EU directive limits orchestra loudness

A European Union directive on noise abatement contains a provision that will limit the "noise" of symphony orchestras beginning early next year.

EU directive limits orchestra loudness
A European Union directive on noise abatement contains a provision that will limit the "noise" of symphony orchestras beginning early next year.

While it's not meant to ban Beethoven's "ba-ba-ba-baah," some musicians are worried overzealous enforcement could take the "Joy" out of the German master's exuberant "Ode to ..."

"It can't work in symphony orchestras," says Libor Pesek, conductor of the Prague Symphony. "How could you apply it to Gustav Mahler, for instance, or Richard Strauss?"

Though musicians bristle at the claim, some evidence suggests the classics are just loud noise for the non-music lover. In the 1990s, opera singers rehearsing in a Copenhagen park apparently caused a rare African okapi at the nearby zoo to collapse and die from stress.

Still, the main thrust of the EU noise directive is not aimed at symphonies. Meant to regulate noise levels in the work place, much of the six-page document deals with generalities more applicable to construction sites, factories and other traditional places of noise chaos.

"Workplaces where workers are likely to be exposed to noise ... shall be marked with appropriate signs," says a typical excerpt. "The areas in question shall also be delimited and access to them restricted."

Because regulators recognize that all noise is not created equal, musicians are not worried about security tape going up around the orchestra pit any time soon.

The directive took effect for most other work places five years ago, but it was postponed until Feb. 15, 2008, for "the music and entertainment sectors" to allow creation of "practical guidelines" tailored to the concert stage and other musical venues.

That has not dispelled concerns enforcement of the maximum noise limit set at the work place — 85 decibels on an average work day — could hamper musical freedom by undercutting sound levels preferred by Beethoven, Stravinsky or Bruckner. The score of Tchaikovsky's Sixth, for instance is sprinkled with fff's — forte fortissimos.

Alison Reid Wright, a noise expert who has worked with British orchestras on noise reduction, says ensembles already are considering how to readjust their programs to conform with the directive.

"They wouldn't take a large noisy piece to a small venue," she said. "And some orchestras have been trying to balance the noise by offsetting a very powerful piece by less powerful pieces."

Others, she said, might follow the example of an Australian opera orchestra, which decided a few years ago to use "one set of musicians for the first half and another set for the second half" to protect their hearing.

Still others have begun modifying orchestra pits with acoustic paneling that absorbs some of the sound level without interfering with the clarity of the music for ensemble members. There are ear plugs and protective plastic panels that shield individuals near the brass or percussion section.

Such aids were used even before the directive was conceived. Trumpets push out 110 decibels during peak parts of Wagner's Ring Cycle, tubas 110 and trombones 108.

Even violins have registered 109 decibels. And a flute at peak level near the right ear logs 118 decibels — substantially above the noise of a power drill heard close up.

The problem lies with some musicians. Many refuse to wear adequate ear protection, claiming it interferes with their ability to play. And some are reluctant to use shields.

"I don't like you and I don't like the noise you make so I am putting my screen behind me to protect myself from you," said Reid Wright, explaining the negative vibes sent by such devices.

Another difficulty is how to measure exposure. Orchestras can produce peak sound levels substantially above the new EU limit while playing much below it at other times.

And there are few "typical" work days. While pre-concert rehearsals can stretch from morning to evening, typical performances last little more than three hours. "Then, there are the musicians who are more prone to overexposure" — typically strings sitting in front of brasses, said Josef Kerschhagel at Austria's Ministry of Labor, which will enforce the decree. He said his department will likely have to monitor orchestras randomly and over a week's time to be able to average out levels.

Kerschhagel says all monitoring will be unobtrusive.

But many musicians are critical, saying any attempt to regulate sound levels trespasses on artistic freedom.

"Do you need the nanny state to step in and say, 'No, you cannot play the bass drum fortissimo in the Verdi Requiem?'," asked bass trombonist Douglas Yeo of the Boston Philharmonic.

Contrabassist Michael Bladerer of the Vienna Philharmonic said his orchestra is "a private organization, and we will do what we want to."

Vienna State Opera director Ioan Holender noted that comparing noise and beautiful sound is like not differentiating between "weeds and the most beautiful blossoms."

And for veterans like Pesek, the Czech conductor, the decree comes too late. "We're all deaf anyway," he said.

Last Mod: 10 Eylül 2007, 12:29
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