The conductor's bane

Thursday 15 May 2008

They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra felt their ears ringing and heads throbbing. Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, State of Siege, by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable. So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the composition was dropped. "The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players," said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra's manager.

The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers' exposure to potentially damaging noise. It took effect for the entertainment industry in early April. But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through antinoise screens." There are signs that the law is altering the relationship between classical musicians and their works. "The rules were written for factory or construction workers, where the noise comes from an external source, and to limit the exposure is easy," said Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras. "But the problem with musicians is that they create the noise themselves."

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