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No. 2051:
Music to Fill the Room

Today, music fills a room. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's late and I'm just back from a fine evening of music in a large salon. The experience sent me home with the sudden, and very happy, realization that something lost is being found again. 

First, what is it that was lost? This sort of music was common for my parents and grandparents -- the piano in the parlor, small concerts among friends, music filling the room. I watched that activity die out after WW-II, as the wonderful new media of radio and hi-fi records appeared. 

But, for all good things we pay a price. As electronic amplification became omnipresent, the full-voiced singer ceased to be a part of popular music. The ballads that we listened to, and sang, in our parlors passed on to voices grown dependent upon microphones. People like Bing Crosby began as undistinguished full-voice singers; then went on to develop styles that had to be amplified. 

Down through the latter twentieth century, large churches and concert halls became the only places to hear room-filling sound. Then they too begin adding amplification. Our parlor pianos gathered dust as the electronic manipulation of instruments and voices became increasingly sophisticated. We created wholly new sounds -- sometimes very lovely ones -- and began to forget the real thing. 

But now the pendulum swings back. The old sound comes back on little cat feet. I increasingly find myself, once again, hearing full-voice singers and instrumental groups playing in rooms for which centuries of musical literature was written. (And for which new music is being written once again today.) 

We're regaining that visceral experience: An unaided human voice or acoustic instrument suffusing a small community of listeners in a small room. In 1858, an American physicist named Le Conte attended a candle-lit musical salon and he wrote about it in the Philosophical Magazine:

Soon after the music began, I observed that the flame exhibited pulsations ... exactly synchronous with the audible beats. This ... phenomenon was very striking, [especially] when the strong notes of the 'cello came in. It was exceedingly interesting ... how perfectly even the trills ... were reflected on the sheet of flame.

In a world without electronics, others went on to make use of this physical reaction of flame to the sound waves of music. They made it into means for analyzing the nature of sound itself. 

And, of course, that same immediacy and intensity acts upon us as surely as it acts upon flame. It can hardly be a surprise that the power and immediacy of unprocessed music is being rediscovered. 

Now, once more, chamber music finds its way back into chambers -- receptions, fund-raisers, observations of life's major transitions, sometimes just the pure pleasure of doing it. No longer do we see only an ignored quartet off in the corner of a noisy reception hall. Instead, we once more find players giving us a complete reason for entering a room of human proportion.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The three snippets of sound in the audio version of this episode are excerpted from the following sources:

Arthur Foote's Poems After Omar Khayyám, Amy Beach. Northeastern NR 223-CD.

J. S. Bach, Suite No. 2, Mstislav Rostropovich, EMI 5 553642 

The Adagio movement from Franz Schubert's Quartet in E-flat Major, Melos Quartet, Deutches Grammaphon, 419 879 2.


Salon Music