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January 18, 2004 - European Union Directive 2003/10/EC

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And just what is European Union Directive 2003/10/EC? 


The purpose of the directive is to set out minimum health and safety rules, due to come into force in February 2006, to combat excessive noise at work.  This will set a maximum limit of eighty-five decibels in the workplace.  Deafness is the single most common occupational disease in the European Union.  Fine. 


I came across a discussion of some rather odd implications in an article by Martin Kettle in The Guardian (UK)


See A quiet revolution: Even Beethoven's Ninth could be at risk from Brussels bureaucrats
Martin Kettle,
The Guardian, Saturday January 17, 2004

Kettle points out that across Europe, the managements of every symphony orchestra and major concert venue are already grappling with what this directive may mean.  As Colin Paris, a double bass player and vice chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra, said: "The implications are huge."  Kettle says this directive has the potential to change the orchestral repertoire, as we know it, and to alter the nature of concerts as they have existed for over a century.


Orchestral musicians are, of course, workers too.  And concert halls are their workplaces.  The directive is explicit that the regulations will apply to the "music and entertainment sectors" just as much as to others doing noisy jobs, like airport workers and drillers.  The only latitude orchestral players have been given is that they may be allowed an extra two years to draw up a workable code of practice. 


Kettle points out:


On one level, the orchestras' response takes the form of mainly practical help to protect musicians from the noise they make.  A study by Alison Wright Reid for the Association of British Orchestras three years ago was unequivocal.  "Noise in orchestras is loud enough to cause hearing loss, pitch distortion, tinnitus and pain," it said.


In practice, much depends on where the musician plays and sits.  Violinists and double-bass players are not as close to the big decibels as brass and woodwind players. 


Well, this analysis of the situation called for all such musicians in symphony and pit orchestras to be required to wear ear muffs or earplugs on half of their working days, in order to protect their hearing.  No one is doing that.


But the London Symphony Orchestra now has a "noise team", which is working to ensure that the orchestra is more spread out on the platform to avoid ear damage.  Players who sit in front of the brass or the timpani - which mostly means the woodwinds and the viola section - are now regularly protected by Plexiglas screens from the noise behind them.  The London Symphony Orchestra has just taken its screens on tour to New York, a move that provoked the New York Times to write about "the shushing of the symphony," and to comment that "the noise police have arrived."


Man, this is a problem.


And Kettle raise the more intriguing issue - will the directive will impose changes in the repertoire itself?  The London Symphony Orchestra says that this is a real possibility.  Loud works like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler may have to be scheduled more rarely and surrounded by quieter pieces. 


Kettle says if you visit the European commission's website and you will find a section mocking the idea that Beethoven's Ninth symphony - the EU's anthem - might even fall foul of the noise at work directive.  But the idea is not so far-fetched.


And Beethoven was deaf when he wrote that.  The irony is delicious.