Decibels & Instruments & Mutes: the backstory

MUTED premiered on 7 – 8 – 9 June 2018 at the Oranjewoud Festival and goes on tour in fall 2018.
What’s in a decibel?
The specialists were unanimous: my ears are highly sensitive to sound. ‘Geluidsgevoelig,’ in Dutch. It sounded almost positive to me, ‘sensitive to sound.’ It’s also not uncommon. But a high sensitivity to sound means that my ears are more prone to damage. A person standing next to me could be exposed to exactly the same sounds, yet not be affected. The advice was clear: to protect my hearing by significantly reducing my exposure to high decibel (dB) levels.
Decibel levels and the key concept of duration: what is considered safe? How many dB for how long? Impossible questions to answer infallibly, but working with the Audiologisch Centrum Hilversum brought clarity to a complex situation. They measured the decibel levels of different violin mutes (a.k.a. sourdine, sordino, demper), giving estimates and advice about a multitude of issues. Many thanks to experts N.J. Versfeld and J.P. Kronemeijer, and Oorwerk’s Stijn Hoogeboom in Hilversum.
A runner hears: if they keep running at high speeds, chances are high that in future years they’re going to have serious knee pain. They might even need surgery. But if they slow down to a fast walk, chances are they could avoid that. So the runner chooses to protect their knees by going from running to a fast walk. In hearing terms, my ‘fast walk’ is about 80 decibels. My acoustic violin can measure 90-95 dB under my ear.
How I would move ahead and with what means were all unknowns.
Confronted with the fact that it would be reckless to continue exposing my ears to a high level of decibels, I had to make choices. I was lucky that I learned this sooner rather than later. I consoled myself with that knowledge while evaluating the decibel levels of treasured and prospective collaborations. I said farewell to click tracks, bass drums, and high-volume soundtracks. I sifted through pieces that were simply too loud for me now, many of them close to my heart, and started the process of finding them new homes, new interpreters.
There’s a passage from Igor Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music: ‘My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.’
Limits inspire creativity. MUTED opens doors for a new voice. Embrace the power in quietness, the strength in speaking softly.
—Monica Germino


pictured here: the frame violin, also known as a mute violin, ca. 1870. It has a beautiful, intimate, overtone-rich sound. Surprisingly little is known about these striking instruments. One resource is the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, whose collection houses what could be this frame violin’s sister…

Cue the new music community: resourceful, supportive and stubborn composers and colleagues who lifted me up and pulled me along this fascinating journey. Ups and downs and the unexpected began to feel like the status quo. Michael Gordon‘s response to what was drastic news to me —having to protect my hearing by stopping or adapting how I played the violin — was one of optimism and curiosity. I’ll never forget his words: “I’m going to write you a piece so soft, I don’t care if no one can hear it.” Michael, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe decided to join forces to create MUTED, “the quietest violin piece ever written.” The three later invited Louis Andriessen to join in the experiment, fulfilling a long-held wish to collaborate.

Watch musical excerpt by Louis Andriessen here (Podium Witteman, live television broadcast)

There is an enormously talented and resourceful pool of people involved, including stage and light designer Floriaan Ganzevoort, executive producer Neil Wallace & De Doelen, numerous mute creators, filmmakers, audiologists, producers, commissioners, as well as a swath of venues and festivals. The list* is long and heartwarming.
Special thanks to luthier Bas Maas and designer Marcel Wanders, who are creating an entirely new, lower-decibel instrument, a ‘whisperviolin,’ inspired by and loosely modeled on the 17th-century ‘pochette’ violin, but created to explore the world of quieter sounds. Besides unmatched creativity and unparalleled skill, both bring a sense of adventure and a palpable excitement to the process.

