Searching for a Balance

From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Subject: Searching for a balance
Date: 2/26/98

Maxine wrote:

>Maybe we´re fighting a losing battle when we demand the
>"lack" of something. I, for one, would hate to experience dead
>silence for any length of time (ie: living underground). I want to
>hear the sounds of nature and quiet human communication.
>Perhaps instead of "wake up and smell the coffee," we should be
>admonishing people to "shut up and hear the birds." May you
>all have a peaceful night punctuated by the song of wind or

With great interest and gratitude for the thought food, I´ve been reading the postings on this list for the past few months. I´m a composer who´s been active in music for 49 years and in music in multimedia for 30 years. So, sound framed by silence and articulated by silence is my reason for being.

I don´t relish but I readily assume the role of troublemaker when I´m in the company of undesirable sound. If the music in a cafe or restaurant is too loud, thumpy, grating, etc., I´ll talk to the manager about it and if it´s not corrected I´ll simply walk out after having planted an appropriate sound seed. When a neighbor decided to start a firewood business from his home that included daily log-splitter and chain saw noise, I contacted city hall about our neighborhood zoning and informed the neighbor that he was out of bounds; immediately the noise and firewood business came to a halt. When developers began to work on the hill across the street, dirt-bikers were attracted to the hill like flies to dung. I was the only person in the neighborhood to go through the process of contacting city hall and the police to put a stop to the din; even then I would occasionally have to walk up the hill to remind the dirt-bikers that they were outside the law. There have been times when I´ve directly confronted audio engineers at concerts when their deaf (not deft) handling of the mixing board was threatening my health. One part of my web site is devoted to a Quest for Audio Excellence in an effort to raise the consciousness level of audio engineers and concert goers. And so on and so on for most of my life. The point is that when it comes to sound and silence, I champion what I´d call a common sense balanced approach - the right sounds in the right places at the right times for the right reasons; you could think of it as a generic compositional approach to sound and silence.

Maintaining that common sense balanced approach is no mean feat. It´s another form of musical tuning; as such, it requires nonstop effort and a willingness to make adjustments on the fly. It´s also just another name for the work of trying to understand the meanings of sound, silence, and noise.

I understand and accept noise as a measure of just how inefficient and wasteful our industrial and technological culture is at the moment. In the current cycle of cultural unraveling some subcultures seem to hunger for and wallow in waste and inefficiency as if they're floating in a cloud of ecstasy. Sometimes I´ll visit electronic game rooms filled with the noise of young folks playing game machines. Despite the unforgiving racket, the individuals seem totally focused on the business at hand - their own game machine and the sound feedback it´s giving them on their play. As I walk from player/machine to player/machine I notice that my listening attention changes in ways that are probably similar to the player´s attention. There is a method to this madness. These young folks are being prepared for and are practicing for the battlefield. They may never be on a battlefield but they´re developing attention skills that will come in handy on a battlefield.

The tendency today is to unbalance concert environments in favor of quiet over the requirement for breathable air. When I started in the performance-multimedia business three decades ago, I'd walk into a space with a noisy ventilation system, turn it off, and open the windows a bit to provide cross ventilation and fresh air. Maybe during the concert there would be some sound spill into the space such as a human voice, a car, a train, a bird, a siren, or the like; I preferred those sounds to the drone of a ventilation system. But I was in the minority in those days; most performers preferred absolute silence to surround their music making. They got their wish; today all the new performance spaces are caves, virtually quiet internal rooms with no windows and "air" provided by ducts in the ceiling. My respiratory system is still recovering from an engagement several weeks ago when I spent four thirteen-hour days in such an "ideally quiet" cave. Ducts in the ceiling provided the "fresh air" (undoubtedly mostly recycled air) and the cold air return vents were located just below the ceiling. Given that the ceiling was about 30 feet above the floor, that dubiously fresh air was circulating 20 to 30 above the heads of the audience (institutional architects seem not to take fundamental human needs into consideration). It´s what folks call a "stuffy" space; it was stuffed with dead air. Very little oxygen and plenty of airborne pollutants for cells to struggle with in their attempts to function normally. But the space was quiet. That space was a perfect argument for applying the principle of balance to sound, silence, comfort, and overall healthful functioning.

Ron Pellegrino

>Date: Tue, 3 Mar 1998 17:42:35 EST
>From: Bridgallen
>Subject: Human vs Mechanical Noise

>Regarding the posting a few days ago from a person who
>offered some thoughtful insights into music and mechanical
>noise: I attended a Julian Bream concert 20 years ago at the newly
>opened Scopes auditorium in Norfolk, Virginia.
>Bream, a world-famous classic guitarist, abruptly stopped
>playing and put his guitar down midway through his opening
>piece because there was a noise interfering with his
>performance. The offending sound was a barely audible
>mechanical hum, the whirring rumble of the air handling

>To the astonishment of the audience, Bream stomped off the
>stage in search of the building custodian. After the air
>conditioner was turned off he resumed his performance, but
>not before scolding the city for spoiling its new auditorium with
>a noisy air system.

