I was invited last spring to perform at a hip-hop showcase in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
My friend and colleague, Nick Mauro, is a jazz trumpeter who organized the event as part of his Musical Gotham series. Nick also performs with Boom Bits, one of the bands that would be playing on that chilly Friday evening in March.
Nick had asked me to bring my horn along and sit in during the last set. I also had a camera on-hand, and offered to snap some shots of the performance.
The show took place at Spike Hill along Bedford Street, the main drag in Williamsburg. If you’ve been there you know in the back there’s an open area about 20 feet by 20 feet with a stage for performers. The club also provides amplification and a sound man.
I arrived as Boom Bits was setting up. There were a dozen or so people milling about in front of the stage, drinking their beers, chatting with one another, waiting for the show to start. It was a good vibe, the end of the week, people ready to enjoy themselves.
Volume As Buzzkill.
But then the show started, and everyone quickly moved away from the stage, retreating to the bar towards the front of the club. And for an obvious reason: the music was ferociously loud. You couldn’t make out a word of what the artists were rapping. All one got was a distorted, harsh, electronic din.
And these weren’t just older folks running for cover. Most, in fact, were in their 20s.
As I was there not only to perform later on, but also to take pictures, I remained by the stage. (Fortunately I had come prepared with earplugs.)
And since everyone else had fled to the bar, I was the sole audience member, the only person engaging with the band, the only one with whom they had any real contact. They certainly enjoyed the attention, sometimes voguing for the camera, and I enjoyed the back-and-forth as well.
That, after all, is the whole point of a live performance: to connect with one another as human beings.
But the volume was getting in the way.
And it remained a buzzkill the entire evening as the other two hip-hop acts took to the stage.
Volume As Fantasy.
But it reached the depth of absurdity at the end of the night. To finish off the show, there was a grand finale in which the three bands who performed that evening took to the stage together. I joined them with my sax.
Even on stage the volume was so loud I couldn’t hear the other musicians or myself. And nobody was in the crowd, having drawn back, as I wrote earlier, to the bar. So we were playing, in effect, neither for ourselves nor for an audience.
One had to ask: What exactly is going on here? What are we doing? We can’t hear one another. Nobody is listening. Nobody even wants to get close to us.
What was happening, in fact, was a fantasy. The artists were imagining that they were celebrities, stars, performing for a huge audience of adoring fans.
It was all in their heads.
And it was sad.
When the show was over, I discussed this with the folks at the bar, who spanned a range of ages and types. All agreed that the volume was too loud and had turned them off.
The remarkable thing is that this happens at show after show, in which the very audience you’re trying to reach is pushed away by over-amplification. As if connecting with people is of no importance.
Volume As Insecurity.
It might just be a bad habit, a convention of sorts. We simply assume live music is supposed to be extremely and often painfully loud. Everyone is used to it. Everyone expects it. Nobody enjoys it, but we do nothing about it.
Or it might be the result of artistic insecurity. We pump up the volume in order to give our performance the energy we’re afraid it cannot produce on its own.
Or it might be the cultural problem that I alluded to before. We all hope to become stars. The fantasy of playing to thousands is more exciting than actually connecting with the reality in front of us.
In any event, it’s a tragedy. Artists are putting up a sonic wall between themselves and their audience.
As performers and listeners, we’ve got to say to one another that, on a human level, the situation isn’t working.
And we’ve got to say it loud and clear.