Noise Will Be Noise

Noise Will Be Noise

I spent last weekend at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, where I had the honor to perform with longtime friend and musical hero Pauline Oliveros on the closing night. Our piece was a tribute to the great French critic and journalist Daniel Caux, a tremendous supporter of American experimental music, who passed away on July 12. I was grateful that I could come to the Bay Area a few days early to attend other SFEMF events and partake of the concerts, installations, and bonhomie.

SFEMF featured a nice range of styles and aesthetics, ranging from Edmund Campion’s formal and classical ME, for baritone and computer (with text/concept by John Campion, and Thomas Buckner featured in the role of ME), to the stark minimalism of Phill Niblock. The dynamic range of the festival was likewise varied—Agnes Szelag solo performances that never seemed to get much above a mezzo-piano to Ata “Sote” Ebtekar excursions that never seemed to get below triple fortissimo. Most performances fell squarely in the middle, and yet some controversy ensued.

Because of a clause in the contract with the theater where the festival concerts were presented, the upward volume limit was 95 db which, while anyone would agree is quite loud, is very far below the levels that can cause hearing damage in the limited time of a concert set. OSHA worries about exposure to such a level only after four hours without interruption—this is called, in government parlance, the “noise dose”. But even without the risk of hearing loss, a fair number of audience members headed for the exits during the loudest performances. Perhaps they feared ear damage, real or merely perceived, or perhaps they just didn’t like the music or accompanying visuals. In any case, the festival organizers have been fretting that maybe they crossed a line and created bad will with some of the public.

In my view, a festival that strives to be broad and encompass many styles cannot ignore artists who use noise and volume as part of their aesthetic. Think about the Austrian group Granular Synthesis, who “create electronic emotion machines, that surround, immerse their audience, overwhelm the human sensory apparatus by massive use of subsonic…frequencies” Even Iannis Xenakis was criticized for the sound levels of some of his installations, like Persepolis and Polytope de Cluny. Obviously care should be taken not to exceed health standards. Now, 95 db for 4 hours is one thing, as few performances last that long, but I have heard performances that probably were closer to 110 db at their maximum, and only 30 minutes of exposure can cause ear damage at those levels. But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that while a concert’s levels never cross into the realm of physical damage, they might still be loud and unpleasant for some in attendance. What obligations does the organizer have to its listening public? No organizer likes to see any portion of the audience flee. Maybe a sign in the lobby warning that some sound levels might be unpleasant? Dispensing of earplugs? One concert producer has suggested adjusting the stage monitors of loud performers upwards, essentially tricking them into thinking they were playing louder than they actually were. As a performer, I hate this idea. Some electronic festivals, however broad they would like to be, have just cut out people at the higher end of the dynamic “spectrum”. To me this is a pity, because artists like Otomo Yoshihide, Phill Niblock, Merzbow, and Ray Sweeten have things to say—they just say them loudly.

Your thoughts?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

23 thoughts on “Noise Will Be Noise

  1. rlainhart

    I’m conflicted about this – as someone who blew off too much of the top end of his hearing playing in garage bands in high school, I’m well aware of the dangers of high volume, and I think it’s supremely important for anyone who cares about music to protect his or her hearing. Nor is it acceptable for composers and performers to subject audience members involuntarily to potentially damaging volume levels.

    At the same time, I vividly recall the experience of hearing Phill Niblock’s “Didgeridoos and Don’ts” in his loft in New York for the first time at full volume. I did the multitrack recording for that piece (Ulrich Krieger played the didgeridoos) in my home studio, and remember thinking, while listening to it at home, that the piece just wasn’t working, and wasn’t going to work. I brought the master to Phill’s place and handed it over to him with some trepidation. We previewed it first on Phill’s bookshelf speakers, and he agreed that it wasn’t working. Then we played it on his concert system.

    Phill likes it loud, as you probably know. I lay down on his couch with his dB meter on my chest and listened to the piece all the through. The levels sometimes hit 115dB, and I have to say that the sound was glorious – the harmonics sprayed around the space like shards of glass. I’d never heard anything like it. The piece had to be played at that level to work, even though I knew it was bad for me. And we both loved it – the piece was transformed.

    I would never want to cause pain or injury at my own concerts, and would probably supply disposable earplugs if I thought there was that risk. But clearly, some music needs volume to work. As I said, I’m conflicted.

