A couple of nights ago I went to see a concert of chamber music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, on one of the final nights of the Mostly Mozart festival. (Just for the record, I’m not a big classical music concertgoer and I generally don’t know what I’m talking about, but my wife and brother in law have for years been great about helping me learn and appreciate classical music more and more.)
All of the performances were excellent as far as I could tell, but the final peice, a Brahms sextet, was what all three of us were really looking forward to.
Sadly — and shockingly — the Brahms was utterly unlistenable due to a nearly-constant and totally mysterious high-pitched ringing sound that marred nearly every note from the beginning to the end of the peice. The sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, as if it were simply part of the space itself or coming from the rafters above. It would generally, but not always, coincide with an energetic violin phrase or a loud segment of music. And since the peice was dominated by the violins, the noise was present to some degree for (I would estimate) nearly a third of the peice’s entire duration.
When the noise first started, I glanced around to see what it was (assuming it was someone’s cell phone), and the first thing I noticed was the hearing aid in the ear of the gentleman sitting next to me. But the sound didn’t seem to come from the hearing aid — it was coming from everywhere at once. This wasn’t some subtle easily-ignored sound, either. It sounded like someone’s wristwatch alarm or cell phone was going off every five seconds. Or more like a hundred people’s wristwatches were going off, all very quietly but adding up to something quite substantial.
I wondered if it was just me, something screwed up with my ears. And yet I noticed a similar discomfort in the faces of my wife and brother-in-law sitting next to me. The three of us kept glancing at each other with pained looks every time the noises resumed, in perfect synch. It wasn’t just me.
Still, mysteriously, nobody else in the hall seemed to show any sort of frustration at all. It’s as if the three of us were the only ones who noticed anything wrong.
Even the New York Times’ review of the evening’s music describes the Brahms thus:
Sound expectations have changed over the years; not for us, in the early 21st century, a romantic, thick, rich sound, even in Brahms. The Op. 36 Sextet, authoritatively led by Philip Setzer (also of the Emerson), with Sharon Robinson on cello and Richard Oâ€™Neill on viola joining the three trio players, was warm, even autumnal. But it was also distinguished by a kind of transparency, often encountered today, that allows each voice to stand out: a collective, not a union. The result was engaging and slightly prickly, like a carbonated drink.
Not one word about the constant ringing sound. Unless by “prickly” she means “annoying and grating ringing noises”.
How is it possible that the New York Times could ignore this huge scar on the music’s acoustics? How is it possible that Avery Fisher Hall can even stay open with this glaring problem? If I were in charge of Lincoln Center (or if I were one of their big financial donors) I would insist on closing the Hall completely until the problem was fixed, it was that bad.
In fact, there have been some complaints in the past about Avery Fisher Hall’s acoustics, but in general they seem to be complaints about some esoteric subtleties of the sound, nothing as radical or substantial as what I and my companions experienced. And yet, the shows go on and nobody says a word.
Theories about the Noise’s Origins
Violins: As I’ve said, I didn’t notice any such noise during the Beethoven or Mozart, but it was almost constant during the Brahms. Musically, the Brahms peice was a sextet with two violins, while the other two leaned more heavily into the lower-register strings, i.e., violas and a double-bass. It seems reasonable to assume the violins had something to do with it. Of course, lots of music in Avery Fisher Hall has violins, so it seems improbable that simply having two violins would be enough to trigger this effect.
Brahms: Was it just Brahms? This was our first joking theory. Was it something about his particular chords and notes? Again, this seems just impossible.
Hearing Aids: The crowd at Lincoln Center tends to, shall we say, lean towards some more mature demographics. There’s a lot of gray hair in that hall. And a lot of hearing aids. Could it be that when you subject two thousand hearing aids to certain types of high-pitched sounds, that they produce a kind of feedback that is inaudible to the wearers of those hearing aids?
The mysterious part, of course, is that nobody sitting near us, or anywhere else in the hall for that matter, seemed to notice the noise, either. It was No Big Deal apparently.
Theories on why the Noise isn’t a Big Deal
Jadedness: I always think that I’m the only one at the concert who doesn’t listen to live classical music almost every other day. So I wondered if everyone else was so used to the infernal noise that they had learned to ignore it. This theory is just too pathetic to be possible, and yet there they were, thousands of obvious music connoisseurs clearly enjoying what they were hearing.
Hearing Ability: Perhaps a lot of people just can’t hear the noise at all. The noise was, after all, very high pitched and may fall out of the range of what many people can even hear. Those with hearing aids, of course, might have a hard time. And, as many of us have learned recently from the story of the ring tones that only teenagers can hear, it’s true that older people cannot hear high pitched sounds as well as younger people. Still, there were plenty of people like me in their 30’s in that hall, they had to have heard something, right? Why wouldn’t they say anything?
Location: Perhaps our location was part of the effect. Perhaps we were in the one spot in the hall where these noise effects are focused, and that the noises are completely inaudible in almost every other seat in the house.
Embarassment: Maybe some people hear the sound but don’t say anything because they’re afraid of looking like they are unskilled listeners.
Intellectual Dullness: Similarly, maybe some people are actually unskilled listeners: they hear the sound just fine, but don’t actually notice it, simply because they aren’t paying attention enough. Could it be that classical music fans are poseurs who don’t even listen with enough attentiveness to notice a glaring acoustic blemish like this? (I’ve read about taste tests where famous wine tasters in a blind taste test have been unable to distinguish between types of wines, where they are from, or even if they are cheap or expensive — could classical music fans be the same?)
So, in short, I am stumped. If anyone has any theories, I’d love to hear it.