Monday, April 21, 2008


Dance from New Zealand; A Big Problem with the House; Life becoming Louder

House Update, Wednesday morning:

The meeting this morning at Fire Headquarters lasted half an hour and was quite civilized.  Some very interesting facts came out, and it wasn't too difficult to get the inspectors to discuss where they finesse the system and why.

Issues on the town's side: they really didn't know what to make of a lot of my house; it's been at least five years since they had dealt with a unique, architect-style design.  Everything else they review is very standard, straight up "stick house" construction "like it's stamped out by a cookie cutter" the plans for which they can sail through very quickly (I drew a warm laugh by ad libbing that I've never done anything by cookie cutter in my life).  They do not have the time to examine each page of the construction drawings in detail or they'd approve no more than three houses a month and residential construction gets much looser scrutiny than commercial anyway.  

Yes, the plans should have been sent to the fire department for review, but no they weren't in this case.  So, the building inspector did in fact rule on fire egress, which is really fire department jurisdiction, by issuing the building permit.  But ultimately they held fast because the issue at hand is under the umbrella of state building code, not local regulations.

Issues on our side: even though there was a detail sheet devoted to this particular window, the reason why it was built outside the code, the solution M had come up with and how it had been approved elsewhere, he hadn't accompanied the plans with a letter pointing out the need for a variance along with the page number of the detail drawing within the hefty sheaf of drawings. Also, when the single step leading up to the window in the drawings was changed to the two steps seen in the photo below, the town was not given the required notice of any change in the approved design.  

In our favor, the scheme of the steps and high window sill had been explained to the framing inspector on site when he could look at the thing right there before him and he had given verbal approval.

It was now obvious that there were pros and cons on both sides and a simple solution proposed by the fire chief (who's been sympathetic to us from the very beginning) resolved the issue.  He asked how far the door of the bedroom was from the door to the outside.  Sixteen feet.  The state fire marshall would probably grant a variance on that distance IF there was no barrier between the bedroom and the exterior door.   Based on a hint the deputy fire chief had dropped for me last week, I asked if we were to give up the door on the bedroom, removing the barrier, would we need to go through the lengthy process of appeal to the state.  No, the fire chief could sign off on that right away, since both the bedroom and my studio would thereby become one big space with outside access.

The door and all its hardware have been removed, and stored elsewhere on the property.  The inspectors will return very soon and issue a Certificate of Occupancy, after which they will leave the house never to return.  And whatever might happen in that open doorway in the future . . . happens.


One of the joys of liking so many performing art forms and going to various theaters, concert halls and opera houses a lot (and I mean A LOT) is the fact that there’s much more of a chance to encounter truly memorable performers and companies. That happened to Fritz and me on Thursday night when we drove to Boston to see the Black Grace dance company from New Zealand.

What sounded good in the Celebrity Series brochure last year turned out to be a thrilling experience live in Boston University’s Tsai Center. Black Grace was founded twelve years ago by Neil Leremia to fuse traditional Maori music and dance with contemporary dance. Their music mixes the heavily rhythmic traditional chant of NewZealand and Samoa with rock and the work of an A hip hop artist. In addition to dancing, company members stamp, clap, chant and sing.

The company was originally all male. Women are now welcomed as guest dancers for particular works, but three quarters of the program last Thursday featured the six superb male dancers who are Black Grace’s core. We were especially taken by the work of Luke Hanna. While not breaking the tight, exuberant ensemble that marks the company’s work, Hanna still draws the eye particularly for the strong but elegant specificity of his movement, the extension that’s just a hair’s breadth fuller than that of his colleagues, and that intangible quality of joy in performing that telegraphs clearly to an audience.

A dozen years into its history, Black Grace is still Neil Leremia’s company. He choreographs all the “full length” dances and everything on he Boston program was his. He has a sure sense of rhythm and how it can be used to animate motifs in Maori art. He obviously understands and appreciates the male body, energy, and beauty. Some pieces were danced in simple unconstructed white shirts and pants, others in Polynesian sarongs, and one in the dancewear version of speedos. The guys looked great in anything.

