Sound reasoning?

Times Staff Writer

“I am devoted to the microphone,” composer Steve Reich once said in an interview. “I am absolutely in love with the microphone. I intend to work with it until the day I’m dead, and anybody who doesn’t like it can go to hell!”

That’s an extreme attitude in the classical music world, where sound is supposed to be untouched by electronics and the A-word dare not be uttered.

So let’s not talk of amplification -- polite concert hall coinage is “sound enhancement” or “sound reinforcement.” But love or hate the microphone and loudspeaker, they are increasingly employed to compensate for acoustically troubled venues. And a new generation of composers and performers is attracted to the possibilities of electronically enhancing orchestral instruments and voices.


John Adams is one such composer. When his opera “El Nino” is performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson will have a body mike hidden in her hair, as will soprano Dawn Upshaw. Baritone Willard White doesn’t have enough hair, so his gets wrapped around his ear. The chorus also will be “enhanced.” And some 35 microphones will dot the orchestra in the pit.

In fact, the only performer -- other than conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen -- who won’t be amplified is Mark Grey, the man responsible for all this technology. Grey is a composer as well as a sound engineer, and what he is up to has far-reaching implications for the direction that classical music will take this century. Adams, the Kronos Quartet and the venturesome Theatre du Chatelet in Paris have thrown in their lots with Grey, as has music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, which must provide technical assistance along with software to orchestras that want to perform music by its increasingly plugged-in composers.

“Ears are changing with digital technology,” Grey says, explaining the inevitability of sound enhancement in classical music. “Having compact discs, being able to hear very clearly what’s happening in an orchestral piece, that is affecting the way audiences approach concert music and opera. When they go to live performances, they bring those ears with them. It creates a new challenge for us.”

Visiting him in the downstairs studio of his house, perched on one of the lower hills in south Oakland, Grey demonstrates an easy command of engineer-speak, but his studio setup is surprisingly modest: a Mac laptop, large loudspeakers, beat-up upright piano, well-worn electronic keyboard. His most important piece of equipment, he says, is his ear.

Grey is tall, sports a long ponytail and has a booming baritone voice. He is warmly enthusiastic, the kind of person whose response to any problem is “no problem.” When he evaluates a hall for the first time, he bounds on stage and makes an immediate assessment of the space from the sound of his own speaking voice. He’ll clap a few times to hear the reflection.

“Sound reinforcement,” Grey explains, “is not a total science. Sound is always changing with humidity or whether people come in with their coats. It all comes down to really listening to the hall. I listen as we’re physically connecting the sound system. I listen to people jabbering on stage, all the while getting a sense of where there are strength points and where there are weaknesses. I will then equalize the speakers to reflect the shape my ear is hearing in the room.”


One of Grey’s ambitions is to maintain sonic consistency no matter the venue. He often tours with the Kronos Quartet, and it is his job to achieve the trademark Kronos sound whether the string quartet plays in a Canary Islands cave, a smoky Oslo jazz club or Carnegie Hall.

“Even some of the greatest concert halls in the world have their flaws,” Grey maintains. “It could be that the winds are completely buried in the mix. There are any number of acoustic phenomena that happen in concert halls or opera houses.

“But I always let the room do its work with the acoustic performers, and let the speakers fill in the gaps. It’s more like bringing out the subtle colors that the hall sucks into its vaporous areas, or into the seats or people’s bodies. If I can push the weaknesses out using the speaker, it feels very natural, not like there is a speaker blasting.”

Making sound come to life

Blasting is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from amplified music. Rock, pop and even jazz thrive at sound levels approaching the threshold of pain. On Broadway, the attitude is that loud is good, deafening is better. Crude sound engineering artificially heightens “intelligibility” by boosting high frequencies to an earsplitting sizzle and relies on a thumping bass to create visceral excitement.

Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater, home of New York City Opera, is one of several opera houses around the world that have recently installed a sound enhancement system, with hundreds of tiny loudspeakers all over the hall. The goal is not to turn up the volume but to help a dead hall come to life, to give operatic voices clarity and presence. But many listeners hear telltale loudspeaker “coloration” in the hall, and they don’t like it.

It’s fair to ask what benefit even the most natural amplification provides a singer with the command of a Hunt Lieberson, to say nothing of the potentially awesome power of a symphony orchestra. Hunt Lieberson comes to L.A. fresh from her triumph in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at the Metropolitan Opera, where she made a 4,000-seat house feel intimate. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion may have its share of dead spots, but hearing Salonen and the Philharmonic overcome them is what gives unamplified music its incomparable immediacy.


Grey agrees that amplification, even at its best, isn’t appropriate for every circumstance -- he’d leave Beethoven alone in a good hall, for example, and the same goes for Hunt Lieberson in Berlioz at the Met.

“When Lorraine opens her mouth,” he admits, “everybody is intimatized in that sound.”

“El Nino,” however, was written with amplification in mind. “So when the orchestra gets absolutely huge around her,” he says, “that’s where I’ll shape both her and the players to maintain that balance of energy.”

With Peter Sellars directing “El Nino,” Grey’s work is all the more necessary.

“Peter asks the singers to sing in nontraditional positions,” Grey explains. “Lorraine might be lying on her back, singing up to the ceiling, where she’s not projecting to the audience. So I will have to bring in a little something. When the singers don’t need it, I will pull the sound back. Almost off. But when the singers are in difficult situations, I can help a little bit.”

