Blog > On Loudness

While attending, a few nights ago, a concert by WPO (the West Philadelphia Orchestra) – a loud brass band known in Philly for its dedication to Balkan music – I was reminded of an expression that I encountered on numerous occasions in Russian literature, especially in books written in the late 19th and the early 20th century.

WPO playing at Tritone, Philadelphia, December 2010

The expression goes like this: “to sound like a Romanian orchestra,” as for instance in this quotation:

It was Mandelshtam who reproached one of the most stentorian perpetrators with, “Mayakovsky, stop reading your verse. You sound like a Romanian orchestra.” (John Ivan Simon, Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry, [University of California, 2001], p. 164).

Although from this particular quote it is not very clear what a Romanian orchestra sounds like, it seems to refer to something which is very loud, as sometimes one may also encounter a slightly modified version: “loud as a Romanian orchestra.” To the Russian ear a Romanian orchestra, especially if it happens to be playing brass instruments, may be indeed very loud; it is incomparable in this respect to a balalaika ensemble. Until relatively recently, when the Japanese began to make cheap amplifiers that afforded the Russian musicians the opportunity to carry the bubble-like sound of their balalaikas through a pair or two of Yamaha speakers, one might have indeed had trouble hearing this three-stringed musical utensil. Unlike the balalaika, a trumpet, a tuba or even more a whole brass orchestra – which have traditionally been played throughout the Balkan hills and mountains – do not need amplitude-increasing sound devices: they are both amplifiers and speakers. What is most of all needed in a brass orchestra is a dozen or two strong lungs ready to blow the hot air out of horns, and a pair or two of steady hands capable of beating a tight rhythm on a stretched pigskin. All of this produces loudness.

There are similar expressions in English, like “loud as an orchestra” or “loud as a fanfare,” although with no reference to any particular country – a sign of good manners and culture. Among the cultured – and this is the image that in its day the Russian Empire projected in the Orthodox Christian Balkans, which may also explain the origins of the expression about the Romanian musicians – to be loud was no good, no good at all. In former days (and to some degree even today) loudness was considered, among the cultured, too savage and barbarian. To be loud meant to be incapable of controlling one’s animal nature, incapable of mastering uncontrolled instinctual, corporeal, or sensual energy. As far as the senses were concerned, for centuries Western philosophers and aesthetes – from Baumgarten to Hume and Kant – considered sensuousness (Sinnlichkeit) “low” compared to the “high” faculties of understanding or cognition. Later however, many made attempts to bring the dictatorship of reason to justice, accusing this “high” faculty of demanding too high a price for culture, progress and civilization. From Schiller to Freud and Marcuse the power of reason was accused of repressing the sensory faculties, of infringing on the domain of the appetitive functions, of oppressing instinctual and libidinal energies and drives.

We know some of the emancipatory results: think of contemporary psychotherapies in which civilized patients scream in group sessions, at home in their showers, or if the means permit in sound-proofed facilities in order to scare away the Devil of culture – neurosis.

Loudness was gradually emancipated. Indeed, in the twentieth century the attitude towards loudness and the senses in general began to change. This happened gradually thanks to artists, critics and psychoanalysts. Noisy poets and artists, like the earlier mentioned Mayakovsky and other early twentieth century avant-gardists, often sought inspiration among the uncultured. From the margins of their culture-projecting empires they brought home many exotic things, including loudness. They began to deafen their bourgeois who had grown used to the stilted sounds of their chamber music with strident Futuristic onomatopoeias, with cacophonous Dadaistic recitals, or with noisy Surrealistic non-sense; they were all committed to some degree to the liberation of the senses, of the unconscious, of the repressed drives and instincts. On a broader scale, from the inner and outer margins of culture loudness in various forms and scales (drums, blues, jazz) was brought to the center. Loudness made its way into popular music, leading to all sorts of loud styles. In the meantime reason – which had never relinquished its dominant role with regard to the senses –produced Yamaha amplifiers and speakers that permitted decibels to rise to deafening proportions: it was reason’s revenge.

The Balkan music phenomenon is also part of the liberation of loudness. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many noisy village orchestras from South Eastern Europe were finally “discovered” by ethnographers and later by music producers. Having been for a couple of years flown rapidly around to various cultural venues – the trend has come to occupy a distinct place in the rich list of contemporary musical styles, leaving a profound mark on many of them. The WPO is one example. The band plays exclusively Balkan music, mixing it sometimes with elements of jazz. They are very loud, and at moments they sound just like a Romanian orchestra from the village of Sapte Prajini.

Octavian Esanu, December, 2010