>At a reception following the concert Bream continued to
>hammer the air conditioner problem in the presence of
>reporters and music critics. The city was red-faced over the
>matter and promptly installed a silent new air system.

>The incident sticks in my mind because until that night I had
>unwittingly tolerated mechanical-system noise. In those days I
>was a guitarist giving recitals mostly in schools and churches,
>institutions notorious for noisy air conditioning. I just accepted
>this mechanical noise as inevitable, a hazard of the trade. But
>after the Bream concert I began asking maintenance staff and
>building caretakers if they could help me by reducing
>mechanical noise during my short performances. Often they did

>I agree with the person who wrote last week that incidental
>human noise wafting through open windows during a
>performance is preferable to the continuous noise produced by
>mechanical systems in a closed auditorium. A music student
>learns in her first class that music is made up of 2 things:
>sound and silence, and that the silences are as important as the

>Bridgforth Allen

>Date: Wed, 04 Mar 1998 09:30:51 +0200
>From: John Darcy Evans <>
>Subject: Human vs Mechanical Noise

>Bridgforth Allen´s anecdotes on the above are interesting to me,
>primarily because my experience has been different. It´s
>probably more an example of how difficult it is to generalise
>when one is dealing with human reactions to external stimuli
>affecting a major sense.

>I am always aware of the orchestral conductor standing
>patiently at a symphonic concert waiting for the latecomers to
>settle down; of the annoyance of coughing or a clock chiming,
>particularly during a sensitive passage in the music; apart from
>the clock, all "human" noise. On the other hand, having
>performed (sung + acted) on stage myself, I am equally aware
>of the need for audible human response. But a low level
>constant sound such as air conditioning noise, computer or
>masking sound, although stressful [one notices the lifting of a
>great burden when it is turned off!!], is not usually noticed
>after a minute or two as the brain seems to acclimatise itself
>to such sounds [the masking and AC noise in these offices is
>over 40dBA]. also find that people living near railways and busy
>roads tend to "filter out" such noise but get very distressed by
>"unnecessary" noise such as discos and boom cars although the
>sound levels are very much lower. [I have been woken at 3 am
>by the base beat from a disco 2 miles away and the noise was
>barely discernible, let alone measureable!]

>Such is the difficulty of understanding and dealing with these

> John D'Arcy-Evans
> E-mail:

From: Ron Pellegrino
Subject: RE: Human vs. Mechanical Noise
Date: 3/5/98

The subject of "Human vs. Mechanical Noise" is a thread spun out of my post of 2/26/98 on the subject of "Searching for a balance." What follows is the relevant excerpt from that post: "The tendency today is to unbalance concert environments in favor of quiet over the requirement for breathable air. When I started in the performance-multimedia business three decades ago, I´d walk into a space with a noisy ventilation system, turn it off, and open the windows a bit to provide cross ventilation and fresh air. Maybe during the concert there would be some sound spill into the space such as a human voice, a car, a train, a bird, a siren, or the like; I preferred those sounds to the drone of a ventilation system."

I chose those examples because they covered the bases - human, machine, creature, and miscellaneous. To me they represented short lived serendipitous sounds of local activities that made my presentation in the soundspace part of the total environment of human activity; I'm also personally far more accepting of short lived serendipitous sound than I am of a continuous, predictable, and controllable noise source. I was also careful to say that "I preferred those sounds to the drone of a ventilation system." The fact is that the ventilation systems in question often clattered, thumped, bumped, clicked, and wheezed as well as droned; and they were usually loud.

To me, noise is simply sound I don´t want to hear at the moment yet is invading my mindspace; that can range from sound most folks would consider wonderful music to the usual sonic clutter of the industrial and technological age. If I adjust my attitude and listen to any sound in a musical way, it will not affect me as noise any longer. To me, as long as the sound doesn´t threaten to destroy hearing or health, the noise issue boils down to psychophysical limits, attitude, timing, context, and personal preferences.

My experience with continuous low level sounds is that people only have the illusion that they are acclimatized to it after a minute or two. I´ve often had the experience of walking into a public space such a post office, bank, or university classroom and noticing that a fluorescent fixture was buzzing in its inimitably irritating way. The workers behind the counters always look wasted. When I draw their attention to the buzzing they usually dismiss it by saying they´re used to it and don´t even hear it anymore. I always tell them they´ll feel much better when they replace the bulb because even though their brain seems to have switched off the signal to their over driven receptor cells, the buzzing sound will still course through their nervous system. Any cell repeatedly or overly stimulated will gradually become exhausted and desensitized until it shuts down first temporarily and eventually forever. The fact is that there is no way to escape the resonating influence of sound. What makes sound so powerful for good and evil is that it envelops the organism and physically influences the individual cells as well as cell families (organs) to vibrate in sympathy with the sound forms. This is ancient knowledge just lately being remembered as the interest in music (sound) therapy grows in the mainstream culture. A recent book worth studying on this subject is THE MOZART EFFECT by Don Campell published by Avon Books.

Ron Pellegrino

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