  2. davidcoll

    i was at the concert, and yes, it was too loud. I walked out in part because of that, but also because there wasn’t anything in the music that I felt justified that volume. If there were a reason for it, maybe i would have stayed. I hear that there wasn’t a proper sound check. I suspect that if there were one, everything would have been pulled back a notch. Maybe then I would have better understood the material, and the piece itself.

  3. pgblu

    Obviously very loud sounds are not just about anger or creating antipathy or whatever associations one might have with them… there are certain timbral effects and other aspects of aural experience that one cannot even produce without extreme loudness.

    Each audience member should take responsibility for their own ears. This means opening/closing the ear canal as needed to regulate one’s own dosage. This suggestion, if posed correctly, could precede any such performance, essentially putting the listener in charge of influencing his/her own experience actively. A reassurance that it isn’t ACTUALLY damaging might also help, as does some explanation like I gave in the first paragraph above. But it’s all in the presentation; I’m not sure what to say or how to say it, just what the information content needs to be.

    The problem, though, is having the requisite strength in one’s deltoid muscles to hold one’s arms up for extended periods, or conversely, the requisite strength of spine to bend forward and rest one’s elbows on one’s knees for extended periods. Those whose stamina gives out in that respect may have no choice but to leave, or design earplugs with remote-control opening/closing flaps.

    Sound reasonable?

  4. Chris Becker

    You play anything at a loud as hell volume and you’ll hear all kind of crazy stuff. Choirs, angels, voices telling you to bite the mailman…there are a lot of artists who use volume as a crutch. And they’re not good listeners. Or they may be partially deaf. I’m not trying to be smart, this is a fact.

    I agree that earplugs and warnings are simple ways to prevent walk outs and injury. But as an artist, when it comes to volume, I’m not sure where the line is at all…I love rock and dub music and overdriven sound is a vital element to that music. At the other end of the spectrum, I think the iPod has done more to destroy people’s listening ability than a million Marshall stacks.

    But I’ve always been a freak :)

  5. Lisa X

    “If there were a reason for it, maybe i would have stayed.”

    Hey David, I think sometimes volume is its own reason, regardless of how crude, thoughtless, or amateurish the musical content is. For me it is a consistently incredible experience to spend a few hours with friends and strangers bathing in some very loud noise. Try not to think too much about whats in the water, just enjoy the bath.

    For a better example of this you might want to check out Noise Pancakes, a truly extraordinary Bay Area concert series.

  6. davidcoll

    I’m really enjoying Godwaffle noise pancakes now, though i suspect i’m listening at it too softly!

    As for volume being its own reason, or justification so to speak, i agree- maybe not directly for that piece- but …..i mean, it was really too loud.

    One example I can think of that touches on this subject is Ben Thigpen’s music:

  7. Chris Becker

    “For me it is a consistently incredible experience to spend a few hours with friends and strangers bathing in some very loud noise. Try not to think too much about whats in the water, just enjoy the bath.”

    But I have musician friends who now deal with tinnitus thanks to years on the road playing all kinds of music – big band, rock and roll, “noise”, etc.

    I don’t ever want to tell people what they should or shouldn’t listen to, but a blithe attitude toward loud noise and its effect on one’s hearing is pretty ignorant. Been there. Done that. Glad to have most of my upper frequencies still (although NYC’s subway system I’m sure is slowly shaving them away…)

  8. mugwump44

    i was the sound engineer/technical director for the festival – i assure you there was a ‘proper sound check’, and ata repeatedly asked for the sound to be as loud as possible. i know it’s easy to blame something you don’t like on the sound system and/or the technical support provided, but having experienced this phenomenon many times, the nature of the sounds has far more to do with whether people are offended than any perceived excess in volume. the composer wanted it loud. i gave him what he wanted. as a composer myself, i would expect no less from any sound engineer i work with. and for the record, ata and his cohorts in the audience were pleased with the sound, and made a point of telling me so.

    i don’t question you’re desire to leave, or you’re lack of interest in the material, but please don’t question the professionalism of the people who work so hard to put these concerts together.

  9. kmiltner

    are you kidding me?! YES we soundcheck.
    we don’t soundcheck properly? if you only knew what we go through in sound check! we get the theatre for one week — and almost all of us are volunteers with very demanding day jobs — we take time off to ensure that there is a 6 – hour sound check before the event. we only have the one afternoon before the show to get it right. we work our ASSES off to match the artists vision in such a short amount of time, and to my knowledge, we have never had an artist leave unhappy. after soundchecking multiple artists, we then work the show. that means we work twelve hour days all week to bring you this festival. we are curators, not censors. we are going to do our best to ensure that the vision of the artist is satisfied. the only restriction we have is they cannot top 95 db.