The collective composition, MUTED, premieres in June 2018. It features what Germino calls ‘whisperviolin’ (fluisterviool), and will explore the limits of audibility for solo violin and voice. While the label “quietest piece ever written for violin” certainly applies to parts of this 4-composer work, the contrast in audibility plays an essential role. Similar to how pupils expand and contract depending on how much light there is in a space, the variety of decibel levels play with sonic perception. The intensely quiet frame violin is featured alongside violins matched with mutes and voice. MUTED also includes a part for Germino’s singing voice, in settings of texts from Don Marquis’ 1930’s New York Post cult column ‘Archy and Mehitabel.’ The piece has been commissioned by a prestigious international consortium of presenters, is produced by De Doelen, Rotterdam, and receives its world première in June 2018 at the Netherlands’ Oranjewoud Festival as part of Leeuwarden’s 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe programme.
MUTED is conceived for small groups of listeners in intimate, magical spaces. MUTED may owe its origins to four composers paying tribute to the determination of a single musician, but it is also a reflection on silence, on the act of listening, an antidote to the noise and the ever-increasing clamor of today’s world.
MUTED has its roots in the reaction from composers to my high sensitivity to sound and having to cut down the amount of decibels pouring into my ears. I used to play pretty hard-hitting music, much of it newly commissioned. I took measures to protect my hearing, and left the world of orchestral playing many years ago, but I was probably one of the loudest violinists around. And as Mehitabel** would say, “I have no regrets!” But saying farewell to a repertoire close to my heart has its difficult moments, and tough choices abound.
It’s new territory for me, there’s an uncharted development process ahead, and a completely new sound world to figure out. My work has always been composer driven, and I am extremely grateful to and moved by the active role composers and colleagues are taking in this enforced, bewildering, and somehow increasingly exciting development in my creative path as a musician.

In the press:

Watch live TV broadcast of Podium Witteman here -the segment about MUTED starts at 6’55” (in Dutch). Music: 19’30”

De Volkskrant (NL) 

Excerpts translated from DutchRead complete article here (Dutch). -by Persis Bekkering, 6 June 2018
Violinist Monica Germino can play again, despite hearing problems, thanks to quiet pieces written especially for her                  

“The American-Dutch violinist Monica Germino, known for her electronically amplified performances of music by contemporary composers, is given the worst conceivable news three years ago: she has to stop making music or take drastic measures to protect her hearing.” …READ MORE

NRC Handelsblad (NL)
Excerpts translated from Dutch
Red Sofa celebrates 10 years, opens festival with Monica Germino’s quiet violin
Adventurous violinist Monica Germino enthusiastic about Red Sofa’s new music program in Rotterdam’s De Doelen                       
Read complete article here (in Dutch). -by Joep Stapel, 21 March, 2018

“…As the pop-up artist, Monica Germino will decide what she will actually play in the moment. It will certainly be soft, because a few years ago Germino was diagnosed as ‘sensitive to sound,’ which means that her ears are more prone to damage [from high decibel levels]. She had to say goodbye to the high-octane soundtracks and louder works for electric violin, giving up many pieces she had often performed.

She is now “more curious than sad,” says Germino. Playing quietly opens up a whole new dimension; and apart from a reflection on silence and listening it can also be “an antidote to the relentless noise of our world.” She has amassed a huge collection of mutes (sourdines) and plays a rare ‘frame violin’ from ca. 1870, an instrument without a sound box which therefore plays at a very low volume. Germino: “Neil [Wallace] wants me to play the frame violin in the Main Hall without any amplification; for me that’s a thrill, an adventure.” Wallace: “You will hear a pin drop.”

Spring Loaded Festival: 10 years of Red Sofa. De Doelen Rotterdam.

The mutes in MUTED 
Central to Monica Germino’s work is her unusual family of instruments, as well as her ever-expanding collection of mutes. Germino’s ongoing search has resulted in over 400 vintage, modern, and newly commissioned mutes. A mute (a.k.a. sourdine, sordino, demper) can alter the sound of the violin in countless ways. From Canada to Spain, mute-makers are experimenting with new designs and all kinds of materials – leather, metal, cork, magnets, plexiglass, bone, rubber, paper, textiles, the list goes on.

