Monday, February 25, 2008

Classical Music: Cranked up to 11

Since the 15th of February, a new directive has been in place in the European Union to protect the safety and health of employees from endangerment through physical effects. It included a noise limit with an upper level of 87db. An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes the problem for classical music, here and much of what follows is cribbed from there.

Orchestras regularly exceed such a dynamic level, with brass instruments especially problematic. However, the duration of the peak loudnesses is surely an additional factor, and live musics without amplification tend to have a differentiated dynamic profile.

Some orchestras have taken pro-active measures to better protect their players from possible risks. Plexiglass shields, for example, have sometimes been introduced (via player contracts) to protect the players directly in front of the brass, but the reflections of sound from the plexiglass results in an increase for the brass players themselves. Other orchestras have experimented with orchestral seating arrangements, with the needs to create a coherent, communicative, and well-mixed ensemble sometimes conflicting with acoustical safety.

The situation is particularly difficult in opera houses, with small and semi-enclosed orchestral pits and no more so than in the famous pit at Bayreuth, in which the sound projected to the audience is remarkably clear, focused, and attenuated, but the sound for the players in the all-but-enclosed pit is both muddy and extremely loud (the heat in the pit is also intense, and well-above existing standards for worker safety, but that's another topic). Instrumentalists playing there often report that it takes several weeks, if not months, time for their ears to recover from the experience.

Many musicians have taken to using ear protection, but this is usually a private initiative, and musicians lack concrete and reliable information and advice from acoustic and medical professionals. Given the diversity of playing environments, I would suspect that a greater investment in research and analysis of particular halls and ensemble layouts with recommendations based on that research would probably be more appropriate than a blanket regulation for a single decibel level.

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