Black Grace’s site has info on the short remainder of the current U.S. Tour. After Boston they play Norfolk, VA, Washington DC and they wind up in Toronto before heading home. Anyone who loves great dance or just great performing should get a ticket fast if they live anywhere near the cities remaining on the tour. There are also a number of performance clips on YouTube.

Check out this clip which begins with a charming short talk by Leremia followed by a complete performance of “Minoi” which shows off a variety of the guys’ talents:


I'm beginning to replenish the winter-depleted wood pile. I’m about half way through the day’s cutting and stacking.


Stone being applied to the concrete piers across the façade of the house on Saturday.


OK, let’s get this over with. I hoped I’d never have to write something like this but there is a major glitch with getting a Certificate of Occupancy for the house. It’s caused by a very murky situation in terms of responsibility among the building inspector, the fire inspector, the general contractor and M, the architect who made my concept drawings and floor plans into a buildable house. The worst case scenario, one that is a real possibility, is that part of an exterior wall and the adjoining roof on the second floor will have to be torn out and restructured.

Here’s the deal. I thought that we were more than covered in terms of fire exits by the fact that there’s an exit from my studio out the back of the house and across a bridge to the hillside. However, the guest bedroom that opens off my studio is required by law to have window egress because as a guest room it will have a door that guests can close. The code therefore kicks in, requiring a window whose sill is no higher than 44” above floor level.

Now, there is a window in the guest room, seen in the picture below, the double pane window (both panels crank out) to the right of the three windows (one clear glass, two glass block) of my studio:

Since the house is built to be as green and solar as possible, deep overhangs are required to shade all windows from the summer sun, and that requires a roof of proper pitch to start four feet away from the building. And where this roof joins the second floor exterior wall dictated a sill height of 55”, 11” over code height. However the architect planned a device, seen in the picture below, that he’d used in similar situations in other houses in the state, whereby a step or two would be built inside just below the window to allow anyone inside to get out in an emergency.

He did a preliminary drawing and consulted with the assistant building manager for the town who told him that this approach would satisfy the code. The steps and the high window sill went into the construction drawings, which were reviewed by the building and fire inspectors, given approval and a building permit was issued. Furthermore, as the building inspector came by at intervals, he was able to see the framing of the window and could have said anything about it at any time in the proceedings, but said nothing.

The situation that has developed is as follows: during the occupancy inspection, the fire inspector declared the high sill and steps unacceptable. When it was pointed out that the assistant building inspector had passed on this approach, the building inspector said that any such statement was irrelevant as only the fire department has any jurisdiction over fire egress issues, and the assistant is now having problems remembering any such conversation with M. The fire inspector and his department are maintaining silence about their apparently having approved the building drawings—“apparently” because there’s now some question as to whether they actually did review them as part of the building permit process.

A significant part of the mess we’re in is that every part of this is on a “he said, he said” basis. M never got the assistant building inspector’s approval in writing, although he rightfully points out that the construction drawings with the high sill and steps clearly explained were approved, and that the building inspector never stopped construction during any of his periodic visits to the house.

We had already learned that this town’s requirements are not the same as elsewhere in the state (thus M seeking out the inspector’s office in the first place), and that the building inspector is capable of digging in his heels on things and not budging. Therefore, M has arranged a 9AM meeting tomorrow at fire headquarters to sit down with building and fire and work out some compromise and/or get someone to admit responsibility for allowing the arrangement to be fully built and finished.

Of course, should they admit that the assistant spoke out of line or that fire hadn’t actually reviewed the plans, they might be making themselves liable, and we certainly have no hard evidence. The building permit is our one ace in the hole, but it’s the building inspector who holds the Occupancy Certificates and if he refuses to issue one, we have a derelict house—a very expensive derelict house--on our hands.