Adams’ collaboration with Grey has allowed him to make sound design part of his compositional process. He can specify a countertenor for instance -- there are three in “El Nino” -- against a full orchestra; without amplification such a fragile voice would be buried. Or he can employ the thick, rhythmically thudding sound that he likes and still achieve a delicate inner line in the violas.

Throughout his career Adams has toyed with electronics, writing pure electronic music or including synthesizers and sampling keyboards in his orchestral works. He has amplified all his theatrical works, and among the controversies surrounding the 1987 Houston premiere of his first opera, “Nixon in China,” was a coarse sound system. Adams, as unhappy with the results as everyone else, says he considered the technology to be at the Wright Brothers stage of development.

Grey and Adams met in 1990 at CalArts, where Grey was teaching a workshop in electronic music and Adams was giving a master class. “John saw this huge room filled with technology,” Grey recalls, “and he said, ‘Hey, do you want a job? I have a big mess at home.’ He wanted to move into new areas of technology and needed help. We just basically hit it off.”


The first new piece that Grey and Adams worked on together was the 1995 musical revue “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.”

“Each piece is different,” Adams says over the phone from his Berkeley studio, “and we talk about what degree of sound design will be used, not just for the voices but also for the orchestra.” Describing the discussions as being as much philosophical and aesthetic as technical, Adams says that in the heat of developing a new work, “we meet several times a week.”

Adams and Grey continually push the envelope of technology. Last September at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic premiered Adams’ most sonically adventurous piece, “The Transmigration of Souls,” a memorial for the victims of Sept. 11. Adams wanted to transform Avery Fisher Hall -- with its notoriously bad sound -- into the acoustical equivalent of a cathedral, to evoke a great contemplative space.

“ ‘Transmigration’ had my fingers all over it,” says Grey. Adams included city sounds recorded around ground zero with the orchestra and chorus. Grey surrounded the audience with speakers and used a computer program to vary the amount of reverberation in the chorus and orchestra as the music changed harmonically. There was a sonic halo or glow to the orchestral sound, which seemed to come from all over the hall at once.

Jeremy Geffen, the New York Philharmonic’s artistic administrator, says that the results were so beautiful and subtle that many of the musicians didn’t even know they were being amplified. “Mark Grey is an absolute genius,” he enthuses, “who can take someone else’s vision and even exceed that artist’s expectations.”

But Adams, pleased as he was with the effect, contends he was hoping for even more. The system couldn’t handle the chorus size and had to be pulled back to avoid distortion.


One of the performers

GREY insists he can do what he does because of his musical training.

Raised in Palo Alto, Grey, 36, studied composition and electronic music at San Jose State University. After getting a master’s degree, he spent several years compiling the annual technical buyers’ guides for Keyboard magazine, where, bombarded with technical information, he became expert in electronic sound equipment.

His own musical style, he says, was strongly influenced by Adams. In his work “Blood Red,” written for former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and included on her recent CD “Metamorphosis,” a graceful, willowy cello line morphs in and out of elegiac computer sounds before the piece erupts in an infectious rhythmic dance. Grey has written works for the California EAR Unit, for Kronos (one was included on their “Visual Music” program at UCLA last month) and for the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which premiered a new Grey work, “Kemi,” in San Francisco at the end of February.

Being a composer gives Grey insights into what other composers want from sound enhancement. As he points out, the reason you don’t see a lot of sound engineers hunkered over soundboards at classical music concerts is that there aren’t enough of them with that sort of background. The majority come out of electronics or pop music, and a discriminating, accurate sound picture is not part of their sonic vocabulary.

“They don’t necessarily know what an orchestra should sound like,” Grey says, “so the balances are all over the place, the quality of the strings is just completely unpleasant, sharp and brittle.”Still, when he’s at the soundboard, he’s more like a player than a composer. Grey continually adjusts the volume controls for the singers and the orchestra. He owns the body mikes he uses to wire the singers, and he rents whatever other equipment is needed, depending on what each venue has available. He uses his Mac to track the singers’ movement, wielding the computer mouse to localize their voices in the sound design, overcoming the disembodied sound that’s a regular complaint in theater amplification systems.

“During a performance, I will be constantly moving, constantly working with the music, and constantly changing my approach and the selectiveness of what I’m doing,” he says.

Union rules, which don’t permit outsiders to touch equipment in a theater where there is a union sound engineer, can sometimes get in the way. Grey says he respects those rules and usually finds his counterparts cooperative. “I call out cues and cues and cues to the house sound engineers. After a few minutes,” he adds with a laugh, “they realize this is too much and say, ‘You do it.’ ”


The invisible man

WHENEVER Grey plugs in, the measure of his success is just how invisible his work is. Last year, when the San Francisco Symphony performed the American premiere of “El Nino” in its home, Louise M. Davies Hall, some reviewers mentioned how good the singers sounded -- Hunt Lieberson was making a comeback after a long illness -- without any reference to mikes or speakers or amplification.

Of course, it also depends on the ear’s expectations. Adams invited performance artist Laurie Anderson to “Transmigration of Souls” in New York, and she brought along Lou Reed, whose frame of reference is more rocker blast rather than natural string-instrument nuance.

“They sat next to me in the sound booth,” Adams recalls, “and Lou’s response was, ‘If you ask me, it’s a waste of good equipment. I couldn’t hear a thing.’ ”

Clearly, Grey is doing something right.


‘El Nino’

Who: Los Angeles Philharmonic

When: Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

Price: $14-$82

Contact: (323) 850-2000


Mark Swed is The Times’ music critic.