Audiences of the World, Arise!

You know why I hate bad concert halls? For the same reason I hate bad performances: They lie about music’s beauty. I always imagine the innocents who come to their first concert, hear a performance of some certified masterwork, and are left cold. Everyone applauds with apparent enthusiasm, and the innocents leave thinking that they are defective. They don’t bother again.

It’s them I’m thinking of. Music’s beauty is the sensuous bridge to its meaning. Damage the beauty and you’ve blown up the bridge. Sometimes the performers do it. But as a pianist myself, I know what it is to rehearse lovingly and have your work thrown away by bad acoustics.

Thrown away, and worse. Bad acoustics don’t just get in the way of a good performance. They actually make bad performances. I co-engineered a recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic a few years ago, and was struck by how much better they sounded in the studio. Hearing them for years in the Chandler Pavilion, I had thought them a fine professional orchestra kept from greatness by a rough-and-ready sound, intonation (“in- tuneness”) not the best, and indifferent ensemble playing. In the studio, I was startled by much more beautiful tone, perfect intonation, and beautiful ensemble. They sounded great!

I asked orchestra members why the big difference, and they gave two answers. One was the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf. The other? “In that barn downtown, we can’t hear ourselves.”

I spoke about concert halls a few years ago with a friend who is a famous chamber musician and plays everywhere. I said the only good hall I knew in Los Angeles was Dabney Lounge, the 200-seat room at Caltech, my home base. Had he played in any big halls he thought were good in Southern California? No. In the rest of California? No. West of the Rockies? No.

Can our halls really be bad when famous performers are always being quoted saying how great they are? Sure! I understood this when I started performing. You go to a town, you play the concert, and then they ask, “How do you like our hall?” It’s a social question, like “How do you like the onion dip?” “It’s a wonderful hall!” you say. “It has wonderful acoustics.” All halls have wonderful acoustics, just as every old clunker piano has “a wonderful tone.” The piano’s owner always quotes the tuner proudly about this. Those tuners are on a circuit too.

I remember one hall in Wisconsin. I walked in four hours before concert time and said, “What’s that noise?” “What noise?” they asked. I sang the pitch. “Oh, that! That’s the equipment.” It turned out that this new $5 million university complex had all of its physical plant in a room behind the stage, a room which shared the same wooden floor. Of course the flooring brought the vibration into the concert hall. In the Wisconsin winter, we had to turn off the heating fans to hear the music. When they asked my opinion of the hall, I did answer honestly, and I haven’t had to play there again.

That hall didn’t fail on subtleties. The subtleties of acoustics are well-known, but they are not why we have bad halls! America’s halls fail on obvious things:

   Low ceilings give you that hunkered-down feeling.

   Flopsy, mopsy and cottontail walls suck the best out of the bass and leave it flaccid.

   Proscenium stages put performers in what amounts to a separate room from the audience. Without careful or lucky design, the wings (and fly gallery, if present) will soak up sound and rob the music of acoustic and emotional energy.

   Fan noise, the avoidable and never avoided problem, drowns out whispered intimacies of the music and forces musicians to play too loudly, and thus with ugly tone, just to get adequate volume. I’ve played lots of duets for piano and vent fan, and the fan is always out of tune.

   Concave surfaces focus the sound as a concave mirror focuses light, creating echoes and dead spots. A circular hall is worst. The Los Angeles Times reported in December ’88 on the four design finalists in the architects’ competition for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which will be the new home of the L. A. Philharmonic. In all four, “the shape of the hall tends to be a variation of a circle. . . . A legion of computer-calculated baffles and reflectors is required to make a circular hall produce an unfuzzy sound.”

That legion is named All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men.

[2013: As designed by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and architect Frank Gehry, Disney Hall is not a variant of a circle, and its sound has been much praised.]

Why are we condemned to bad halls and thus inferior performances and sonic frustration? Why can’t we have the pleasure and satisfaction we need? What is to blame?

Not caring enough! That’s what. And who is to blame? Not the acoustical consultants, because they don’t have the final say. Usually they’re hired by the architects. When there’s a disagreement, guess who wins? Sometimes the acousticians aren’t even told what the real possibilities are for a hall. The architects monopolize contact with the client, present a set of drawings to the acousticians as a fait accompli, and ask for sonic massaging of a design which may be fundamentally bad. The acousticians could scream, but would the architects hire them again?

You can blame the architects, but their temperament and training make them care about sight, not sound. And who wouldn’t accept the contractual power when it’s offered?

The money people, that’s who is to blame. They should put our musical fate in the right hands, and see that those hands are not tied. Often it seems that their real interest is merely to have a hall that will look nice for visits with VIP friends.

Can you really blame them? After all, they’ve probably never heard a great hall either. They don’t know what they’re missing: the power, the delicacy, the sheer riveting beauty of music in a great hall like Symphony Hall in Boston, or Carnegie Hall in New York (at least as it used to be; I haven’t heard it since they “improved” it).

Acoustics is not the money people’s field; it’s not how they made their money. Can you blame them when in good faith they put themselves in the hands of professionals? You can’t blame them.

But I do. Why do they run these competitions for architects when they should be for acousticians?

Everyone has a hand in the pie: trustees, architect, acoustician. Who speaks for the audience? No one. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, and they are all protecting their own counter space, not thinking about the poor sap out at the table. Instead of sonic haute cuisine, the poor sap gets acoustic fast food, no nourishment for the ear or spirit.

Published in Harvard magazine, Nov.-Dec., 1990. Reprinted as “When The Absolute Sound Isn’t” in The Absolute Sound, issue 73, 9/10/91. Copyright © James Boyk 1989, 1990, 1997; all rights reserved.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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