  10. kmiltner

    and another thing…
    what or who on earth gave you the idea that we didn’t have a proper soundcheck? have you ever been an engineer for an electronic music festival? it’s pretty high pressure, because Pauline Oliveros or Carl Stone or Richard Teitelbaum are going to walk in and expect quad, and a dry send back to them so they can process, and an extra monitor send, and by the way they have this contact mic on an autoharp that also needs to be monitored without feeding back, and there’s a recorded track that needs to be cued and played at this point in the set, and there are 6 instrumentalists that need to be mic’d and their signal needs to be fed back to the computer onstage, and you have to clear them off stage in between acts, but also you have to make sure you reserve some channels for the other artists performing that night as well, and there’s video tech, and lights to set, you think we just throw the artists up there and it magically works? we are LUCKY it all works in one afternoon.

  11. clattertrap

    Hi David,

    As one of the tech staff for SFEMF, I’m frankly ruffled at your suggestion that proper sound checks were not provided for the artists. The tech team started soundchecks at 12:30 every day of the festival to ensure that our artists had ample time to set up and work with our engineers to get their sound and video as they wanted. This comment is obviously not related to the discussion of performance volume (which I am thrilled to hear people’s perspectives on), but please don’t make assumptions about the level of expertise or quality of care the artists received at the festival. This is one of the most dedicated, professional and competent tech staffs I have worked with.

  12. EmilyG

    When I go to any concert, I try to choose my seat carefully, according to how loud I think the concert will be. Often for wind bands, percussion ensembles, or loud contemporary music, I’ll choose to sit near the back of the concert hall.
    It also helps to look at the instrumentation of the concert. If the music only involves piano or string instruments, I figure I’m safe nearer to the front of the hall.

  13. davidcoll

    Thanks for the responses to my post. It’s good that you clarified what I heard, as it doesn’t seem to be the case. I never said that SFEMP didn’t soundcheck. Were I to say such a thing would be ridiculous. Nor did I make any assumptions, nor did I personally question any of your professionalism. I do understand how much time goes into the technical end of concerts such as this.

    The question of whether I should feel comfortable saying ‘what I heard’ on this site is another subject.

    Again, what i heard was that there wasn’t a chance to have a ‘proper sound check’. This turns out to be hearsay. Kmiltner, tell me though, were those high frequency ‘bursts’ above 95 db? Still curious.

    On another note, kmiltner, what if I were to say you’re more like interpreters rather than curators? There are certainly many sound engineers who feel this way. This is a worthwhile debate because I still feel as if this piece- in regard to it’s loudest moments and it’s general volume- could have been all-in-all lower in volume- i don’t know by how much. Of course other people felt differently..

  14. clattertrap

    Going back to the original topic of levels, my philosophic stance is that below danger levels, the artist’s vision is the most important determining factor in the highly subjective perception of how loud is appropriate for their music to be heard. Audience members should also feel free to leave, according to their taste and experience of the performance. That said, I think that we festival organizers can and will take more responsibility for communication with our audience in the future by pushing ear protection harder and front-announcing more clearly acts we know will be loud. My perception is that some complaints are based less on physical discomfort than dislike for the music or feelings that the festival organizers are handling this issue blithely. In actuality, the topic of levels has provoked a lively conversation amongst the steering committee of SFEMF every year I have been involved. It’s fascinating to read everyone’s comments on the topic, I hope the conversation will continue!

  15. fleeger

    A high sound pressure level makes an environment blurry and hazy and beats down peoples senses. It makes me just want to get drunk and think about sex and eat mountains of chicken wings. I’ve been under the impression that cranking loudspeakers in nightclubs is a conspiracy to keep business moving.
    If the patrons have a slight but constant threshold of aggravation, they’ll continue to buy drinks.

    Playing music really loud is a common military tactic to provoke people to surrender: The Humvees blast the mosques.

