Is there justification for amplification?

This is a cross-post with www.thomas-butler.co.uk.

There has been much furore in the blogosphere recently concerning the views of Jonathan Harvey, one of the most well-respected of British composers. Specifically, during a broadcast interview with Bob Shingleton for Future Radio, Harvey suggested that classical concerts of the future could use electronic amplification in order to attract younger audiences. His comments were covered by the national media including The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Firstly, what he actually said: “….the mass of young people don’t like concert halls… They wouldn’t normally go to one except for amplified music. They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping and that kind of delicacy and refinement. So there’s a big divide between amplified music and non-amplified music and the two cultures. I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere were people can come and go, where they can even talk, perhaps, and it wouldn’t be sacrilege and they can certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. These are the sort of situations where young people’s music takes place”.

He goes on to note that many people are being deprived of classical music due to the off-putting nature of concert hall etiquette. Notice at no point did he advocate the electronic amplification of all classical concerts, although try telling that to a few hysterical bloggers (including Fiona Maddocks in The Observer).

There are a few issues here that have been bundled together: namely, the use of amplification in the concert hall and the supposed relationship between concert hall protocol and the absence of young people in the audience.

Those who have been horrified by the suggestion of amplification in classical gigs (and there have been many) are presumably concerned with the amplification of music that wasn’t originally intended to be made louder. There is plenty of (new-ish) music that intentionally mixes live, unamplified sound with amplified recordings (including many works by Jonathan Harvey himself). But is there nothing to be said for the artistic use of amplification in old-music concerts?

Much of the frothy indignation appearing on the web this week over the issue has been a result of considering “amplification” as synonymous with rock-’n’-roll volume levels. Whilst cranked-up decibel levels would indeed affront our well-developed listening culture, can the same be said for the subtle use of amplification for musical reasons? For me, arguments that assert that any use of amplification would automatically distort the intentions of performers (and indeed composers) is a false one; works originally intended for small, intimate venues are now routinely played in cavernous auditoriums. For example, I have attended numerous concerts in churches with unbearably-long reverberation times. Were the resulting muddy textures and lack of clarity any more of a distortion of the composer’s/performer’s goals than a bit of electronic enhancement? Why do we allow (albeit grudgingly) the distortions that unsympathetic architecture inflicts upon music but not the enhancements that a sensitive electronic amplification could bring? Just think of all the wonderful, subtle shades of piano that could be expressed by means of amplification, for example, which are usually lost when a soloist is required to project into a large concert space above the sound of a symphony orchestra. Electronic amplification can theoretically be used as an expressive tool to add nuance to a musical performance, not just to make it louder (and let’s not forget that the Royal Festival Hall used electro-acoustic “assisted resonance” from 1964 to 1999).

Many performers may feel aggrieved by the suggestion of amplification, its “interference” with their performance, the lack of total control of sound that performers desire, not to mention the difficulties in monitoring one’s performance in a miked-up situation. Performers are trained to project their sound by working with (and sometimes against) the acoustics of the performance space, this ability being a necessary and prized asset. Sound production is a personal thing for musicians and working with a sound engineer would naturally enforce a degree of collaboration.

However, if used, amplification creates another layer of artistic opportunities; the decisions that have to be made are similar to those of the recording process (for example the type of microphones used, their placement, how the sound is mixed, which frequencies are attenuated etc). The common suggestion that there aren’t many people who could be trusted to amplify classical music (ostensibly because live sound engineers usually “only” work in the pop domain) is nonsense. Not only would the regular amplification of concerts create better training opportunities for classical sound engineers but many commentators seem to underestimate the complexity of recording, producing and mastering a pop track to professional standards (you can’t just plug in and turn up to eleven if you want the finished product to sound good). If amplification is used, a fine rapport with a good sound engineer would be essential; it’s no wonder that the Kronos Quartet (who only ever performed amplified) consider their sound engineer, Scott Fraser, to be an intrinsic member of the ensemble (read about his work here ).

So the (incorrect) assertion that amplification is a blunt, unsympathetic tool cannot be reason enough to dismiss it out of hand. Nor can the difficulties of achieving a good sound-balance (amplifying a whole orchestra is a difficult and expensive exercise, although certainly not impossible). The main reason not to amplify is that amplification for the sake of amplification is not necessary; Jonathan Harvey’s comments, although well-meaning, teeter on the edge of the cliché that the yoof are unable to appreciate subtlety, can’t sit still and can only exhibit one mode of behaviour when attending musical performances. The desire of the audience to talk and move around (thus the need for blanket amplification) is overstated; people don’t talk at the cinema and nor do they feel the need to go for a wander. However, Harvey’s underlying suggestion, that music should be presented in a manner familiar and comfortable to its targeted audience, seems rather like stating the obvious to me. Classical music doesn’t belong to one age group, social class or income-bracket, it belongs to anyone who cares to listen. However, that mode of listening (in a live scenario) is dictated by a social convention which is upheld by one particular social class and age group. It doesn’t suit everyone, so why not supplement it with other modes of listening?

