Blogs > Liberty and Power > MUSICAL MADNESS

Jan 11, 2004 10:36 pm


Well, I had at first hoped that this entry would not have anything at all to do with politics. No such luck. Regulators appear to have entered the clinical insanity stage, seeking to control everything on earth -- including classical music.

As someone who has passionately loved classical music (and especially opera) all my life, I was intrigued by this NYT story about a phenomenon that has only begun receiving serious attention in the last few years: hearing loss among classical musicians. As the story says, many have noted this problem in the areas of pop and rock music, but it has been only recently that classical musicians have come in for the same kind of examination.

And now, especially in Europe, the government has, of course, come to the rescue of all those musicians who apparently are simply incapable of addressing these issues on their own:

[The problem] has bubbled to the surface recently with press accounts of a new regulation imposed by the European Union that reduces the allowable sound exposure in the European orchestral workplace from the present 90 decibels to 85. The problem is, a symphony orchestra playing full-out can easily reach 96 to 98 decibels, and certain brass and percussion instruments have registered 130 to 140 at close range.

The directive — issued last February and intended to protect all workers, orchestral musicians included — specifies a daily"upper exposure action value" of 85 decibels, amid a welter of other provisions. It acknowledges"the particular characteristics of the music and entertainment sectors." It allows discretion to member states to use averaging, specifying a weekly exposure limit of 87 decibels, and to allow a transition period for implementation.

Orchestras are just now beginning to figure out what effect it might have.

As you might imagine, determining"what effect" this"directive" might have is not all that simple. Contrasting the EU's regulation with what OSHA does in the United States (which is mercifully much, much less in this area, at least for the moment), the story tells us:
Though more stringent in its guidelines, the European Union has been less than clear about how to implement them. Is an orchestra to play more quietly even as Wagner or Mahler urges it toward a cataclysmic fortissimo? Is it to avoid the offending works altogether, thus dispensing with most of the symphonic literature of the 20th century? Are composers of the 21st century to scale back their dynamic demands, in the process putting any number of brass players and percussionists out of work? And how is it all to be monitored and enforced?

Only mildly daunted, European orchestras are now working to find new solutions. The London Symphony, like many of its counterparts, has formed a"noise team," consisting of players from the various sections and a representative of the Barbican Center, the orchestra's home.

Ah, me. What can one say? Whatever would we do without the government to look after us all, in every facet of our lives?

It makes me wish that all government bureaucrats, wherever they may ply their wicked craft, would take the following oath from King Lear, with regard to the subject of regulation itself:"O, that way madness lies, let me shun that; no more of that."

But to be considerably more mundane, but realistic: fat chance.

The story has many more details, if the subject interests you.

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