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If Music Is the Architect . . .

Published: May 22, 2004

fter Charles Garnier designed the Paris Opera in the 1870's, he called acoustics a "bizarre science."

" o!here did " find a positi#e rule to guide $e," he !rote. "" $ust e%plain that " ha#e adopted no principle, that $& plan has been based on no theor&, and that " lea#e success or failure to chance alone." 'e co$pared the acoustician to an acrobat "!ho closes his e&es and clings to the ropes of an ascending balloon." (he science of acoustics has ta)en flight since then, but not !ithout $an& a deflated reputation and $isguided *ourne& along the !a&. O#er the last +0 &ears, $ore co$puting po!er has been applied to acoustic data than e#er before, but $ost big halls ha#e turned out to be dr& and pale fra$es for $usic. ,fter all, ,#er& -isher 'all had been planned as the apotheosis of the ne! science of acoustics. /eo /. 0erane), its first acoustic designer, !as an electrical engineer !ho studied signal processing and noise da$pening. 'e had sur#e&ed $ore than +0 concert halls throughout the !orld. onetheless, -isher 'all, then na$ed Philhar$onic 'all, opened in 1123 to !idespread unease. -ourteen &ears later, the inside !as destro&ed and replaced. 0ut the proble$s didn't end, and so, after decades of tin)ering, /incoln Center announced this !ee) that so$eti$e after 3001, the hall !ould be gutted again. 4o$e of those proble$s, of course, are particular to -isher 'all. ,gainst 5r. 0erane)'s ad#ice, for e%a$ple, the hall's original #olu$e and shape !ere altered to allo! $ore seating. (he acoustics in the latest #ersion are also not as bad as their reputation. for

instance, the hall's reno!ned glare beca$e far $ore $ello! once its resident orchestra, the e! 6or) Philhar$onic, shed the brash ner#iness it had culti#ated in the 1180's. 0ut -isher has also faced the proble$ of an& hall that is less than great7 it cannot co$pare to Carnegie 'all or to 4&$phon& 'all in 0oston or to the $a*or halls of 8ienna or ,$sterda$, !here e#er& great orchestra has pla&ed and the luc)iest listeners ha#e sat. halls !here sound can see$ to ha#e both substance and space, surrounding and, at ti$es, caressing the listener. ,s 5r. 0erane) hi$self !rote, "(he old halls that are still standing are a$ong the best that !ere built." (hat is !h& the& are still standing. (he $issteps in -isher 'all, ho!e#er, $a& also reflect a deeper confusion about the nature of concert halls and the role acoustics pla&s !ithin the$. (his is an artistic issue, not a scientific one. -or a great hall not onl& deter$ines ho! $usic is heard, but also helps deter$ine !hat $usic is !ritten. 'alls don't *ust present culture, the& shape it. ,s 5ichael -ors&th sho!s in his 118+ histor& of concert halls, "0uildings for 5usic. (he ,rchitect, the 5usician and the /istener fro$ the 17th Centur& to the Present 9a&" :5.".(. Press;, each st&le of $usic is associated !ith a st&le of space. Gregorian chant, !ith its $easured pace and contrapuntal si$plicit&, see$s inseparable fro$ re#erberant cathedrals and stone !alls. (he sa$e spaces !ould $uddle the har$onic transfor$ations and abrupt $oti#es of a 0eetho#en piano sonata. (he gestural elegance of $usic for the 0aro<ue court !ould be i$$ediatel& lost in an outdoor a$phitheater. 4o$e of the gracious, e%pansi#e char$ of 'andel's organ concertos $a& deri#e fro$ his a!areness that the& !ere being perfor$ed in the =otunda of the =anelagh Garden in /ondon, !here the listening public !ould pro$enade. 4o, too, !ith the concert hall. "t is no accident that its $ain repertor& re$ains $usic that !as specificall& !ritten to be pla&ed in such halls > s&$phonies, concertos, o#ertures > or that the $usic !ritten during the 11th centur&, !hen concert halls $o#ed to the center of $usical life, re$ained the $usic at the center of concert hall life. (he building is inseparable fro$ its origins and fro$ the $usic it inspired. Other $usics #isit the concert hall7 the& are not at ho$e in it.

(he building defines the nature of the listening public as !ell. ?hen a concert hall's acoustics fail to !elco$e listeners into a !orld of felt sound, !hen the& strip a!a& resonance and e$phasize distance and detail, the& see$ to alter the co$$unal function of the concert hall. (he& $a)e $usic see$ as if it !ere so$ething e%isting "out there," so$ething to be respectfull& and carefull& heard rather than so$ething inti$atel& and urgentl& shared.