Of course, some have; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment present late-evening classics at the Roundhouse as part of their “Nightshift” series; Icebreaker, like Kronos, only ever perform amplified; in Scotland the Red Note ensemble have taken over where Paragon left off by regularly performing new music in bars. There are probably many more examples although these remain the exceptions rather than the norm. Maybe Harvey hints at a future where, having lost the aged audience and associated ticket sales, what is now considered outreach work will become an everyday occurrence for established musical ensembles.

Meanwhile there are several schemes that encourage young people to go to standard classical events including Manchester’s Sonic Card and Glasgow’s Fonic Card (disclaimer: I was slightly involved with the Glasgow version). These two schemes are independent of each other (the similarity of name is entirely coincidental….) and both work by offering cheap tickets coupled with a core of young volunteers who publicise the gigs and engage with the young audience. This lends both schemes an air of “for us, by us” authenticity despite being backed by major arts organisations; to get more young people into the concert hall you need to engage and invite them.

Tellingly, the flurry of indignation aimed towards Harvey refers only to a short extract of an excellent interview. In the unedited version (listen to it here) the composer speaks gently but passionately about a variety of subjects (including Benjamin Britten, Hans Keller, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rudolf Steiner, Buddhism, serialism and spectralism) for over forty minutes. His comments regarding the future of the concert hall occupy less than ninety seconds. Whilst there is plenty of room for debate over the way classical music is presented it seems a pity on this occasion that it replaces discussion of the other things Jonathan Harvey speaks of, not to mention his music. If we’re all getting hot under the collar over concert protocol rather than the music itself, what message does that send to those who haven’t yet experienced live classical music?

Thomas Butler

Thomas Butler is a composer and conductor of the University of St Andrews Symphony Orchestra

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One Response to Is there justification for amplification?

  1. Hi Tom

    I missed all the Jonathan Harvey “furore” (I love that term, when applied to classical music. It basically means that the people involved got a little bit sweaty when they were typing. Real furores are about things like ethnic cleansing and wars) about amplification and whatnot. Just to add / amend what you said about Kronos (I interviewed them at EIF this year, so they said this directly to me); they amplify in order to bring the performance “forward to the listener”, to make things like the “pin drop” that Jonathan H refers to actually audible (and close) rather than lost in your neighbouring audience-member’s bum shuffling. I’m not sure they actually used the term “bum” when talking to me, but that was the gist.

    Thanks for the ‘shout out’ (see, I’m down wiv da kids) about Red Note. I do get Jonathan Harvey’s point, although it’s couched in a rather I-am-observing-young-people-as-a-separate-species way, which is hilarious. Was he ever young?

    I hate classical concerts, and I’ve seen them through the eyes of my oldest boy (he’s 8) recently. They’re like being in church. Unless you “know the rules” of being in the audience (ie shut up, don’t shuffle, don’t text your mates about how rubbish the music is, don’t leave, sit quietly and still and appreciate this marvellous offering that is being given to you by the performers) then you’re left in no doubt by everyone else about how “appalling” your behaviour is through least subtle of means and effectively excluded. And every single sodding piece has to be treated as a masterwork and given “respect” even if it is painfully dull and / or crap.

    I fear it may be time for a bit of disrespect in concert halls. The reason we amplify Red Note’s “Noisy Nights” gigs in the Traverse is because I genuinely expect (in fact, want) the audience to – when bored – go and get a pint, or talk to their neighbour – and feel free to do so without disturbing other peoples’ enjoyment or engagement with the piece. How else can a composer work out at what point his or her music ceases to engage the audience except by the audience being allowed to disengage? That’s also the reason why all of the pieces are short. The audience doesn’t wander off too far because they know the current grim racket will only last a maximum of 5 minutes more and they can go back to their seats with a pint of IPA when it’s over.

    The lack of any meaningful feedback loop between audience and composer in this way has been one of the major reasons why audiences have disconnected from new music and composers have disconnected from their audience. It’s possible – in fact, it’s a lauded position – to be a completely disconnected, nay, monastic figure as a composer, pursuing one’s muse around one’s own garret and occasionally bestowing the fruits of your labours on an ungrateful bovine public. But it’s not sustainable for an entire artform – in fact, it’s bloody deadly.

    I don’t really care about amplification or non-amplification per se. What I do care about is making an audience feel valued and involved, and able to respond to the music they’re hearing in ways that make them feel comfortable. That might make composers feel uncomfortable initially – many composers I know are totally terrified of what the audience might actually really think of their music – but in the long run, it can only be a good thing. Remember: No audience = no music.

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