Thursday, June 09, 2011

Amplification Redux

I saw Stephen Sondheim's great musical Assassins over the weekend, presented by Ray of Light Theater at the Eureka Playhouse. You should too - it's playing until the end of June and, with its extremely dark humor, there just aren't that many opportunities to see it. The performance was nearly flawless, with an eight-piece band and big cast cast of singers.

The one drawback? Despite the tiny size of the venue, each and every singer was amplified, for the spoken dialog as well as the songs. I'll tell you, it was disconcerting to see the singer on audience right but hear the sound from the loudspeaker closest to me, audience left. And, as usual, the amplification flattened the singing and sometimes distorted the performers' diction.

I've railed about amplification before and I know that I will do it again. I need to email the theater and the company to ask why on earth they did this.

Knowing what I think about amplification, you can imagine my interest yesterday morning when I read Ken Woods's account of the extreme pain caused to him by the amplification of a speaker at a performance in which he was the cellist....which led me to Brian Rosen's blog posting about an incident the other night at a concert curated by composer/performer/artist Pamela Z....and eventually Elaine Fine had a few things to say, and so did Jessica Duchen. Read all of those postings, please, and especially the comments.


John Marcher said...

Thanks for posting about "violagate"- those links make for some mighty interesting reading.

I too, was disappointed in the amplification in ROLT's production.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, it is really really interesting. I have met Bernard and Naomi Zaslav, who are extremely interesting people - lifelong advocates of new music.

Daniel Wolf now has something up at Renewable Music - I need to link to that too.

Henry Holland said...

What we've got here is failure to communicate.

It seems Mr. Zaslav had physical issues, hearing aid issues and was put in a poor spot in the venue, one not optimal for a quick exit. It seems people asked him and his wife to leave after his initial outburst but only she heard them, not him, leading to more misunderstandings. It seems that Mr. Zaslav didn't use a simple way to make loud noise stop: put your fingers in your ears. It seems that the venue might have not been optimal for amplified music.

I'm slightly hearing impaired in my right ear due to standing right next to a PA stack at a Simple Minds concert in 1985. Still, I *love* loud music and simply stand as far back from the PA as I can. If it's too loud, I simply leave but then I'm not 85 with vertigo and mobility issues either.

Tod Brody said...

Not going to get into the Zaslav incident, but will speak to your experience in the theater.

Among other things, I've been performing in pit orchestras for musical theater for almost my entire life, and my daughter aspired to a career as a stage performer there.

Here's the thing: the modern musical theater singer couldn't sing his/her way out of a paper bag without amplification. No fault there; they simply aren't trained to project their voices in the way that, say, opera singers or may straight actors do. Their voices are designed and trained to sound good (or however they are meant to sound) through a microphone and amplifier. Many of the most successful modern musical theater singers have very small voices in real life.

The issue of volume, and quality of experience, is a somewhat separate one. It is certainly up to the sound designer/engineer to create a situation that's not too loud, and to have, e.g., speaker placements that lend verisimilitude to the experience. This can be especially challenging in a smaller venue, but is certainly possible.

The "too loud" part is endemic to the musical theater world now, sad to say, and is a problem in venues of all sizes. I'm currently in the pit for the national tour of "Mary Poppins" and, in a 2400-seat venue, it's just loud as hell. I'm using hearing protection, and the audience probably should be too.

Part of the this stems from the syndrome, very real, of sound professionals who have developed enough hearing loss in pursuing their profession that they have no idea how loud the experience is for the hearing-unimpaired. You might have been the victim of that.

john_burke100 said...

I wasn't at the Royce Gallery concert, so I can't judge the "violagate" incident. But I think somebody should have explained to JHNO that it's infantile and unprofessional to stomp off in a pet, breaking your instrument on the way. Most teachers prepare students for performance disruptions, whether in the audience or on the part of the soloist (going blank, making a horrible technical mistake, leaving out a piece or a movement): take a deep breath, take a short pause if absolutely necessary, and carry on. If JHNO hasn't learned this by now, maybe he ought to reconsider doing public performances.

Lisa Hirsch said...

John, I suspect JHNO is feeling mighty abashed at this point. I agree; there are so many better ways he could have responded.

Tod, thank you so much. That is extremely informative. I wish musical theater were, well, the way it used to be, pre-amplification.