Sunday, November 01, 2015

New audiences are bass literate

There's no such thing as the purist mentality. It's a false concept, a facade. A purist of what? Just because you were in a college at a certain time, something affected you , and it became your ideal music. Suddenly it becomes precious to you, and you retain it ad keep it in one place. But you could move beyond that and keep going if you wanted to. Purists are people who are stuck in the beginnings of true appreciation... The purist is someone who is stuck with their first impressions of what they thought was "the way it goes," or "the way it is." But it's not like that. Music is free, it's open, it's an ocean that continues. Free thinking people know that. But musicians are often stuck. They're not far from sports people in their redundancy, the way that they appreciate things. Painters, writers and filmmakers are probably much more advanced than musicians when it comes to the evolution of their art form.
That is Bill Laswell, bassist, producer and sonic chronicler of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, telling it like it is*. Widespread reaction against the misguided dumbing down of classical music has ossified into a stultifying overreaction dedicated to conserving a purist view of "the way it is". This means that concert halls are fast becoming museums of sound dedicated to what Percy Grainger described as the "musical output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900". With concert recordings now the de facto standard of a beleaguered classical industry, recorded music has simply become another relic in that museum of sound. And as classical music struggles to attract new audiences, London is about to invest millions of pounds in an even better museum of sound.

Psychoacoustics is the scientific study of sound perception. It is not a fuzzy science: in fact the psychoacoustic property of auditory masking and its effect on compression is the exact science that made the MP3 file possible - a technology that changed the music industry forever. When sound passes through the ears to the brain, it stops being a physical phenomena and, instead, becomes a matter of perception. That perception is conditioned by societal, cultural and technological factors, and those factors are changing at an exponential rate. Yet the classical music industry stubbornly refuses to acknowledge those changes.

Purists believe that the 'pure' sound of classical music is what we hear in a concert hall. But that is simply not true. The pure sound is what we would hear if the orchestra played in an anechoic chamber. An anechoic chamber is an acoustically dead space, and anyone who has spent time in one - as I have in the now demolished EMI Research anechoic chamber at Hayes - will know that the thin, dry and dead sound would be unacceptable to any audience, purist or otherwise. The sound of an orchestra in iconic concert halls such as the the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna is determined by the acoustic of the hall; the acoustic is the character that is added as the sound reverberates. These halls date from the late-19th century and their signature sound - which remains the reference for concert halls - was subjectively optimised for the bass-lite pre-Romantic orchestra.

Half a century of rock music, the hegemony of headphone listening, the advent of home cinema sub-woofers, and many other developments have changed sonic expectations. One major change is that audiences - particularly younger audiences - have become base literate. A new study titled The Neuroscience of Bass explores how bass instruments are fundamental to music, while in the interview that provides the header quote, Bill Laswell explains that: "Bass is a powerful mood shifter, its low resonant frequencies penetrating the human nervous system at a molecular level". Yet classical music remains stuck in a late 19th century sonic paradigm; a position that purists defend using the argument that the score is sacrosanct. Which indeed it is. However there is an erroneous and dangerous belief that the sound of classical music is defined in the score and is, therefore, also sacrosanct. In fact, the sound is defined by the complex interaction of seven attributes, pitch, rhythm, tone colour, absolute loudness, relative loudness, spatial location and acoustic. The composer's score only defines pitch, rhythm, tone colour and relative loudness (dynamics). This leaves absolute loudness, spatial location and acoustic as non-composer defined variables, and these have been fixed for more than a century by concert hall conventions that no longer reflect how people listen to music.

In the past, the architects of concert halls used passive reflective technologies to marry sonic expectations to reality. Today, different but equally valid active digital technologies are available: for example the San Francisco Symphony's Soundbox experimental performance space - which provides my header photo*** - uses Meyer Sound's IntelligentDC technology to create a variable acoustic. The barrier to meeting changing sonic expectations is not the lack of an enabling technology, but rather reactionary attitudes. Ironically, the very commentators who denounce any nuanced digital intervention in the concert hall, are those who wax lyrically about the power of digitally-saturated music streaming to engage new audiences. Classical music has the technology to meet the sonic expectations of new audiences. But does it have the will?

* Quote is from interview with Peter Lavezzoli in The Dawn of Indian Music in the West.
** Some recent halls have been tuned with an enhanced bass response to meet the requirements of post-classical orchestras. One excellent example is the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
*** Photo shows percussionist Raymond Froehlich at the San Francisco Soundbox and is credited to AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

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3 comments:

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

I think you're on the money with this post.

I've started using a high quality sub-woofer with the audio setup for my small combo for outdoor performances. We have two Eb tubas for the bass line, and the sub-woofer means they can play with good tone instead of having to blow so hard to be heard.

The main thing, though, is that it really adds to the low end of the timbres of the other instruments - especially the trombone. I've had very musically knowledgeable people spontaneously comment on how good the sound is, and how warm and natural it is, and how it can be heard well at a distance without being too loud up close.

Another part of the equation is using condenser mics, which give a full spectrum of frequencies, which in turn gives the sub-woofer more to work with.

I've been trying to learn how to do audio for years - and adding the sub-woofer has been a game changer.

Pliable said...

In an interview discussing the differences between Western and Eastern music, Zubin Mehta explained how in classical music - especially the Viennese school - the bass line is extremely important, because in the Western tradition - unlike in the East - the music is written vertically - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2015/10/how-not-to-stand-out.html

Pliable said...

Neil Talbott commented via facebook: 'Reading this, I thought of Stokowski and how open he would have been to the modern technologies described here.'