The Pianist vs. the Leafblower: WAMU Reports

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Composer and pianist Haskell Small at his studio in Washington. You can hear him play, and hear what’s going on outside, in Matthew Schwartz’s WAMU report. (Photo Matthew Schwartz)

Last week the local NPR station, WAMU, ran an interesting report by Matthew Schwartz about the ongoing effort to outlaw leafblowers that use (noisy, hyper-polluting, obsolescent) two-stroke gasoline engines. The man you see above is the subject of the report. He is Haskell (Hal) Small, an internationally known composer and pianist who was behind the 1990s campaign to set legal limits on sound emissions from lawn equipment in D.C.

As described in previous reports collected in this Thread, that previous effort was a legislative success but a practical failure. In theory, it set a legal noise limit of 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet; in reality, the noise from lawn crews is routinely several orders of magnitude louder. (And, yes, I mean 10 to 100 times more.) It was when my wife Deb and I learned what he and others were doing that we decided to get involved, as mentioned here.

This radio report conveys the piquancy of Haskell Small’s situation. He is a fourth- generation Washingtonian who doesn’t want to move out of the city, as he tells Matthew Schwartz—but some of his best-known compositions are “studies in silence,” built around contrasts between loud and very quiet passages. The report conveys the result when one of his compositions runs into a local leaf blower — as you’ll hear for yourself.

The WAMU story includes some other arguments, pro and con, about the legislation that D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh has introduced to speed the inevitable transition away from two-stroke gas blowers. (Inevitable? Yes: capital cities of nations like Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia are already phasing out these engines as unacceptably polluting. Sooner or later America’s capital will catch up. Also, the government-mandated use of ethanol in fuel, which is crazy from a public-policy perspective, has the additional effect of being very hard on two-stroke engines and makes them increasingly impractical.)

The weakest “con” argument in the report, for what it’s worth, is the claim by some lawn companies that if they can’t use two-stroke gas engines, they’ll stop doing business in D.C. There are already companies here using cleaner, dramatically quieter electric equipment. I’m sure they’d be happy with more business; and while people debate whether Say’s Law is true (“supply creates its own demand”), almost everyone agrees that demand creates supply. But listen to the report and see what you think.


Meanwhile, as a prelude to our upcoming American Futures report on the Maker Movement, and as yet another illustration of the Atlantic’s commitment to serving our readers, here’s a constructive seasonal suggestion about leafblower use. It explains how you can turn yours into a “snowball machine gun”:

Thanks to reader D.S. for this tip.