Friday, February 27, 2009

Lost in amplification


We went to hear the Spanish flamenco jazz guitarist Eduardo Niebla last night at the Norwich Arts Centre. This intimate venue is a deconsecrated church that holds an audience of 180 and requires the subtlest of any sound reinforcement, if any. British based Niebla brought a trio in which his own acoustic guitar was backed by a second acoustic guitar and a tabla. That is about all I can tell you about the performance. Other than that Niebla and his two sidemen were heavily amplified (with reverb) through four small PA speakers that were probably brought from Tandy many years ago. The result was the kind of over-loud, compressed, clipped, nasal, sub-hifi sound that we used to listen to in our college rooms in the 1960s while drinking cheap Algerian red wine. We fled at the end of the first half, and listened to Ralph Towner on an ECM CD in the car on the way home to remind ourselves what an acoustic guitar really sounds like.

Oh dear, is amplification the next big thing for classical music?
We bought our £12 tickets from the Norwich Arts Centre box office. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

4 comments:

Pliable said...

Before leaving the Norwich Arts Centre last night I spoke to the venue's resident sound engineer. He was as appalled by the sound produced by the Eduardo Niebla Trio as we were. He said Niebla had insisted on engineering his own sound and ignored the expertise and superior equipment available from the venue. This is confirmed by Niebla's web page (I like the bit about canapes, crisps, sweets...

http://www.eduardoniebla.co.uk/ensembles.php?id=3

The Norwich gig was on a UK tour that included London's Purcell Room and St. George's Brandon Hill, Bristol. The latter has one of the best acoustics of any performance space in the world. I shudder to think what the trio's lo-fi system sounded like there.

Philip said...

This is really rather strange. Strange that he felt the need for amplification. Strange that he puts on his website details of what equipment he expects presenters to provide, including make and model, and then turns up with his own. I know more than a few flamenco artists and only a very large or very inadequate venue will persuade them to use amplification. They are all flamenco puro, admittedly, whereas Niebla is flamenco jazz, but he plays acoustic so it still puzzles me a lot.

Pliable said...

Thanks Philip. I think the problem is that Niebla got carried away with the 'fusion' bit.

There is a YouTube video of the Eduardo Niebla Trio which gives an idea of what they sound like when the sound is in the right hands, in this case the BBC. If only they had sounded like this in Norwich -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tlvs6_LMJhQ

Garth Trinkl said...

Pliable, regarding amplification of classical music, I have a handful of unfavorable memories of poorly designed amplification used by the National Symphony Orchestra under its past music director Leonard Slatkin over the last decade.

The two examples that immediately come to mind are a performance of Lou Harrison’s extended Symphony #4, which concludes with the three folksy sprechgesang, mythic Coyote stories, which were sung by Al Jarreau . The poor amplification rendered the final movement unbalanced, boomy, and near incomprehensible.

Not incomprehensible, but also seriously marred by amplification, was a Slatkin led performance of John Corigliano’s Dylan Thomas Trilogy (not with Sir Thomas Allen, but another soloist whose name I can't precisely recall). The whole performance suffered from a muffled, cut and paste, collage impression of the varying settings of the amplication system. It was bizarre and sad.

*

In regard to smaller venues, the Freer Asian Museum of Art auditorium, in Washington, was acoustically rebuilt a decade ago with the hope that all performances of quieter Asian music and Asian-fusion musics would not require amplification.

However, amplification has turned up, although never, that I can recall, with horrible effects. Maybe the museum requires guest musicians and poets to use its own fine sound staff.

(The reopening of the venue ten years ago featured a supremely memorable performance of Holst’s Savitri, for which artist Howard Hodgkin provided a stunning back-drop.)