Rebuilding will have to involve bringing several different subcontractors back depending on their availability and I wouldn’t expect to be able to have a new inspection and move in before mid-May at the earliest.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, there’s another major issue to be thrashed out. Should the town officials not back down and grant a variance, the wall in the guest room have to be torn apart, the window lowered a foot and the roof cut into and reshaped to allow for it, along with all the interior refinishing necessary—who is to pay for it all? Among the four of them who had a hand in designing, building and passing on the high sill/step –up arrangement, somebody or other or a combination of them made a big mistake. The only one involved who made no mistake was me—and I’m not willing to have to pay very big bucks to rectify their blunder.


This issue in classical music has been coming for a long while: in the opera house it’s generally accepted that many conductors are just letting their increasingly virtuosic orchestras roar out at top volume and frequently lack consideration for their singers. Much though singers revere him for the way he works with them, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera is a frequent offender. And magnificent though Levine’s work is with the Boston Symphony, it's frequently astonishingly loud (Sir Colin Davis recently got equally great playing in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at considerably more realistic volume levels and never once covered any of his singers the way Levine routinely does).

This article is from Sunday’s New York Times arts section:

No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down

Published: April 20, 2008

LONDON — They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.

Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, “State of Siege,” by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.

So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

The cancellation is, so far, probably the most extreme consequence of the new law, which requires employers in Europe to limit workers’ exposure to potentially damaging noise and which took effect for the entertainment industry this month.

But across Europe, musicians are being asked to wear decibel-measuring devices and to sit behind see-through antinoise screens. Companies are altering their repertories. And conductors are reconsidering the definition of “fortissimo.”

Alan Garner, an oboist and English horn player who is the chairman of the players’ committee at the Royal Opera House, said that he and his colleagues had been told that they would have to wear earplugs during entire three-hour rehearsals and performances. “It’s like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold,” he said.

Already there are signs that the law is altering not only the relationship between classical musicians and their employers, but also between musicians and the works they produce.

“The noise regulations were written for factory workers or construction workers, where the noise comes from an external source, and to limit the exposure is relatively straightforward,” said Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras. “But the problem is that musicians create the noise themselves.”

Rock musicians have talked openly about loud music and ear protection for years. The issue is more delicate for classical musicians, who have been reluctant to accept that their profession can lead to hearing loss, even though studies have shown that to be the case. At the same time, complying with the law — which concerns musicians’, not audiences’, noise exposure — is complicated. In Britain, big orchestras now routinely measure the decibel levels of various areas to see which musicians are subject to the most noise, and when.

Orchestras are also installing noise-absorbing panels and placing antinoise screens at strat egic places, like in front of the brass section, to force the noise over the heads of other players. “You have to tilt them in such a way so that the noise doesn’t come back and hit the person straight in the face, because that can cause just as much damage,” said Philip Turbett, the orchestra manager for the English National Opera.

They are also trying to put more space between musicians, and rotating them in and out of the noisiest seats. At the Royal Opera House, the management has devised a computer program that calculates individual weekly noise exposure by cross-referencing such factors as the member’s schedule and the pieces being played.

Musicians are spacing out rehearsals and playing more softly when they can. As the Welsh National Opera prepared for the premiere of James MacMillan’s loud opera, “The Sacrifice,” last year, the brass and percussion sections were told to take it easy at times in rehearsal to protect the ears of themselves and their colleagues, said Peter Harrap, the orchestra and chorus director.

Conductors are also being asked to reconsider their habit of “going for a big loud orchestration,” said Chris Clark, the orchestra operations manager at the Royal Opera House. Composers, too, are being asked to keep the noise issue in mind. “Composers should bear in mind that they are dealing with people who are alive, and not machines,” said Mr. Nordwall of the Bavarian orchestra.

And companies are examining their repertories with the aim of interspersing loud pieces — Mahler’s symphonies, for instance — with quieter ones. They are also buying a lot of high-tech earplugs, which are molded to players’ ears and cost about $300 a pair. Many orchestras now ask their musicians to put the earplugs in during the loud parts of a performance.

