Amplification in the theater

In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics and attendant observations on theater, Stephen Sondheim writes:

What bothers me [about amplification] is the softening effect it has on the audience’s concentration. [S]itting in those ceiling-scraping seats, hearing an orchestra hundreds of feet away, and squinting at Mary Martin’s face, which was the size of a dime, we had to concentrate. Mary Martin had a small, coy voice, and in order to hear her, we had to lean vertiginously forward. None of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us – we had to lean into it. The concentration required was so great that we had to shut out the real world, and in so doing we became participants in the experience, all of which made it easy to suspend disbelief and enter another world; and the more of that in the theater, the better. With the advent of amplification, ears became lazy and audiences now tend to visit rather than enter.

Sondheim nails it here. I long ago stopped enjoying the act of seeing musicals in the theater (though I still have a great love of the works themselves), and amplification was a big reason why. Even when the amplification is done well, it puts you at a remove from the performance, not much better than sitting back in your sofa and watching it on television.

I’ve experienced this in my performances with the Martha Graham Dance Company as well. When we perform with live music, we are often in halls which are larger than the ones the works were conceived for. Appalachian Spring, for example, was written for 13 instruments and was premiered in a hall which seats 500; we are now frequently asked to perform it with the same size orchestra in a hall 3–4 times as large. So we occasionally do a little judicious sound reinforcement, to make sure that the sound reaches the entire audience. I admit that I’ve come to accept this as a necessary evil when the size of the house requires it, and so long as the primary impression remains an acoustic one.

But I have sometimes been asked by dance personnel to goose the amplification higher than that (or sometimes just to have the orchestra play certain sections louder). That part is too soft, they say; it’s hard for the audience to hear. My response is that it’s soft because Copland (or Barber, or whoever) wrote it soft; it’s a feature, not a bug. These composers knew what they were doing and what effect their music would have, and Graham knew what the music sounded like when she choreographed to it. They wanted to draw the audience into the world of the piece, not just lean them back comfortably in their seats.

December 15, 2011   Tags: ,

Efficient communication and trust

Let’s say I’d like to accomplish the following task with some code: I’ve got a list of names of fruits, and I want to know how many contain the letter ‘a’. Back in the day, this might have been done in assembly language, very low-level instructions which directly tell a CPU the details of which bytes to move into which memory locations and how to examine them in order to find out the answer.

A more recent way of doing this in a typical high-level structured programming language (like C#) would look like this:

int CountOfA = 0;
for (int i = 0; i < FruitNames.Count; i++)
{
   if (FruitNames[i].Contains("a"))
      CountOfA++;
}

Now we’re laying out for the computer a repeated sequence of logical steps to follow. What this says is, “Start with a variable to count the number of  ‘a’ fruits we find, and set it to zero. Then loop through the list of names, looking at each name in order, and if the name has an ‘a’, increment our counter.” This is very straightforward, the kind of code that developers write all the time. But to a non-programmer looking at this, it’s not necessarily clear what steps the code is carrying out or what the goal is.

Here’s a slightly more legible version, using a different syntax that many languages support:

int CountOfA = 0;
foreach (string fruit in FruitNames)
{
   if (fruit.Contains("a"))
      CountOfA++;
}

We’ve dropped that pesky index variable (the i), and the use of foreach makes it a little more clear what we’re doing. But it’s still 4 lines of code (6 if you count the braces) to ask the simple question, “How many of these fruit names have an ‘a’ in them?” Can’t we do better? Well, nowadays we can:

int CountOfA = FruitNames.Count(f => f.Contains("a"));

If you’re used to the older style of telling a computer to loop through a list, this syntax takes a little getting used to. It basically says, “Take the list FruitNames and count all the fruits f such that f contains ‘a’.” Which is only slightly more complex than posing our task in plain English.

But in addition to getting more concise, there’s something very interesting going on here in the way that we’re giving our instructions to the computer. We’ve moved from a syntax which tells the computer what steps to perform while somewhat obscuring the goal, to a syntax which just tells the computer what we want to know and omits the details of how to find that out. In doing this, we’re also in a sense being more trusting that the computer knows how to do what we want, so that we can just say “count these things” without explaining that this means examining each item and looking for an “a” (or, to go back to the assembly level, explaining how to move bytes around to accomplish this).

I’ve been thinking about this since my post about Leonard Bernstein conducting with his face. The essence of what a conductor does is to communicate his musical ideas to the orchestra as efficiently as possible; by “efficiently”, I mean simply, directly, and with a minimum of extraneous information. In the context of this particular performance, it turns out that the beat itself is largely superfluous, and Bernstein can tell the orchestra all they need to know through his expressive and well-timed facial expressions.

This relates to the above programming discussion in a couple of ways. First, like the FruitNames.Count example, the most effective way to let the orchestra know what he wants is for the conductor to indicate to them what the music should sound like, not how they should produce that sound. In rehearsal, for example, it’s often better for the conductor to sing a little of what he wants rather than trying to explain it in words, because that’s a more direct representation of the desired effect. Here, Bernstein’s face, free from any other distracting gestures, mimes the  character of the music.

Second, by limiting his instructions to conveying what the music should sound like, a conductor trusts his players – who almost certainly know more about technique on their various instruments than he does – to handle all the implementation details of how to make it sound that way. This kind of trust is important here because orchestral music-making, unlike computer programming, is a collaborative endeavor; the conductor who insists on dictating every last jot and tittle of a performance will often find that what he gets out of the orchestra is just exactly what he puts in, while the conductor who gives the musicians their share of responsibility gets the benefit of the sum total of all the artistry and years of experience sitting in front of him.

December 23, 2010   Tags: , ,

Look, no hands!

A friend of mine linked to an NPR story called “What Happened to Leonard Bernstein’s Hands?”, which includes this wonderful video (skip ahead to 25:25 if you’re reading this on a Flash-less device):

As my teacher, the late Frederik Prausnitz, used to say, “You just have to figure out where you need to beat. It is a myth that orchestras need every beat of every bar. Some bars they don’t need it altogether.”

Giving a clear beat is in some sense both the most fundamental and the least important thing that a conductor can do. This Bernstein video is kind of an edge case, but it’s very illustrative nonetheless. Bernstein was a great conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra, and they worked together often and had a close relationship. Haydn’s music is not technically challenging for this orchestra; they could probably play it quite well with their eyes closed. And in this particular case, what the video shows is an encore of a movement they had just finished performing, with Bernstein conducting normally.

So does all this mean that Bernstein is doing nothing and just letting the orchestra have at it? Not at all. A conductor’s face can be as important as his hands in communicating with an orchestra (if not more so), and Bernstein had a very expressive face. What he is showing, very clearly, is the desired character of the music, along with an indication of how different parts of the orchestra take the lead at different times.

Most importantly, his face telegraphs changes in the music right before they take place, just like a good preparatory beat with the baton.

December 21, 2010   Tags: