Turn Down the Amplification, Steve Reich

Thomas Busse on February 1, 2013
Steve Reich
Steve Reich

The S.F. Contemporary Music Player’s all-Steve Reich program Monday at the S.F. Conservatory of Music made me recall Beyoncé’s lip-synced performance of the National Anthem at the Presidential inauguration. The pop singer’s occasional labial mis-coordination created confusion between the visual and aural image of her performance. SFCMP’s performances were musically strong, but discrepancies between what we were seeing and hearing, caused by amplification, created a recurrent problem for me.

Works such as Clapping Music (1972) and Music for 18 Musicians (1976), written within a few years of the moon landing, and several years before I was born, are not exactly contemporary. It is a testament to Reich's imagination that they remain fresh and admirable when so much art and music from the 1970s has gone the way of shag carpeting. Judging by the shoulder-to-shoulder crowding in the lobby — like a Muni Station at morning rush hour — the music is as popular as ever. The unusual sellout for this organization overwhelmed the front-of-house staff.

Inside, thanks to the omnipresent use of amplification, the performances sounded just like the recordings, aside from some tuning issues in the cello. The hour-long Music for 18 really should be upped to 19 to acknowledge the critical role of the sound engineer, not to mention the team who set up the expensive forest of equipment. Unlike the recording, of which I have long been a fan, the live experience of hearing Music for 18 was a disjoint between what I saw and what I heard. I’m not sure if this was the psychoacoustic effect Reich was going for.

In the late 1940s, scientists Lothar Cremar and Helmut Haas discovered that when two identical sound waves reach your ears close upon each other, you perceive a single sound. And you hear the sound as coming from the direction of the first sound wave to arrive, even if this wave is much softer than the second arriving wave. This is called the “precedence effect.” Using this principle, modern amplification systems are designed to trick the ear into thinking that the amplified sound emanates from its source rather than a loudspeaker.

The hour-long Music for 18 really should be upped to 19 to acknowledge the critical role of the sound engineer, not to mention the team who set up the expensive forest of equipment.

Some of the disconcerting visual effects in the SFCMP concert could have been avoided by placing a slight 20-30 millisecond delay in the loudspeakers so that the amplified sounds would appear to come from the direction of each player. Instead, the amplification relied on stereophonic panning, which is subject to distortion for those sitting on the sides of the auditorium. The concert experience was one of seeing a stage-right marimba get hit, and hearing a stage-left ping from a speaker. But even more naturalistic amplification hits limits, so some disconnect between seeing and hearing was inevitable, given the demands of Reich’s scores.

The first half of the concert featured Electronic Counterpoint, a 1987 work for solo electronic guitar and a pre-recorded tape of the soloist playing ten overlaid tracks. Monday’s performance, featuring soloist Travis Andrews, dispensed with the tape, that part being performed live by the S.F. Conservatory’s large Guitar Ensemble, conducted by David Tanenbaum.

Unlike Music for 18, which was performed conductorless, Tanenbaum’s presence made it even easier to follow the predictable eight- and 10-measure phrases. Arrayed across the stage, the impressive gaggle of guitars was reduced to two speakers to the left and right. While there was opportunity for spatial effects as the plucks flashed across the stage in a fretted chorus line, the audience was left hearing a pulsing gibberish. I am sure the soloist did a fine job, but amid a sea of picking, it was hard to pick him out.

Amplification robs performers of their ability to control their product and take credit for good blend and tone, but it also robs the composer of credit for getting the balance right and choosing the right tone. All of this is ceded to the sound engineer. Why not just put on a recording, à la Beyoncé.