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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Schizophonia - or: Against Amplification

Although I love pop, rock, jazz, world music at least just as much as classical music, there is one thing that classical music does better than most other musics: in general, it does not work with microphones and amplifiers.

I know, there are examples where they are used in classical music - when you use a bass guitar or a keyboard in the orchestra you can't do without amps, really (unless performing Cage's 4'33''); and I remember sitting in an old amphitheatre somewhere in Turkey where a symphony orchestra accompanied an opera singer who used a microphone to make himself audible. But I consider these occasions as exceptions to the rule.

I wrote about my aversion of the microphone earlier, explaining that the microphone is an obstacle between the singer and his audience, that microphones are often used unnecessarily, and that microphones lead to musical warfare between the musicians and their audience, each taking turns in pushing up their volume until musicians end up screaming their songs at a screaming audience, both not enjoying themselves. The ultimate image: the drummer of a rockband playing his amplified drumset while wearing ear plugs to an audience wearing ear plugs too. I know, in some cases rock music must be felt rather than heard, but that is only sometimes the case - mostly loud rock music is played loud because nobody knows why.

What I did not touch on in this earlier blog entry is that using microphones and amplifiers also often leads to a sort of schizophonia, a word invented by Murray Schafer to indicate a disconnection of the sound from the sound source, basically. Hearing a symphony orchestra in the unlikely place of a meadow because the symphony orchestra is recorded and then played over the radio you took with you in the meadow, that kind of experience.

I am here thinking a bit about a specific sort of schizophonia. It boils down to this: because sound can be made to sound small or big, regardless of the sound source producing it, we now end up with combinations we are used to hear but which are actually, when the power plant finally has run out of fuel, rather improbable. Rita Reys singing a tune with the accompaniment of a complete big band. Ge Reinders accompanied by a wind orchestra; or the small voice of Jewdysee's singer combined with a string orchestra & more. And there is also the phenomenon the other way round: where an electric guitar's distortion originally was created by putting the amp's volume on 10, you now can create the image of distortion regardless of the volume played on - so you might whisper your song over a heavily distorted but very silent electric guitar.

Ach, I am not against it - things happen, like rain; and you can be against the rain (many people are, especially in my country) but it does not really help, in general. But when I heard Mahler's 'Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen' played by our conservatoire students recently, I was fascinated again by the way Mahler is able to orchestrate a rather large orchestral ensemble in such a way that even a youthfull classical voice is not drowned in the orchestra's racket.

I could even imagine the whole orchestra in a meadow, and me listening, with the power plant out of function.

The real thing?

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