he had never in his life had to speak at a volume that would cut through any peripheral sounds and he probably had never had to shout. I've never heard a voice like that before; he simply never needed to speak any louder.
One year later I spent several days on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Sarajevo, which was then a part of the old Yugoslavia. At 4:30 in the afternoons we would hear the powerful and penetrating voices from the minarets of the castrati Muslim muezzins calling the Muslim community to worship.
It seems mankind will do anything necessary to be heard.
In my conservatory days at the Eastman School of Music the British guitarist Julian Bream came to give a masterclass in the afternoon and a recital in the evening. It was a wonderful masterclass, not only was Mr. Bream the standard barer for the state of the art amongst guitarists, he was also a man of considerable charisma and charm. At the finish of the masterclass several of the Eastman girls asked if I thought Maestro Bream would like to go out after his concert that evening and enjoy a drink or two. Well, you'll never know until you ask him, I said; they did, he seemed very pleased and they made the appointment. Now the girls seemed almost panicked, Where shall we take him was the question. After a little conversation they decided to take him to their usual spot, which was called Al's Green Tavern. It was located just on the edge of town and as well as being the frequent watering hole for the habitual party people of the Eastman School, it was also the hangout for the tough, pool playing motorcycling types of Rochester; Al's Green Tavern was a rowdy joint!
Since I had an exam the next day I went home to study for a while and didn't get to the tavern until a couple of hours later. When I arrived I was a little concerned by the extreme quiet as I walked in; this was not normal. There was no pool playing there was no rowdiness, just an eerie quiet with the attention of the whole pub focused on one corner of the room where Julian Bream sat playing the lute, perhaps the softest and most intimate musical instrument we have. Mr. Bream had calmed the rowdy pub crowd with sonic beauty and musical eloquence; his musical power, stronger than the rock and roll that was normally heard from the jukebox, caused his unique public to make an effort to listen.
I'm not very fond of rock and roll; I try sometimes to understand the text when I can whether it's rap, hip-hop or whatever. The social message in the lyrics may be interesting, however, it's very rare when I can understand them; it's usually just too loud to discriminate anything subtle like words. There is one rock and roll group I enjoy very much; Pink Floyd creatively uses dynamic contrasts and consequently becomes a much more powerful musical entity than most rock and roll groups, we hear the text and we hear the sonic beauty.
Dynamic levels also differ among symphony orchestras. Part of this difference is, of course the difference in the concert halls. A great hall, like a great violin, has a certain point in the dynamic where the sound becomes enhanced; it generates a feedback, a luster, to the timbre. In some halls, like the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam this point of enhancement happens at a simple mezzo piano, in other halls like Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic or Chicago's Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony, this acoustical enhancement doesn't happen until well into forte or even fortissimo. The Concertgebouw seats 1750 listeners, Avery Fisher Hall seats 2738. If the members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra were to play at the dynamics used in Avery Fisher Hall it would probably sound quite vulgar. The problem for the larger halls is that by the time that point of enhancement is reached in fortissimo the tone quality often becomes forced. This could partially explain why many players are moving to larger equipment; they believe bigger equipment won't sound forced in extreme fortissimo.
Throughout history music has been reflective of our environment, so it's not difficult to understand why the dynamic, the decibel level today is chronically rising. With rapid population growth and the resulting traffic and urban chaos, with war and an always present threat of terrorism, and with sociological changes that come so quickly we hardly have time to adjust before they change again, it's no wonder that the poco a poco crescendo is approaching a frighteningly painful level.
If the poco a poco crescendo continues it's inevitable we are going to see an inordinate amount of hearing problems in our future; one has to wonder if the extremely high decibels in our environment and our music will affect the evolution of mankind's hearing mechanism, thus resulting in a development in our tolerance to loud sounds. If that were to happen would it mean that we would loose our capacity to hear low decibel sounds? In any case it would certainly mean a change in the way we hear.
Is it possible that this high decibel music today for many of us is in reality a sophisticated scream, a visceral reaction to the stresses of our time?
If so, it's a natural thing. A scream, as well as a call for help can also be a threshold we cross to a clearer state of mind suitable for finding solutions for life's problems. Is it possible that the intoxicated, anesthetized high decibel bacchanals, (wild intoxicated revelry) in which many of our young people frequently indulge, is part of that sophisticated scream caused by fear of the future, of the unknown? An occasional bacchanal needn't be a bad thing; like the scream, it could be the first step toward adjusting to the aspect of solution.
Perhaps Julian Bream showed us an alternative to the poco a poco crescendo fifty years ago when he played the lute in Al's Green Tavern and tamed the rowdy locals into quiet listeners.
And who shall be the first to leave the monstrous power behind, pull the plug and communicate by beauty, elegance and poetry of sound?
Roger Bobo - Amsterdam, March 1, 2007