Weapon of Mass Percussion

Being Heard in the Noise of the Social Void

The Noise around Us

There’s been a lot of noise recently from every direction in our culture. If you thought the noise on social media, the noise on TV, the noise on the internet in general, the noise in real life — if you thought all of that was deafening in 2016, then 2017 is going to blow out your metaphorical eardrums.

All this noise is the collective result of individual voices expressing concern, anger, fear, disagreement. And it’s great, in one sense, that we — for now — live in the kind of society where we can do that. On the downside, it’s hard to filter the noise and nearly impossible to get yourself heard or feel like your voice matters at all.

And part of the problem of the noise is that it’s intentional and has a purpose against you. It’s meant to nullify dissent and trigger apathy. It’s incredibly hard to know how to listen and contribute to meaningful social commentary when it seems like everyone has cranked it to 11 all the time.

Ode to Joy

That’s what was going through my mind when I walked into the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. I don’t go out and listen to live music much these days, and almost never have gone to see the symphony, but, I figured if one thing could instill some optimism in me about getting lost in the noise, it would be the ultimate uplifting piece of music, Beethoven’s Symphony №9, better known as “Ode to Joy.”

San Francisco Symphony Warming Up (Bass Drum Player and Chorus Not Included in Photo)

And it was there that I found a new perspective to deal with the noise. Not from the lyrics of the chorus in the last movement, which are largely religious and all in German. Not in the this-is-going-to-blow-you-away finale that’s seared into the brain of any person who’s ever heard a drop of classical music before. It was because of the guy playing the bass drum.

Let me back up: A symphonic performance is noise. Literally orchestrated noise. Dozens of instruments onstage play in coordination and counterpoint, channeling for an instant into the real world, the composer’s carefully crafted vision. So I’m sitting in the concert hall, all the musicians onstage. And I noticed, toward the back, a man sitting behind what can be safely described as a comically large drum. So large, that if he sat behind it, he would just disappear. So he sat next to it, a human companion for his giant percussion friend at rest. Turns out, it’s a bass drum.

The bass drum player sat there motionless (at least the top of his head, was still which is all I could see of him behind some other instruments) for the first three movements while all the other musicians played their bits. His stillness was accentuated by the controlled but passionate performance of the timpani player next to him, who specialized in short bursts of timpani activity with restrained flourish. It was giving me some low-level anxiety. Does the bass drum player really have to sit onstage through three movements if he’s not playing? What’s he thinking about during the first three movements? Running a shopping list through his head? Meditating? Quietly air-drumming along with the clearly more popular timpani player?

Finally, a bit into the fourth movement — where the really action of Beethoven’s 9th is — the bass drum player purposefully stood up, straightened his jacket, put on (or took off) what looked like earplugs — it can’t be easy sitting in between the cymbals and the timpani drums — walked over to the bass drum, raised his arm, and not very loudly or forcefully, hit the drum a few times. Just a few soft pats, really. He stopped and then slowly walked back to his seat and sat down.

What the hell was that? That was it? I thought once they unleashed the bass drum — it’s what I’d been waiting for — things would froth into a musical fury. No. Just a touch. A little taste. Alright, I saw where this was going.

It took awhile longer, but close to where the orchestra was building up to the this-is-for-real-the-finale, the bass drum player stood up, did his earplug thing, walked over to the drum, and got into it. Like before, it wasn’t massive pounding, an acoustical tirade. It was controlled, calm, thoughtful. It contributed just enough voice from this monster of an instrument to add to the mix so as not to overwhelm everyone else, and, in turn, got to be heard distinct, clear.

Looking at the bass drum, it is capable of audio terror, a booming weapon of mass percussion. It’s easy to forget that just because something goes to 11, you don’t have to take it there.

Back in Real Life

How doesn’t this compare to real life? For starters, you don’t have one of the greatest composers of all time writing your participation in social dialogue. So there is no score in front of you to read.

But there’s context. There’s the level of the room. There’s timing. There’s tone. There’s empathy. That’s your guide. If you have a heartbeat, you’re probably contributing at least a little to the mass of social noise out there. And if you’re beating your drum as hard as you can, you’re just shouting into the void. Instead, have a seat, listen, wait, know your cue, and when it’s time, walk over and play your part just enough for your message to be heard and not get lost in the noise.

The power of a weapon of mass percussion is not necessarily in its volume, but in its restraint, timing, and how it weaves into the fabric of the other instruments around it. And when it’s time to actually turn it up to 11, you’ll know.


I occasionally write things here on Medium. You can listen to my sometimes dark but generally funny and useful Ask a Lawyer podcast, Unwonk, here. You are also welcome to read my Ask a Lawyer column in Deadspin here . I’m on Twitter here and here but still don’t understand why.