Articles and letters in The Guardian recently have explored why some of today’s singers suffer from vocal problems, develop nodules on their vocal cords from singing so loudly, etc. Curiously, the use of powerful amplification has not taken away the need to sing loudly: rather, it seems to create a vicious circle in which everything gets louder and louder. The sight of someone screwing up their eyes with effort and yelling into a microphone has become routine. Even opera singers, trained in the technique of supporting their voices, find themselves swept up in the appetite for ‘projection’.
For many classical musicians this appetite for loudness is troubling. Generally speaking, we don’t use amplification and don’t want to. We rely on acoustic instruments and the power of the human hand and arm to produce a range of expressive sound. Naturally the top end of this range can’t be louder than the hand can produce. We’ve been trained to develop control over fine gradations of tone, which would be lost if they were hugely amplified. The human scale of our sound effects is an important part of the aesthetic.
However, many of us are very aware that these intimate effects seem insubstantial beside the sheer decibel level of many pop performances. I’ve been told that after listening to classical music on record, a live performance of the same music can seem disconcertingly quiet and distant. The musicians are far away on a stage, their instruments unamplified. Listeners find they have to ‘tune in’ to the unexpectedly delicate sound effects. Before amplification, these sounds would have seemed completely normal. Now they seem ‘small’.
Holding out against society’s raging lust for decibels sometimes feels Luddite. What is the point of cultivating subtle nuances when everyone else is boasting about having attended pop concerts which made their hearts thump in their chests and left their ears ringing for hours afterwards? We wonder if we should just ‘get with the program’ and use amplification.
But the kind of music we play was not conceived like that. To make it artificially louder would bring no musical benefit. Better, perhaps, to remember that many of the famous 19th century virtuosi – such as Chopin and Liszt – were as renowned for their quiet playing as for their power. Liszt asked for much of his piano music to be played quietly. Chopin’s pupils reported that he ‘abhorred banging on the piano’. His piano playing was utterly captivating, yet ‘he hardly ever played fortissimo’. He described loud piano playing as ‘a dog barking’. ‘You can be struck dumb with astonishment at unexpected news’, he told his pupils, ‘whether it is shouted loudly or barely whispered in your ear.’