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Thursday, August 25, 2011

On (Not) Using the Microphone

I play in two bands. In one of them, I have put a ban on two things: using instruments that cannot simply be carried (like drum sets or pianos), and using amplification. Or maybe a ban is too big a word; I continuously make it clear to my mates that I am radically opposed to both.

And in a way I am. One of the reasons is that the singer in this band is a great communicator with any audience. But using a microphone would, I am convinced, put up a barrier between him and his audience. Using a microphone, one is often tied to a cable; but even when wireless, microphones make that one has to start thinking about singing-through-a-microphone-technique. Also, one can’t sing and wave both hands at the same time (very important), or grab a member of the audience by both shoulders if necessary.
And then, amplification leads to a war of noise: because the audience knows that the music can be amplified, they feel free to talk among themselves, expecting the volume of the music to  be turned up if they talk too loud – which the sound guy of course does, which makes the audience talk louder, which makes the sound guy put the volume up a bit more, which makes the audience start yelling into each other’s ears, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Recently I read a review of a concert by fado singer Mariza. Mention was made of the fact that at some point she put away the microphone and sang unamplified, which, the reviewer said, was the culmination point of the evening: intimate, intense, very quiet. More recently, I was at a concert in Canada where four or five different Canadian groups played. One was a Canadian-Portuguese fado singer, and she did the Mariza-trick. It worked. The concert took place in a big concert hall, fit for symphony orchestras, but the singer and her two musicians could easily play the hall unamplified. And the same could have been done, but wasn’t, by the Canadian-Irish group, the Canadian-Arab group, and the Canadian-French group. Only the Canadian-Cuban group needed amplification in order to set the balance between the instruments right (drum set vs violin becomes an unequal struggle without amplification). I shared my “away with the microphone”-thoughts with some of the members of the audience. Most of them had not even thought about it, but agreed that actually amplification was mostly unnecessary.

What is it with all this amplification? I recently spoke with an organizer of Indian classical music concerts, and he told me that many Indian musicians insist (completely unnecessary for an audience of 75) on amplification; maybe as a status symbol. I once asked a great American singer-songwriter by email why on earth (actually, I did not use “on earth”, but never mind) he used a microphone when playing a pub with an audience of 30. He said he was concerned about his voice. I think he could have easily played unamplified, and would have prevented some loud at-the-back-of-the-hall-conversation by doing so. And I remember a singer-songwriter singing nice songs for a small audience, hidden behind a microphone, with eyes closed, too amplified to bring about any connection whatsoever. I therefore talked about family life through his songs.

Et cetera, ad infinitum, again.

My finest musical evening the past month was the weekly concert by the shanty choir “Gjin see te heich” (“No sea too high” – some of the C’s, of course, were, but that was part of the fun) of the island of Schiermonnikoog. It was raining, so they did not sing outside but in the local pub. It was a steamy evening. When I told a friend about it, he wondered how they did it – outside the choir apparently uses microphones, so what did they do in the pub?

Simple. They talked to and with their audience, occasionally asked for silence, and put a lot of energy in their music. You don’t need more than that.

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