The instruments

  • A (muted) J. B. Ceruti violin from Cremona (1802) on permanent loan from the Elise Mathilde Foundation
  • Two rare frame violins, also known as mute violins, with a delicate, surprisingly overtone-rich sound (ca. 1870 and 1970)
  • A custom-made Violectra electric violin (2007)
  • The new whisperviolin (2018), by Bas Maas and Marcel Wanders
  • A ‘whisperbow,’ made of carbon fibre, produces a wispy, delicate sound

The whisperviolin (2018) (in progress) 
To add to the instrumentarium, luthier Bas Maas and designer Marcel Wanders are creating an entirely new, lower-decibel instrument, a ‘whisperviolin,’ inspired by and loosely modeled on the 17th-century ‘pochette’ violin. This instrument is being created to explore the world of quieter sounds. When Wanders took on this challenge, he spoke about decibels and sound and his fascination with “designing a violin for Monica, and how this could ultimately also help other violinists.” Marcel Wanders played the violin for 6 years and reveres its history, shape, and form. Bas Maas is on a quest for ways that unconventional ideas could possibly work. Besides unmatched creativity and unparalleled skill, both bring a sense of adventure and a palpable excitement to the process.

Marcel Wanders: “The hope also is that this new instrument will end up helping other violinists as well. Monica is not the only one going through this.”

I wholeheartedly agree. As interesting as this whole journey is, I hope going down this path can help other musicians. On that note…

Frequently Asked Questions:
“Why don’t you just use earplugs?” For those who do and can still enjoy music-making, that’s great. I tried this option for many months, but it felt like sensory deprivation. I rely on (and love) the subtle sounds associated with playing the violin. It’s essential for me to hear the tapping of my left hand on the fingerboard and the sound the hair of the bow makes when touching the string. Earplugs blocked those sounds out. This all contributed to my decision to bring down the volume of the violin instead of muffling my ears. That said, of course I fully support the use of hearing protectors.
“Do your ears hurt?” No. That said, certain loud or abrasive sounds hurt. Which brings me to…
“What is hyperacusis?” This is something I suffer from, albeit to a lesser degree than described in the majority of the cases I have read about online. I notice hyperacusis during activities like emptying a dishwasher- the sound of a plate striking another plate is an unpleasant, jarring sound for me. I hesitate to provide a comprehensive link to any one source, as there is a lot of information out there.
Other useful articles (please email me if you have tips or suggestions)
WNPR News: How Your Hearing Is Affected By Volume, and What the Damage Sounds Like
Are earphones or earbuds a problem? WBUR article
There is a flood of information, research, and articles about hearing protection and hearing disorders available online and in print. I have found that the majority focuses on musicians who play amplified, and orchestral musicians (too many cases for me to document here).

If you’re still with me:

MUTED premiered on 7 – 8 – 9 June 2018 at the Oranjewoud Festival, Museum Belvedere.

A collective work by 4 composers for violin, voice, whisperviolin, frame violins, a multitude of mutes, and light

Composers: Louis Andriessen, Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe

Stage design & lighting: Floriaan Ganzevoort

Watch broadcast of Podium Witteman here -the segment about MUTED starts at 6’55” (in Dutch). Music: 19’30”

Excerpt by Louis Andriessen here

**Text: excerpts from Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis

*Cast of credits, MUTED:

The Doelen, Rotterdam (Neil Wallace, Executive Producer)
Oranjewoud Festival, Oranjewoud
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, New York
Music on Main, Vancouver
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Partners and presenters
Wonderfeel Festival
Korzo, Den Haag
Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, Amsterdam
November Music, Den Bosch

With thanks to
Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Louis Andriessen
MassMoCA, Massachusetts, USA
Kenny Savelson, Bang on a Can All-Stars
Phillipa Thompson, Bang on a Can Summer Festival
Vera Kuiper, Dutch Consulate, New York
Neil Wallace, Programme Director, de Doelen
Bas Maas, luthier
Marcel Wanders, designer
Niek Versfeld and Jaap Peter Kronemeijer, Audiologisch Centrum Hilversum
Stijn Hoogeboom, Oorwerk, Hilversum
Jacqueline & Serge Stam, Stam Vioolbouw

photos Anne Reinke