Music

Matters of Volume

Marika Nordquist comments on the bane of any gig-goer: the sound monkeys

Sitting on the 71 bus last week, a mother and her approximately 10-year-old son were musing on their latest cinema experience. Overhearing a comment about the sound volume in the cinema which, according to the mother, had made her ‘ears bleed’ I was reminded of a recent experience of mine regarding monstrous volumes and ear-related issues. Luckily, in my case, I did apply an effective, albeit a primitive method to avoid ‘ear bleeding’ but more of that later.

The location was not the cinema (although I do recall watching Avatar a year ago feeling that the experience of the 3D visuals was at times swamped by the seat-quaking, stomach-turning sound volume) but the Barbican Centre’s concert hall and the occasion was the finale of the London Jazz Festival, the performance of AfroCubism. The group consists of Malian and Cuban virtuoso musicians, all with years of experience in all kinds of performance venues. So it was especially unfortunate and disappointing that it was the Barbican, taking great pride in its range, quantity and quality of international performers and concerts, that managed to – in extra-musical terms – damage a highly anticipated concert by such a simple measure as poor volume control.

Understandably, the musical elements posed great challenges in terms of finding the right balance of sound. The range of instruments went from the rippling, beautiful sounds of the kora to the brash trumpets; the melodic edginess of the ngoni to the powerful voice of Kasse Mady Diabaté. However, even though I have no knowledge of the technicalities of controlling sound in concerts, I couldn’t help feeling that the imbalances in sound were simply barged through with high volumes instead of being levelled out.

Following these ever-increasing volume levels (at least this is what it seemed like) I found myself raising my hand to my ears in mild panic every time the trumpets were about to play, or when the singers appeared to be aiming for higher registers. It could not go on like this – there were still two hours of brain-shaking sounds ahead. Ear-plugs had been forgotten and I could not see myself wasting time on a wild expedition to search for someone responsible for the sound. Fortunately, my plus-one took action and we ended up enjoying the rest of the concert with tissue paper-stuffed ears. Subsequently, no bleeding ears followed but despite the truly spectacular display of musicianship I couldn’t stop my mind at times from having internal rants at whoever was in charge.

In these instances, the technicians must be aware that the audience can hear all the elements of the music; for the unsuspecting concert-attendee it would seem that the aim has thus been achieved. No? So it was that I found myself craving for the sound system to be turned down just that little bit where we would no longer be in the zone of the unbearable.

Whoever decided that in addition to enjoying a performance, we should also be having to seek shelter under our coats, be blasted off our seats and leave the venue – be it a cinema, a concert hall, or a club – with alternating sensations of numbness and ringing in our ears has severely missed the point.

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