    I’m trying to understand the reason to have such high sound levels in the forum of an audience sitting down in a fairly dead room / quiet space. I’m not comfortable with the politics of the gesture and artistically it’s a real cheap shot at inducing a visceral response — us humans are programmed to pay attention to loudness and respond to such signal. This shock level of presenting music is beyond listening for me, rather it speaks to my autonomic nervous system using the same strategies as advertising or pornography.

    The secret history of the 20th and 21st century is amplitude.

    I did a show in London recently, opening up for a band, Gay Against You, who literary blew up the PA and stage monitors in smoke.
    After their show, the engineer came up to each speaker with a screwdriver and replaced the cones as if it was something he did every night. I had earplugs in the whole time and my ears still rang afterwards. I’m just glad I got to play before them as opposed to after them with an attention-shot audience.

    The subject here regarding high sound pressure levels in music impulsively generates a lot of other arguments that are way off the subject itself; such as artists’ rights (they’ve been able to play/shoot plenty loud) or the SFEMF technicians’ performance (they’ve been truly, impeccably professional this year and the lasts).

  16. William Osborne

    Would it be incorrect to suggest that there are varying kinds of loudness? I find that higher frequencies hurt my ears more than lower ones. Loud glockenspiel notes seem more dangerous (and painful) than trombone blasts – though both can damage the ears.

    Sound systems and EQing can thus make a big difference in how loud you can (or should) play your music. JBL speakers, for example, have a much better higher frequency response than the old vintage Peavey SP2s I usually tour with. The Peavey’s, on the other hand, have great woofers. I find that I can really crank the Peavey’s without complaints, but that JBLs get really harsh in the treble when they are too loud. I can thus create more sound pressure with the Peaveys without complaints.

    This effect can also be shaped by mixers. My Mackie mixer is much brighter and cleaner than the Soundcraft mixer I tour with. The Soundcraft is very mellow and less prone to get harsh (though the Mackie is far better for recording because it doesn’t taper off the high frequencies.)

    I can create low sounds with my Peaveys that you can literally feel when they hit your chest, but they do not hurt the ears. Or I can make the floor boards clearly rumble so that you can feel the sounds with your feet even through shoes without pain to the ears. From a subjective perspective, sound pressure and loudness are two different things.

    I notice a lot of electronic festivals like to play the music loud and also use high end speakers like Meyers. If you are going to use speakers with really good high frequency response, taper off the highs and you can pump things a lot more without complaints. The positioning and focus of the speakers can also make a big difference. And other factor is the acoustic of the hall. Halls with a lot of glass for windows or mirrors really bounce the highs and make the sound harsh. Wood absorbs more of the highs and creates a mellower sound.

    I find that a lot of sound technicians in university music departments know a lot more about recording than using PA systems. A PA system is an instrument, and composers who use them a lot should have their own and have a deep knowledge of how it works, just like a musical instrument. I always travel with my own even though it weighs 600 pounds. I will even set aside a hall’s big Meyers to use my old vintage Peaveys. My music is calibrated for them, I know how they focus, and I know how they respond to tweaking. For me, asking technicians to do the sound system would be about like asking them to play the piano or cello part.

    I also always try to setup my mixing board at the back of the hall so that I can watch the listeners. If I see people holding their ears I cut back the sound. There is a bit of an art to this. Sometimes there is a person who holds their ears, but they are not representative of the audience as a whole. (They often also hold their ears in an extroverted way so as to make a public statement about the loudness.) You have to judge the audience as a whole and not just the reactions of single person. I also refuse to mix from glass enclosed sound booths. How ridiculous! You have to be able to hear and feel what is happening and have close contact with the audience.

    Of late, I’ve wearied of composing loud pieces. Been there and done that. My newest works are mostly for digital piano, some with voice. I am finding the intricacies of pitch, rhythm, counterpoint, structure and the human voice more fun than creating apocalyptic sounds.

    William Osborne

  17. mbuzzarte

    I’ll chime, very briefly…

    One might note that OSHA’s recommended times for “safe” exposures to various dB levels also finds a 25dB hearing loss “acceptable.”

    Me, I’d rely more on the scales from NIOSH – 94dB for a one hour exposure, 97 dB thirty minutes, 100 dB fifteen minutes, 103 dB seven and a half minutes, 106 dB three and three quarter minutes, etc. Bear in mind, though, that these levels reflect sound exposure for an ENTIRE day – not just during a concert.

    Everybody is different; levels that are “safe” for one person may not be so for another; a risk one person may be willing to accept another may not (even if one can accurately judge a “risk” that will not become apparent for decades).

