The Fifth Element #65

This month I am writing about the Loudness Wars! But first a DVD, They Came to Play. The quest, or the hero's journey, has been a major theme of literature for as long as there has been literature. From the epic of Gilgamesh to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Moby-Dick to The Lord of the Rings, the quest's plot trajectory has remained pretty much consistent: be confronted by a challenge; leave home; bond with a new friend; survive climactic showdown; discover true self.

That last one is the payoff. Great literature allows us to benefit vicariously from the hero's hard-won self-knowledge. But without question, the thrills and chills and the cliff-hanging moments are what have put the fannies in the theater seats, from ancient Athens to your local megaplex.

They Came to Play (DVD New Video Group 233241) is a 91-minute documentary film that follows a disparate bunch of pianists-manqués as they prepare for and journey to the 2007 International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, hosted in Fort Worth, Texas, by the Van Cliburn Foundation. Competitors must have reached the age of 35 and have a day job other than playing the piano (or be retired—some contestants were as old as 80). One competitor works as a dental assistant; there's a civil trial lawyer who is a cancer survivor, one is an Air Force Academy graduate and an executive for Lockheed Martin who last publicly performed while in the sixth grade; another is an AIDS patient on disability; and another is a former cocaine addict and the owner of a plate-glass shop. There are also a retired physicist, a jeweler, a retired tennis pro, and a couple of overachieving physicians. Had the group been any more diverse, it could have been a bomber crew in a WWII movie (footnote 1).

I suppose there are always a blessed few who take to making music as a duck does to water, and who serenely go from strength to strength, never encountering significant obstacles in conception or execution. But I'm sure they have always been a minority. For most of us—even for some of the household-name greats—the path is rocky, and the relationship to music, while not exactly love/hate, goes through its periods of love/despair. One is reminded of the scene in Hilary and Jackie, in which Jacqueline du Pré (played by Emily Watson) leaves her precious cello out in the snow.

A friend of violinist Arturo Delmoni's was engaged to play a piano concerto in New York City. I can't recall which concerto—it might have been the Schumann—but it was one that begins with a big, exposed chord. Arturo was in the audience as his friend banged out that first chord—with a wrong note in it. Later, Arturo and his friend went for a long walk. "Why do we do this?" the friend asked, and after a while answered his own question: Because doing it makes us slightly less miserable than not doing it.

So here is a beautifully photographed, very well-recorded (with what appear to be Schoeps microphones, so what's not to like?), deftly paced documentary about real people who, like the fictional Jay Gatsby, have seen the green light shining from the end of a distant dock and have decided to stretch out their arms and try one last time for happiness—or at least to be slightly less miserable. First-time director Alex Rotaru avoids most of the clichés that have sprouted in the newish genre of competition films. What is particularly worthwhile about his telling of this story is that he gives as much weight to the psychological hurdles the competitors face as to the technical challenges of playing the right notes fast (or slow) enough, and with meaningful expression. Especially painful to watch is a father's passive-aggressive "humor," which could only have undermined his son's self-confidence. The DVD includes as bonus material complete performances by all six finalists; Ken Iisaka's reading (from memory) of Alkan's Étude in G-sharp Minor, Op.39 No.8, clocks in at over 28 minutes. The film has a website with an excellent trailer. Check it out!

By definition, everyone in They Came to Play at one time walked to the end of the high-diving platform, looked down, and had that awful moment when they realized they couldn't or wouldn't dive. Whether it was from lack of talent or not enough practicing or lack of self-confidence or fear of failure or just bad luck, they stopped playing. Now they're back again before the keyboard, 20 or 30 years older, but are they any wiser? Or are they still blindfolded, hoping that their next flailing thwack will finally break the piñata of success?

This touching (I got misty at the end), bittersweet film is one to treasure and be inspired by, even if you have no special interest in the piano, or even in classical music. They Came to Play is carried along by the passionate commitment of the competitors, and by the universality of the human drama they enact: the quest for self-knowledge. A great gift for that pianist-manqué in your life. Highly recommended.

Dispatches from the Loudness Wars
To me, Loudness Wars sounds like some of the alluded-to but never-explained backstory to the first Star Wars trilogy. In reality, the phrase refers to a trend, which has grown in the past 20 years (criminy, has it been that long?), for popular music to sound louder than loud—and louder than all the other records—by compressing the loudness of the program material to the point that the difference between the loudest and quietest passages is minimized (footnote 2) Some releases have had most of their "natural" dynamic range removed (footnote 3) so that instead of a 30dB or so difference between softest and loudest, the difference is 8dB or even less (footnote 4).

I think there were two historical causes of the loudness wars of the last 20 years. First, with the exceptions of college stations and the few remaining independents, the mind-boggling consolidation of ownership of radio stations has just about ended the ability of disc jockeys to make their own programming decisions. Access to playlists came to be controlled by a comparatively small number of very powerful record promoters, who would put together compilation CDs of all the songs they were promoting in a given time period. Musicians would get copies of these discs, quickly take note of which tracks sounded louder than their own track, and tell their engineers that, next time, they wanted their track to be the loudest on the compilation.

Just about the best example I can think of, at least of music that I'm likely to listen to (I don't listen to Metallica, and a little Guns n' Roses goes a long way), is to compare two Donald Fagen tracks: from his 1982 solo masterpiece, The Nightfly, the extremely punchy "Maxine," which is thrilling rather than repellent (good work, Bob Ludwig!); and, from Steely Dan's (of whom Fagen is one-half) Everything Must Go (2003), "Slang of Ages," which sounds to me quite unnatural and fatiguing, with drum strokes that seem to jump out of a black space and hit me right in the face, and not in a good way.

Footnote 1: I have always thought that the cinematic cliché of the melting-pot (or salad-bowl) view of America as expressed in WWII movies is what Stanley Kubrick was spoofing when he gave the very young James Earl Jones his first film role, as a member of the bomber crew in Dr. Strangelove.—John Marks

Footnote 2: Stereophile has published a lot on the subject of the "Loudness Wars" in the past decade; see, for example, and the second half of I have even been touring dealers doing demonstrations of how over-compression damages the music the past two years and have been repeating the dems at Shows like the RMAF.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: Don't confuse dynamic compression with data compression, as is used to create MP3 files. They are different and are independent, but often are used together.—John Marks

Footnote 4: Of course, competitive loudness has been a factor as long as there has been audio reproduction. Record companies and radio stations have always wanted their recordings or broadcast signals to stand out from the rest, whether heard on a jukebox or on a transistor radio at the beach. But only comparatively recently, and only because of digital technology, has the balance tipped so that the end result is generally less listenable.—John Marks


mrhi-fi's picture

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who got emotionally moved by this movie. FYI it is available for streaming on Netflix, which is where I discovered it.

Esfir Ross deserves special attention. While she has a great story, I don't think you could spend five minutes with that lady without crying from laughter.

lorimiller's picture


I am the producer of that movie. Esfir and I thank you for your comment!

Lori Miller