March 8, 1996

Live Music

When you hear and see three opera-singing tenors on TV, you are not experiencing live music.

If we go back to the beginning of music, there were singers and instrument players who would perform in their own villages. Later there were wandering minstrels who would travel and perform. With the growth of cities, we had the beginnings of theaters and professional musicians and singers.

Some churches were acoustically designed to allow everyone to hear the singing as well as the sermon. In a properly designed hall, it is possible to project a human voice so that each person in the hall can hear it almost as clearly as if he were standing close to the singer. There are probably size limits, but a fairly large hall can be designed so that the voice will carry clearly without amplification. The theater at Sonoma State and the little theater at Mendocino College do just that. A gymnasium just will not do the job. Choirs and orchestras have very different acoustic requirements from the solo voice.

With the growth of cities came music halls which started small, but eventually grew in size because the larger the hall, the more tickets could be sold with more profit for the owners of the halls. Eventually, in the larger cities, very large opera houses and concert halls were built. This required singers with high-volume voices. In order to sing in large opera houses, many singers devoted more effort to developing volume instead of quality sounds and acting. Many an opera singer sang a sad song or a tender love song as if he were calling the cows home. There were a few exceptions; singers who retained the tenderness as well as the volume. The great Feodor Chaliapin, who had an immense voice, took his greatest pride in his soft higher tones, which were remarkable for a bass. The old recordings only hint at how he really sounded.

As the numbers of listeners grew, along with the growth of cities, larger and larger halls and churches were built. Many of these buildings were basically containers for people, and their designers paid little attention to their sound transmitting qualities. They were designed more for spectacles; shows for the eye rather than the ear. Those two purposes, visual effect and sound, may be incompatible. The old Metropolitan Opera House was both an auditory, and visual monstrosity.

Early in this century, with the advent of electronic amplification, some predicted that the era of the big voice was at an end. Even with the primitive state of electronics, singers with fine, but not powerful, voices did very well. The records of those fine singers of the past are marvelous, and the brain has a marvelous capacity to filter out the recording noise. Yet, recordings can, at best, only suggest the magnificence of the singing.

Unless you can afford tickets to the San Francisco Opera, you will not be able to hear live opera singers. When you hear a concert on radio or TV, it is not live, it is electronically amplified music. I have nothing against electronic music. It allows me to hear wonderful music that I couldn't afford to hear live. I can listen to great singing and listen to as much as I want to hear. But it is not live; even with the best of electronic recording and amplification, something is lost. Theoretically, it is possible to have perfect reproduction -but that is only theoretically. Practically, few of us can afford the equipment to do it. Besides, the recording process amplifies the pianissimos, and tones down the fortissimos.

If you want to hear superstar singers, you have to face the fact that you will have to either put up big bucks and lots of time, or settle for reproduction. When you see a TV show with three operatic tenors, it is definitely not "live" even if you are in the stadium where the concert is held. The same holds true of virtually all popular music. You are hearing electronically amplified music, where volume sometimes substitutes for fidelity.

When I get the chance to hear singing live, I take advantage of the opportunity. In some ways, less than great singers can be as worth listening to live, as listening to the greatest singers canned.

I had the pleasure of singing in the Willits Community Theater. It has a capacity of 75 people so, as a consequence, every member of the audience heard even the softest notes. Hal Wagenet made a fine recording of one concert but, fine as it was, the recording could never replicate the actual sound, just as frozen food cannot replicate the flavor of fresh food.

I am a fan of intimate theater. Unfortunately, it is not profitable. It isn't even a break-even proposition.

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