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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Shut that noise

By Norman Lebrecht / June 6, 2007

Picture it. We’re into the catharsis chord in Beethoven’s ninth symphony and sparks of heavenly joy are flying all over the hall when a wire-spec bloke in the second violins, the health and safety rep, gives the conductor a nod to tone it down. The following night, Wagner’s Bruennhilde is getting ready to self-immolate at the end of the Ring when a civil servant enters stage-left at the Royal Opera and orders her to hold back the top notes or risk prosecution under HSE Directive 2003/10/EC.

Fantasy? It has the force of law. The Health and Safety Executive has issued proposals to cut noise levels in places of entertainment. Consultations start next month and while officials make it clear that they have no wish to inhibit the public’s enjoyment of music, ‘we have to balance this against the health of the performers.’

The HSE is knee-jerking to an EU directive that came into force last year cutting noise in the workplace to a daily average of 85 decibels, itself some 5 db higher than the sound of a Boeing 747 landing at Heathrow. No problem to contain in a chocolate factory, but curtains in a concert-hall. ‘There’s anxiety in the industry,’ says Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who has been taking soundings among other ensembles. ‘This may be the trickiest thing we’ve had to deal with for a very long while.’ ‘It’s madness,’ said one opera boss.

The noise issue began rumbling a decade ago when woodwind players complained that modern brass instruments were getting louder. The Musicians Union took the matter up with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) which, in 2001, commissioned a survey of 400 players by Alison Wright-Reed, an ex-BBC workplace expert, and staged a seminar on the South Bank. Wright-Reed discovered tinnitus – a ringing in the ears - in 42 percent of woodwind players and a high incidence of temporary hearing loss after extremely loud passages.

Orchestras took note and acted promptly. Ten bands held training days and formed dedicated noise teams to monitor progress. Earplugs are issued routinely on request and the seating ramp of the brass is often raised so that their noise goes literally over the heads of the rest. In rehearsal, the blare is contained behind screens.

Eighteen months ago in Bilbao, the ABO won a European Good Practice Award in Safety and Health at Work for its initiative, but by now the HSE was off on a zealous mission of harmonisation, employing Wright-Reed as its adviser.

Whitehall loves to be first in little things; I have yet to see a Ballhausplatz official trying to shove mutes into the blaring trombones of the Vienna Philharmonic or a Roman emissary ordering La Scala to alternate loud works with soft – something every well-run opera house does routinely as part of a varied artistic plan.

The HSE intervention could be dismissed as a clerical error were it not symptomatic of a nanny state that seeks to regulate everything from fags on a pub patio to the curve of bananas. Setting aside the need to protect the public health, bureaucracy takes leave of its senses when it meddles with art. How long before Carmen’s cigarette factory is converted by law to computer chips and Bruennhilde is relieved of her matches?

Logic plays no part in these determinations. Under present measures, metal groups and Glastonbury can carry on belting out 120 decibels a gig, while string quartets will be monitored for noise. Every pop fan with an iPod commonly receives 15 minutes at 95db, which medical authorities agree is the threshold for permanent hearing damage, but neither the electronics nor the rock industry are under orders to cut back noise. Nor should they be. It is as much an adult right to risk deafness as it is to get drunk.

As for the science, it’s as tremulous as tealeaves. A study at the University of Toronto challenged Wright-Reed’s findings two years ago, showing that none of 67 opera musicians tested during 18 three-hour sessions of rehearsal and performance suffered measurable risk to their hearing, and that the general noise level was below 85db. True, music is getting appreciably louder in every form, but the human constitution is magnificently adaptable and it may be that modern ears are simply more resilient.

If the authorities were really concerned for the health of musicians, they would be looking at studies launched by the late Ian James at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, showing that as many as one in three London orchestral players has a dependency on alcohol, tranquillisers or beta-blockers. A recent thesis at the University of Florida suggests the figure across all musical genres may be as high as 53 percent.

The inherent occupational stress – fear of failure at high performance – is treatable by various therapies. London musicians, though, face specific stresses arising from lack of job security, long working hours and the mounting difficulty of getting from one side of the river to the other in time for the next session with puff in the lungs and no pain in the fingers. The daily grind of making music for London is making musicians seriously ill.

That is where the HSE ought to be turning its attention – to funding a drop-in clinic for working musicians where they can get prompt attention for their aches and pains, regular hearing checks, and therapy where necessary. There is a British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, which is funded entirely by unions and charities. A modest grant from the HSE would do more good than a mountain of directives, but that’s not what nanny government is about, is it?

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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