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Arts & Culture
Steve Metcalf has been writing about the musical life of this region, and the wider world, for more than 30 years. For 21 of those years, he was the full-time staff music critic of The Hartford Courant. During that period, via the L.A. Times/Washington Post news service, his reviews, profiles and feature stories appeared in 400 newspapers worldwide.He is also the former assistant dean and director of instrumental music at The Hartt School, where he founded and curated the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series. He is currently Director of the Presidents' College at the University of Hartford. Steve is also keyboardist emeritus of the needlessly loud rock band Duke and the Esoterics.Reach him at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.

Pump Down the Volume

Dishpig Eldritch
Noise can hurt.
The sheer dramatic softness of the music had created a kind of self-consciousness, a super-awareness of quietude that many in the audience found strange and uncomfortable.

Music can theoretically unfold at every conceivable volume, from barely audible to ear-splitting. Increasingly, however, for reasons that I sort of understand but not entirely, music these days tends to be experienced at one of two basic levels: Loud, and Insanely Loud.

Earbuds, hotshot car systems, multi-speaker home theater setups, not to mention clubs and arenas and even traditional concert venues – there’s a whole lot of decibels going on. A lot has been written about whether all this loudness will eventually deafen us. Maybe so. But for the moment I have a different angle: it feels to me that quiet music – in fact, just the idea of quiet music – is in danger of slipping away.

That can’t be a good thing.

I thought about this question a couple of weeks ago during a concert, on the Garmany Chamber Music Series, by the JACK String Quartet. At one point in the evening the quartet played a piece called “Structures,” by the late American composer Morton Feldman.

Like a lot of Feldman’s music, the piece is spare, texturally thin and extremely soft. One of the players said he thought it might be the softest string quartet piece ever written.

A minute or two into the piece, an odd thing started to happen: people began to cough and clear their throats all around the auditorium. These folks had not previously displayed any noticeable bronchial distress, so we had to assume that they were not suddenly seized by some fast-acting virus.

No, I think it became clear that the sheer dramatic softness of the music had created a kind of self-consciousness, a super-awareness of quietude that many in the audience found strange and uncomfortable. And coughing was therefore a kind of nervous reaction to that awareness.

I don’t think we would have seen this ten or 15 years ago, because softness in music would have seemed more normal back then. Now it’s an aberration.

Loudness in the concert hall is an interesting thing. We used to listen to recordings that promised to replicate the experience of being in the hall. Now we go to the hall hoping that the sound will resemble what we have gotten used to in recordings. In other words, Loud.

Example: For the first 71 years of its existence, the Bushnell in Hartford had one main performance hall, the 2,800 seat room now designated Mortensen Hall.

The Bushnell
Credit bushnell.org
The Bushnell at night

In 2001, the 900-seat Belding Theater was added. Most music lovers, including me, assumed that this new smaller hall would be right for chamber music, recitals, maybe the occasional light program of Haydn or Mozart symphonies with a suitably downsized ensemble. And this was initially what went in there. But then one night, I think because of a scheduling conflict or something, they put a large visiting orchestra in the Belding.

I seem to recall that they played “Ein Heldenleben” by Richard Strauss, which calls for a big, loud orchestra. Before the concert, there was concern that the sound would blow the patrons out of their seats. But to everyone’s amazement, it sounded great: loud, yes, but also immediate, crisp, detailed. Before long, the Hartford Symphony moved into the smaller hall because, well, it sounded better. 

Nowadays, when an orchestra plays in the big hall, which is seldom, it sounds underwhelming, even though for many decades it sounded just fine. The point is: not only are we all getting used to Loud; we expect and demand it.

In some ways, the history of Western music is a steady march toward Loud. Beethoven was enchanted with – and actually altered his compositional approach because of -- the then-new Erard pianos from France, because among other advantages, they could play louder than the German and Viennese instruments he had known. The symphony orchestra itself became progressively larger and louder as the 19th century unfolded.

In the 20th century, jazz and swing tended to traffic in Loud. And, of course, amplification – which began in earnest in the 1950s – changed the equation profoundly.

Insanely Loud is a more recent concept. When the Beatles first played Shea Stadium in 1965, as photos show, they still were playing through a few quaint Vox 100-watt amps, equipment that would be comically inadequate today for your average wedding band.

Credit marc weinstein / allBeatles.net
The Beatles at Shea Stadium

Just a few years later, I had my first encounter with Insanely Loud. It was at the old Boston Garden, and Stevie Wonder was the headliner. We were seated way down toward the front, just a few rows from a stack of speakers taller than a house. I was incredulous at the volume, and equally incredulous that nobody near me seemed the slightest bit bothered by it.

Insanely Loud quickly became, and remains, the default norm for rock and pop shows, wedding receptions, clubs. This will not be going away, and I'm fine with that. I mean, the DJ who plays “YMCA” or “I Will Survive” or “Shout” at a tastefully restrained mezzo-forte level is not going to get a lot of work.

And I get that merely Loud can be exciting, too. Although I am at a stage in life where I do not react generously when some kid’s car subwoofers enable me to identify the individual notes of a bass line three blocks away, my younger self sort of remembers what’s going on in that kid’s mind.

But here's the thing: while Loud and Insanely Loud are with us to stay, we shouldn't permit ourselves to completely lose communion with Soft or even Moderately Soft. Quiet music can take us to a place that Loud cannot, and it’s a place that’s good to visit regularly. As you might have noticed, tranquility is not all that readily available just now in the wider world; music is one of its more reliable sources.

So if you have a free moment for listening, check out a little Gregorian Chant, or Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia” or Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music,” or the slow movements to the Debussy Quartet or Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Piano Sonata, or, heck, Elvis singing “Love Me Tender,” accompanied by a lone acoustic six-string. Or any of tens of thousands of other specimens of Soft.

Credit The Hartt School
The Hartt School
Edward Bolkovac Conducting

And just to be on the safe side, do it soon, while your hearing is still more or less intact.

A Handel Oratorio, But Not That One

Handel’s oratorio “Jephtha” premiered in London in 1752. It was the composer’s final oratorio, the genre he helped to invent and perfect. His failing eyesight and other maladies had left him without the stamina to undertake another large-scale work.

Although “Jephtha” never became as hugely popular as “Messiah” did (as very few pieces by Handel or anyone else has), it has taken its place as one of the composer’s enduring masterpieces.

For various reasons, it is not heard in live performance all that often. But Saturday night, Nov. 8, nearly 100 singers and isntrumentalists will shoehorn themselves into the Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford for a rare complete performance of this piece.

The version performed will be the new critical edition prepared by Dr. Kenneth Nott, a longtime professor of musicology at the Hartt School, and an internationally recognized Handel scholar.

Edward Bolkovac, director of Hartt’s choral department, will conduct.

Note the unusual starting time of 7:00 pm.

Steve Metcalf is an administrator, critic, journalist, arts consultant and composer. He writes the weekly Metcalf on Music blog for WNPR.org, and is the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School.

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