Posted at 2:45 PM on September 14, 2007
by Alison Young
Hasn't it seemed that over the past decade or so the world is getting louder and louder? On my normally quiet street in St. Paul this summer, there were dueling renovation jobs on houses surrounding mine, Harley-Davidsons revved up for their seasonal runs, leaf-blowers, lawn-mowers, radios blaring, the party crowd hitting the bars, barking dogs - you get the picture.
The European Union has issued a noise abatement directive that helps limit the level of noise a person is exposed to at the workplace. This is to protect its citizens' health since long or repeated exposure to sounds at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. This all makes perfectly good sense; the only catch is that symphony orchestras produce sound significantly above 85 db on a regular basis. Take a trumpet cranking out a fortissimo passage in Wagner. They can register around 110 decibels. A crashing cymbal can peak even higher and the mellow flute (my former instrument) puts out 118 dbs straight into the right ear of the player, about the same level of noise as a power drill.
The issue is whether a directive could be enforced and how it would affect an orchestra's artistry. On the other hand, it might keep orchestras from playing very loud music in confined spaces, like an orchestra pit, without providing adequate protection to its members. Not too long ago, I played a run of performances of "The Rite of Spring." I was the poster-child for noise-abatement with my ear-plugs supplemented by Industrial Ear-Muffs normally worn by airline crew. But I still have my hearing intact!