    Disclaimer: I have a fair amount of hearing loss so this is a topic that hits close to home. I also was one of the artists who performed at the SFEMF last weekend, FYI the tech staff was tip-top and each artist had ample sound check time scheduled. I was able to come in a few days early and so heard the two concerts preceding mine. During portions of each of those I wore hearing protection (musician’s earplugs, 9 and 15 dB buttons). I noticed that by Saturday (if not earlier, I may have missed it) that there was a large jar of foam ear plugs at the box office. When presenters explicitly alert audience members of risk and also provide hearing protection (whether they feel there is risk or not) it seems to me that they’ve covered all the bases.

  18. Chris Becker

    …and by the way…
    From what I’ve read here, it sounds like I would have really enjoyed this festival. I am sorry I wasn’t there :(

  19. kmiltner

    i may have gotten a tad too passionate, sorry about that, David.
    ” Kmiltner, tell me though, were those high frequency ‘bursts’ above 95 db? Still curious.”

    yeah, heh. well, when an artist wants to push it already, it’s hard to anticipate every ‘burst’ at the mixing board — if you’re in the area of the mixing board what you will see is our sound engineer reacting as quickly as possible — sneaking the levels back down again. as someone who has performed many tape music pieces for the San Francisco Tape Music , he is skilled enough to pull down in response without being too noticed — if you as an audience member did not notice he was doing it, then good!

    “you’re more like interpreters rather than curators? There are certainly many sound engineers who feel this way. ”

    it’s true — there’s another layer in between the performer and the audience — all we can do is listen to the artists describe the vision and trust that we are getting as close to it as possible. if, toward the end of sound check we say ‘was that okay?’ and they say ‘yes’ — then we’ve done what we can.

  20. jchang4

    I think music has always been a collaborative art form, so I would guess that, as a collaboration, it would tend to work best when there is somewhat of an equilibrium between contributing parts. I think most artists are under-educated in the audio engineering and sound reinforcement side of things. Maybe composers will have greater familiarity with audio than performers, but, certainly, performers of classical training are not expected to study mics/amps/etc. In those cases, it seems to make more sense to trust that your tech “guys” know what they are doing, and to let them contribute their knowledge and experience in audio to your work. For instance, there were a few issues with sound reinforcement at the Aspen Music Festival, where some artists were unwilling to collaborate with the in-house tech crew… resulting in some not-so-ideal soundscapes. In those cases, holding onto a fear of desecrating an artist’s vision as if it were sacred seems rather ridiculous.

    On a similar note, I know some composers have become very detached/isolated from performers and the audience. When you are forced to work very closely with your performers and/or your audience, it is very difficult to ignore their input/perspective. For instance, a friend of mine recently completed a set of beginner level pieces for piano ensemble. Because he was also asked to coach/teach the ensemble the piece for a performance, with only a week’s rehearsal/practice time, he was suddenly made very aware of some of the faults of the work, especially from a performer’s perspective. He has been asked to write another piece for the ensemble next year, and no doubt will adjust his writing according to the things he learned this time around.

    So… this leads me to the question: Are you compromising your art when you choose to accommodate the ideas of the performers/audience/techcrew? Does this “compromising” make your art better, or worse?

  21. kmiltner

    ” Maybe composers will have greater familiarity with audio than performers, but, certainly, performers of classical training are not expected to study mics/amps/etc. In those cases, it seems to make more sense to trust that your tech “guys” know what they are doing, and to let them contribute their knowledge and experience in audio to your work. ”

    i’ll add to that: sometimes, expressly because the artists are _electronic_ musicians, they can also have equally strong opinions about mics/amps/etc. — so sometimes technical knowledge can actually inhibit communication between the artists and tech people.

    and yes, i think somewhere along the line, if a composer has had a bad experience with a tech ‘guy’ that does too much, or not enough, that experience can really set the stage for a long future of distrustful soundchecks.


  22. kmiltner

    “Are you compromising your art when you choose to accommodate the ideas of the performers/audience/techcrew? Does this “compromising” make your art better, or worse?”

    interesting question, this could go on a while….

    ‘better’ is a tough concept. if by better, you mean ‘reaches more of your audience,’ then yes, but if your aim is to blow the audience’s brains out with sound that triggers a biochemical response, then this could be done ‘better;’ by ignoring everyone, i suppose.



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