0ut that is !hat tended to happen to concert hall sound during $uch of the 30th centur&, and that, too, reflected a changing aesthetic. (he $usic of 5odernis$ de$anded a )ind of sonic ruthlessness, a crispness and unforgi#ing clarit&. Often, it too) a pole$ical stance to!ard the $ainstrea$ audience as !ell. 'o! could this not affect the sonic character of halls@ (his de#elop$ent also coincided !ith the beginnings of acoustics as a science. (he first acoustical specialist e#er to !or) on a concert hall !as ?allace Cle$ent 4abine, a ph&sicist at 'ar#ard Ani#ersit&, !ho disco#ered i$portant la!s go#erning sonic re#erberation and applied the$ to the design of 4&$phon& 'all in 0oston. (hat hall, !hich opened in 1100, no! bears a pla<ue calling itself "the first auditoriu$ in the !orld to be built in )no!n confor$it& !ith acoustical la!s." 0ut 4&$phon& 'all !as the last great concert hall of the 11th centur& rather than the first of the 30th. "t !as unaffected b& 5odernis$. "t had a single dedicated function. to ser#e orchestral sound. 4abine !as tr&ing to disco#er the nature of acoustic success, not rein#ent it. ,fter!ard, as B$il& (ho$pson sho!s in "(he 4oundscape of 5odernit&. ,rchitectural ,coustics and the Culture of /istening in ,$erica, 1100C11DD" :5.".(. Press, 3003;, acoustics too) on a life of its o!n. (he ,coustical 4ociet& of ,$erica !as organized in 1131. "ncreasingl&, electrical tools !ere used not *ust in anal&zing sound but also in reproducing sound, both in the halls and the ho$e. (he sonic fra$e of reference shifted. (he grand $o#ie palaces of the earl& decades of the centur&, for e%a$ple, !ere $eant to in#o)e Buropean opera houses and had si$ilar acoustics. :4o$e e#en featured orchestras to acco$pan& silent fil$s.; 0ut b& the late 1130's, spea)ers and a$plification !ere essential for the ne! tal)ies. ?hen =adio Cit& 5usic 'all opened in 11D3, its acoustics presu$ed a$plification. ,s the concert hall beca$e $ore clinical, the theater beca$e $ore en#eloping. 5s. (ho$pson also argues that one of the $ain preoccupations of acousticians of the ti$e !as not the presentation of sound, but its pre#ention. sound control beca$e an industr&. (he abilit& to control sound, either through da$pening or a$plification, also affected the e#olution of concert halls. 9uring the 11D0's and E0's, 5s. (ho$pson points out, halls !ere often built !ith drastic da$pening in the auditoriu$ and increased re#erberation on the stage. the hall began to rese$ble a loudspea)er.

5r. 0erane) described the effect of the Fleinhans 5usic 'all, built in 11E0 in 0uffalo, as "rather li)e listening to a #er& fine -5 stereophonic reproducing s&ste$ in a carpeted li#ing roo$." (he halls of the late 30th centur& ha#e often been described as ha#ing a hiC fi sound. :"n the case of ,#er& -isher 'all, hiCfi !as e#en the source of its $ain donor's fortune;. "n addition, the function of the hall itself began to change. Carnegie 'all has al!a&s been host to a !ide #ariet& of $usic, but its standard for design and sound !as the orchestra. (he pre$ise of the lateC30thCcentur& hall !as that !hile it created a ho$e for an orchestra, it should be adaptable to all $usical st&les and functions. 4o it has beco$e custo$ar& to spea) of "tuning a hall." Philhar$onic 'all had ad*ustable panels7 so does ,#er& -isher. 5an& ne! halls go e#en further, !ith ad*ustable hollo!ed spaces and panels, #ariousl& called resonance cha$bers, clouds, canopies and closets. "n so$e cases :li)e that of the e! 6or) 4tate (heater !hen it is used b& the e! 6or) Cit& Opera;, there are e#en electronicall& controlled soundCshaping spea)ers. Gi#en ps&choacoustical research into sound perception, and gi#en the !a& ears are no! accusto$ed to artificiall& h&ped ho$e theaters and electronicall& processed sound, !ho )no!s !hat te$ptations lie ahead@ (his $eans that the hall is no longer a force that inspires particular st&les of $usic and for$s particular co$$unities. "t is instead $eant to gi#e !a& before their #aried de$ands. "t ser#es7 it does not shape. 4o the hall has less of a focus. "nstead of ser#ing one ideal !ell > the ideal e$bodied in a 11thCcentur& orchestral hall > it ser#es all ideals !ith co$pro$ise. "s it possible that this $a)es it $ore difficult to lo#e a ne! hall deepl&, let alone to lo#e deepl& its sound@ (his $a& be !h& so$e of the $ost affecting $usical spaces of the last decade ha#e not been the large halls, but the s$aller ones, built for specific purposes. Perhaps the ne%t ,#er& -isher 'all !ill brea) !ith this tradition, and ne! for$s of culture !ill e$erge. 0ut the ris) is that it !ill be so$ething of a h&brid. a thro!bac) to the 11th centur& in its presence and ostensible function, a representati#e of the 30th in its re<uire$ents for clarit& and de$otic #ariabilit&, and a harbinger of the 31st in that it !ill be so $alleable that it !ill hardl& $atter !hen it finall& gi#es !a& before &et another incarnation