But these remedies can bring problems. Some musicians in the brass and percussion sections resent being screened off from their colleagues, as if they were being ostracized. Musicians, even if they accept the need to use earplugs occasionally, tend to hate wearing them. Mr. Garner, the Royal Opera House oboist, said: “I’ve spent nearly 30 years in music and I know all about noise, and occasionally, if I’m not playing and there’s a loud bit next to me, I might shove my fingers in my ears for a few bars. But I have yet to find a musician who says they can wear earplugs and still play at the same level of quality.”

The modern noise-level-conscious orchestra is also dependent, of course, on the indulgence of the conductor. Arriving at an orchestra to find that decisions have been based solely on musicians’ noise exposure can be galling to the sort of conductor who likes to be in control, which is most of them.

Although Switzerland is outside the European Union, an extraordinary noise-related argument between the conductor and the Bern Symphony Orchestra disrupted the opening night of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” in March.

The piece called for 30 string players and 30 wind and percussion players, all crammed into a too-small pit. When the stage director complained in rehearsals that the music was too loud, the conductor didn’t order the orchestra to play more softly, but instead asked for a cover over the orchestral pit to contain the noise, said Marianne Käch, the orchestra’s executive director.

That meant the noise bounced back at the musicians, bringing the level to 120 decibels in the brass section, similar to the levels in front of a speaker in a rock concert. The musicians complained. The conductor held firm. But when the piece began, “the orchestra decided to play softer anyway in order to protect themselves,” Ms. Käch said. That made the conductor so angry that he walked off after 10 minutes or so, Ms. Käch said. Told that there had been “musical differences” between the conductor and the orchestra, the perplexed audience had to wait for the two sides to hash it out.

In the end, the orchestra agreed to return and finish the performance at the loud levels. For subsequent performances, a foam cover that absorbed instead of reflecting the sound was placed above the pit, and the conductor agreed to tone things down. “This is the problem you find in many places, that the conductors are conducting more and more loudly,” Ms. Käch said. “I know conductors who have hundreds of shades of fortissimo, but not many in the lower levels. Maybe the whole world is just becoming louder.”

why don't you rename the guest room -- call it a dressing room (leave a sofa bed in it later). Would they swallow that?
Oh, man. I'm sorry to hear about your troubles with the house. I hope you work something out.

I have a major issue with opera orchestras who play over the singers. When I want to hear the symphony, I go to the symphony. When I go to the opera, I want to hear the singers. I've had major portions of operas almost entirely drowned out, even when it was clear that the singer had a more than adequate instrument.

I was, though, at the Met this past Wednesday, and I could hear all of the singers just fine. Levine wasn't conducting, but the orchestra was terrific.
so sorry about the house. I hope this can be resolved. Ugh.

Glad you enjoyed Black Grace. We were there Friday night and thought it delightful.

Hang in there.
If they don't work out the house issues, it may be worthwhile to find an aggressive attorney to twist some arms. As sad as it is, government officials often become cooperative only when they are worried about legal action!
what a frustration; i would be fit to be tied.
but you will figure something out I am certain.
Why don't you get me the names and addresses of everyone involved. I'll be glad to kick some ass and take some names. Oh, wait, you already have the names so that will shorten my endeavor.
And whatever might happen in that open doorway in the future . . . happens.

Sounds like you're out of the woods with the various inspectors.

Dealing with town officials and departments is never easy (I know, it's part of my job) - everyone seems to exist in a vacuum and can't believe anything that anyone says to them without verifying it seventeen different ways!

I'm just glad it all worked out for you and you can get that COC out of the way and start moving in.
The house is looking absolutely beautiful.
Sorry to hear about all the trouble they are giving you about the house. However that being said... WOW that is one mighty fine house!!! So you have an anal bunch of clip-board people down there too! My boyfriend wanted to build a simple garage-workshop, the red tape he is having to go through now is at the point where he is about to give up.
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