beware the decibel...

(I posted the following to the microsound mailing list. I wish I could point you to the relevant thread, but the archives seem to stop around April of this year.)

… is how a public service announcement at my radio station begins.

(What follows is a rant/polemic; feel free to move on if not interested in those sorts of things. This is entirely separate from the recent myspace talk. I wrote it last night when my thoughts were more raw, and I haven’t edited it in the context of a morning re-appraisal.)

Tuesday night I went to a concert by Tetuzi Akiyama, part of the Japanese improvisation scene. He is most known for his “onkyo” style of improv, focusing on austere, sparse, quiet pieces that make intense listening demands on the audience. The first half of his concert focused on this style.

The second half was him, a guitar, an amp pointed directly at the audience, and 100 decibels.

This is not my first experience with this; I cannot even begin to count the number of experimental music/microsound concerts that I have attended that were simply too painful to listen to. Not because of the content, but because of the physical strength of the sound. I left only 15 minutes into his set; the ringing in my ears subsided an hour later.

“Well, dufus, you should have been wearing earplugs.” The simple response. Yet I have to ask what gives the musician the right to do this physical violence to me? Because it is physical violence; through his power, he is harming me in a way we seem to be encouraging through attendance at these concerts. It is as if the musician is being so egotistical to say, “My music, my sound is more important than your ability to hear anything in the future. I will harm your ability to perceive sound, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Oh, you can wear earplugs which will degrade your ability to hear me, but that is the only way you will be able to experience my works.”

What other art forms allow the artist to hurt the art viewer/listener in this way? Conceptual/performance art, perhaps, but I know of no visual art that is so intense that you can loose your sight by viewing it (the beauty of the sun notwithstanding).

Amplification has been around for a number of decades now. Okay, we got it: you can play music loud. You have the ability through a simple twist of your wrist, a turn of the knob, to destroy my hearing. I bow before your power.

In Akiyama’s case it was even worse; performance in a concrete room, with his back facing the amp. So of course he’s not getting the full brunt of the pressure waves, instead hearing the multiple decayed reflections. Yet the audience, which dwindled quickly, had the choice to leave or stay.

Yes, we indeed have that choice. But I have to ask: why do we even need to be making this choice in the first place? We are not teenage punk rockers who don’t know any better; we are not ravers for which the low frequency physicality is important. We are people who love sound, who love the amazing ability we have to sculpt sound. Yet too many musicians persist in playing music at volumes that will prevent us from experiencing these wonderful sounds in the future.

So again: I ask why? If you play your music at physically damaging volumes, why? What do you hope to get out of it? And what are you expecting of your audience?

I’ll also say that I’m 26, I hate being this curmudgeonly, but I want to be able to hear in the future.

nick

Comments

[...] Pulling some works from the older racks this week, with a piece from Harris Newman and members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and other groups from the innumerable spinoffs). Also, a longish piece from Tetuzi Akiyama, even though I had severe issues with his concert last week. [...]

So right! I just had one similar experience, years ago, with an electronic piece of Iannis Xenakis, with the composer regulating the sound volume. My ears were still ringing for most of the next day. Still, it felt right, I thought that Xenakis as a great composer had a right to do this. But, I was much younger then. Now, having lost some of my hearing anyhow, I would like to keep what I have as long as possible. I feel exactly as you said.

Add new comment