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David Bouchier: Summer Symphony

Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Summer may be many things, but it is rarely quiet. The many machines essential to modern gardening create a continuous background roar, and the inhabitants of suburbia, encouraged by warmth and spooked by COVID, are living and socializing more outdoors. Unfortunately, this al fresco social life often includes background music. Decades of Hollywood movies have done their insidious work. Nobody feels truly alive unless they can hear their music playing.

It was a sad day for the human race when the first electric amplifier was attached to a gramophone in the 1920s. Before that, music was a private pleasure. Immediately afterwards, it became a public nuisance. Outdoor speakers are freely on sale, although it seems to me that they should be subject to the same kinds of controls as handguns and dangerous drugs. If people are allowed to buy them, they will inevitably use them — and there goes the peace of the neighborhood. Sheer loudness is a form of aggression — a loud voice, a heavy drumbeat or an artillery bombardment, are all designed to induce mental paralysis.

There’s nothing wrong with outdoor music in principle. As performed by the New York Philharmonic in Central Park, or the by Boston Pops at Tanglewood, it is quite delightful because the whole audience wants to be there and the large space moderates the sound. But when the teenagers next door crank up their own favorite music in the middle of a quiet afternoon, that’s not so delightful. We didn’t ask to hear it, and we don’t want to hear it.

Some of us just don’t like noise, especially loud discordant noise. It’s intimidating, and it stops you from thinking, which perhaps is the whole point. From the earliest days of pop music, back in the 1950s with Bill Haley and Elvis (I actually remember them), part of the attraction was that the performers were so loud compared to the bands that were popular earlier in the century. They yelled their tales of love and misery into the microphone while playing amplified electric guitars. You couldn’t ignore them, any more than you could ignore an angry child. Amplification at pop concerts and music festivals went onwards and upwards for years, reaching 130 decibels, or about the same as a military jet taking off.

Loudness is not just a vice of pop musicians, of course. Beethoven was very loud at times, perhaps because of his deafness, and some classical composers like Hector Berlioz assembled huge orchestras, up to 1,000 musicians intended to make a huge impact, which they did. Some opera singers are capable of leaving an audience stunned, not with musical beauty but with the sheer intensity of sound.

The good news is that, this summer, the outdoors seems less noisy than it used to be. Some music lovers are risking deafness by isolating themselves with headphones or ear buds rather than blasting the entire neighborhood with speakers. The slowing down of economic activity has meant less traffic on the roads and fewer flights overhead. We hear more bird song in the garden, and perhaps on a good evening, when the mowing stops, we might even be able hear one of the quieter Chopin adagios. So we can get on with our lives and our outdoor entertainments for what remains of the summer, pianissimo.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.