Monday, July 21, 2008

On Loudness and Deafness

Something has been on my mind lately, and today's lunch only served to jog my memory about it.

There is a nice little restaurant right around the corner from me where I like to go, most particularly when I don't feel like dealing with Philadelphia traffic--or when my car is not cooling properly..... It's small, and, in the off hours in which I tend to go, quiet.

But not today. I walked in with the new book I'm starting today (having finished Richard Weaver, several of our readers will be glad to know) , sat down, ordered, and started reading. I was the only one there. This sure beats the noisy diners around here. Then my ears got punched out by the radio. It seemed as if someone said, "Hey! We've got a customer! He needs MUSIC!!!" So they turned it on, and turned it up loud enough for the inhabitants of the local cemetery to hear.

I don't need music. In fact, I almost never listen to any recorded music. The fact that it was mostly hits from the 1940's--my grandmother's version of cultural decadence--added a particular twist and provided an occasion for meditation on the fact that all art which is bad eventually becomes dated. Perhaps this assurance should be a source of comfort. But I digress, slightly.

Back to the volume. I have been wondering lately about modern man's capacity for hearing and listening. It seems to be beyond dispute at this point that people today do not listen as well as they once did. More than that, however, I'm beginning to wonder about modern society's capability to hear in general. I do not mean this in the physical sense so much, but rather in the sense that sound has simply become one big White Noise. I cannot count the number of times, for instance, that I have watched drivers act completely oblivious to an approaching ambulance, in spite of the fact that the siren could be heard from blocks away. Was today's loudness a symptom of this modern unawareness of sound?

And, of course, when silence comes, people panic. As an organist, I have gotten into trouble more often for allowing silence to reign for a few moments than for playing the most dissonant modern pieces.

As a musician, you might have guessed by now, all of this is troubling. Listening is gone, even mere hearing is on its way out the door, and silence--"the canvas upon which a musician paints his picture," according to the conductor David Zinman--is forbidden. These phenomena lead to a kind of cultural retardation, an inability to perceive--forget about appreciation for the moment--the art of music. Even the elevator music in restaurants today has been demoted: It used to be background noise, but now it is only White Noise. Is it any wonder, then, that people don't hesitate to talk through (or even over top of) performances?

I suppose there is little use in bemoaning this situation. One useful question does come to mind, however: How should contemporary musicians try to reach a post-civilizational world that cannot hear?

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