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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

'Off-key, off-tempo': A former Milwaukee Symphony conductor battles the foghorns

Courtesy of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
In 1974, former Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn found the foghorns so distracting that he wrote a formal complaint to the Coast Guard about them.

Last season on Bubbler Talk, we learned about foghorns, and how Milwaukeeans like Mark Behar still hold nostalgia for them.

But not everyone loved them, including notable Milwaukeean Kenneth Schermerhorn. Schermerhorn was the conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1980, and is credited with taking the symphony to new heights, even earning honors from Finland for outstanding performance of Jean Sibelius’ works.

Living next to one of the foghorns, in 1974 Schermerhorn had grown weary of their drone. So much so that he issued a formal complaint to the U.S. Coast Guard about noise pollution from the foghorn. Describing himself as an expert on sound, he said that the horns sound too often, and lamented that they could be heard all across downtown and the East Side where his home and work were.

The Milwaukee Journal ran an article about the complaint, quoting Schermerhorn as saying that sounding the horns every 15 seconds is "a flagrant form of noise pollution," and that "it precludes a study or performance of music — and INHIBITS even — certain occupations, for example piano tuning, among others."

While Schermerhorn said he understood that the horns were necessary, but he wanted the Coast Guard to find a way to keep as much sound from making its way inland.

A Milwaukee Journal article from 1974 about Schermerhorn's complaint
Courtesy of NewsBank via City of Milwaukee
A Milwaukee Journal article from 1974 about Schermerhorn's complaint

After hearing our Bubbler Talk from last season about foghorns, WUWM listener Karl Nennig wrote to us about Schermerhorn’s complaint. Though he was more interested in rock and roll at the time than symphony performances, Nennig says Schmerhorn was a well-known figure in Milwaukee.

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“He was a bigshot in the city at the time, … he was brought in to take the symphony to new heights, and he was a bigshot at the time," Nennig remembers.

As the conductor himself mentioned, safety is a concern. The foghorns were used to warn ships of nearby land when visibility was low. But Dr. Peter Lenz, a professor and researcher of audio perception at UW-Milwaukee, explains that for someone trying to concentrate on studying music, the foghorn is a major distraction because it is fighting to occupy the same part of the brain as music.

“You’re using the musical part of the brain to process the music that you're writing, reading or conducting, and suddenly something else comes in and that tries to grab hold of that same part of the brain, that same area that handles music and musical perception," Lenz says.

Not only would the sound of a foghorn be competing against music to occupy Schermerhorn’s attention, but Lenz says just the expectation of future sound can have a similar effect on our concentration.

“Once you start getting kind of irritated about it and, he was obviously irritated about it, …when you start becoming irritated that can affect your ability to focus on something as well,” Lenz says.

So why did Schermerhorn resort to writing a letter to the Coast Guard rather than altering his home to combat the foghorns? Well as Jesse Spence, president of Noise Control Engineering, an acoustical consulting firm specializing in marine noise control, says it’s usually easier to alter sources of noise pollution at the source, rather than reconstruct a home to combat the sound.

“You may have to add a ridiculous amount of material to your wall to truly make a noticeable difference,” Spence says.

In the end, the Coast Guard seemed more concerned with safety than with noise pollution, as the foghorns would continue to be used until GPS technology made them expendable. Schermerhorn would end up leaving the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1980, eventually ending up in Nashville. He served as the interim conductor there in 1982 before taking over officially a year later until his death in 2005.

His ashes are buried in Nashville within the Schermerhorn Symphony Center garden, where he can listen forever to performances of the Symphony Orchestra he helped build, far away from the distraction of foghorns.

The audio piece features Joel Dresang as the voice actor.


Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
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