Charles Petzold

Cut the Mic

May 4, 2014
New York, N.Y.

I see a lot of live music, and by “live” I mean I’m in the same room as the musicians, and some of the light rebounding off the musicians and their instruments goes directly into my eyes. The musicians aren’t shot by video cameras and then projected onto TV screens, for example. That would be pointless.

Same thing for the sound: The vibrations of air produced by the vocal cords of the singers, and the strings and pipes of the musicians’ instruments, bounce around the room and some of it stimulates my eardrums. The sound isn’t picked up by microphones, converted into electrical current, amplified, and then used to drive speakers. That’s not live music to me.

If you’re in the same room as the musicians, why would it be necessary to pass the music through a superfluous amplification system? Does it improve anything? What sounds more like an actual piano: A piano whose sound has been converted into electrical impulses and then back to sound? Or an actual piano?

Fortunately, a lot of people involved in the performance of live music agree with me.

That’s why when a pianist sits down on the Carnegie Hall stage, the piano isn’t disfigured with a bunch of microphone booms. The audience prefers to hear a piano, not an amplified piano. Similarly, when Yo-Yo Ma plays the Bach Cello Suites in the same venue, nobody dreams of seating him between a pair of big amps to blast out sounds that vaguely resemble a cello. The cello itself is just fine, thank you.

The same principle applies to ensembles. I recently saw Juilliard students in the AXIOM ensemble play some Stockhausen and Boulez at Alice Tully Hall. I love seeing students perform, and particularly when they are playing for us (and for themselves), and not for microphones.

Orchestras, of course, don’t need amplification. What would amplification do for a Mahler symphony, except to flatten the dynamics and add some noise? Who needs it?

The same goes for singers, for course. Earlier this year I saw British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote in a recital of French songs at Zankel Hall. No microphones, of course. Just her and Graham Johnson on piano. Zankel is a small hall, but the same principle applies to the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House where Ms. Coote sang the role of the detective in Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys. last season. Opera singers know how to sing. They don’t need microphones.

For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, music was performed for audiences without microphones and loudspeakers, and that tradition fortunately continues to the present day.

But there are some exceptions. Some composers deliberately use electronics or electronically amplified instruments to achieve a particular sound. George Crumb and the early Philip Glass come to mind. That’s fine, and emphasizes even more the need to perform music not written for such instruments without amplification.

The big exception to the live-music rule is, of course, pop and rock, which is always miked and amplified, seemingly to reproduce the aural experience of an over-cranked car stereo. There are lots of famous pop and rock singers whose actual voices have never been heard by their millions of fans except through a vibrating piece of cardboard — even in “live” concerts, and even in “unplugged” live concerts! That’s a little weird if you think about it.

Another exception involves what’s known as the American musical theater.

When I was growing up, many of the records played in my household were cast albums of Broadway musicals. Stuff like Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, The Music Man, and West Side Story.

But the first time I saw an actual Broadway show when I was a teenager, it was a revelation! The cast albums were recorded in a studio, but the live sound was totally different. It was raw and direct. Real live breathing sweating human beings were on stage, belting out songs that filled the theater with naked voices.

I loved that sound!

But the sound I heard back then is totally gone now. These days, Broadway musicals are miked up the wazoo. Everybody on stage is installed with their own personal wireless microphone, all going through a large mixing board at the back of the theater, and running into speakers that are supposed to reproduce the aural landscape of the stage, but rarely manage.

Today’s Broadway musical consists of amplified disembodied vocals and “orchestras” built around synthesizers. It’s like being inside a machine.

I don’t get it. If singers were capable of filling a Broadway theater with their naked voices just a few decades ago, why do they need microphones now? Has there been a progressive degeneration of vocal cords among actors and singers that’s been kept secret from the public? And if so, why are opera singers immune?

Last year I saw a production of West Side Story at New York University with minimal sets and an on-stage orchestra. It was great seeing students do this musical. They had loads of energy, and really felt the parts.

But they were also miked. I don’t know why. Maybe the people staging West Side Story figured that a young audience seeing it for the first time on stage would think that something was “broken” if the sounds came directly from the musicians and singers rather than through speakers.

I found this experience very depressing, particularly because students were involved. Are student singers at NYU Tisch School of the Arts being taught to sing for the microphone instead of the audience? Is being wired up now part of the education?

It’s gotten to the point where the tradition of unamplified Broadway musicals needs to be kept alive by opera companies, such as a recent production of A Most Happy Fella. Outside of New York City, regional opera companies often include a classic of the American musical theater in their seasons.

Broadway musicals may be miked, but plays are not. With some exceptions — Shakespeare in the Park, for example — Broadway and off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway plays are generally not miked at all (and if they are, it’s very subtle). This means we can hear the natural voice of F. Murray Abraham in Galileo at the Classic Stage Company, or the booming voice of Adrian Lester in Red Velvet as he recreated the thrilling experience of seeing the first black actor to play Othello on the London stage in the 1830s.

But even in New York City, those insidious microphones have been encroaching into plays.

Last weekend I saw Scott Z. Burns’ play The Library at the Public Theater, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Chloë Grace Moretz as the wounded survivor of a school shooting who dares to contradict the neat narrative that everyone else wants to impose on the events.

The Library may have been a different experience seen from the front rows, but from where I sat towards the back, all I heard were the disembodied voices of the actors coming through speakers mounted near the ceiling. It was vary jarring, and impossible to ignore.

This is not theater. Theater has a unique magic based largely on the human voice. There are moments in plays where voices get very quiet, and the audience gets quiet in response, or when a voice becomes very loud and it’s truly riveting. But the electronics flatten out the natural theatrical dynamics of the voice, and set it into some other aural space removed from the immediate experience of the audience. Why would someone want to deliberately blunt the impact of the play in this way?

Maybe The Library is a fluke. Maybe this is what we should expect when a play is written by a movie screenwriter, directed by a movie director, and performed by movie and TV actors. Maybe they’re not accustomed to being live. Maybe they can’t effectively communicate with an audience without being canned up and delivered electronically.

But it’s not a good sign. I am pretty sure that classical music is safe from the tendency to stick a microphone on everybody’s head, but Broadway musicals are already ruined, and I’m justifiably worried about the future of plays.

Perhaps there should be warnings in the advertisements: “Amplification used in this performance.”

Or maybe some brave producers will buck the trend:

“No amplification used in this performance.
All live.
All real.
All natural.
Direct from our mouths to your ears
through the glorious medium of air.”