Whether you sing or play an instrument, or just listen to music, there is another instrument we all have to cope with: the space in which we make and hear the music.
We tramp through them blithely, buy tickets, tee shirts, wine, and compact discs in them, and then experience concerts, recitals, church services. But every room has its own characteristics: practice room, living room, small hall, cathedral, large opera house, shoebox philharmonic hall, amphitheater, arena (just in case Springsteen, one of the Three Tenors, or Josh Groban is reading).
And these acoustic characteristics have everything to do with how we experience the music. Acoustics is often said to be more an art than a science, despite the huge technological advances that have been made recently. Even with every modern advantage, a new multi-million dollar concert hall “may” turn out to be a lemon. Air is set in vibrating motion by instruments and voices, it then travels to the ear, and is sent to the brain to be “decoded.” How that vibrating air bounces around on its journey to the ear is what makes the difference. Are there exclusively hard surfaces, absorbent materials, what about the differences between the empty hall and one filled with people?
Which buildings directly influenced the style of musical composition? One that springs immediately to mind is the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. With its balconies at the four points of the compass, the Gabrieli dynasty of composers had the idea of placing brass choirs in each of them, so that they could “call and respond” to each other antiphonally, an effect that we find pleasing and stimulating, and that is often imitated in “non”-balcony orchestra music.
How about the great Gothic cathedrals and the evolution of Gregorian chant and organum? (Organum: the parallel motion singing of the 11th and 12th centuries, “invented” in Paris.) With the huge reverberation times of these spaces, music that moved too “quickly” or in complex development would become a blur. Was the “timeless” suspended quality we like about chant today simply a response to conditions? Nothing is ever that simple, of course, and some of it is undoubtedly a metaphor for mysticism, the “unknowability” of spiritual matters. A strongly marked beat would tie the music too closely to the “common” world. The buildings and the music were both conceived to reflect “cosmic” proportions.
Bach’s organ music, while always recognizable as Bach, is written differently than his “private” music for clavecin. The organs were found in, again, highly resonant churches, and so their polyphony moves differently, with more repeated notes, and often slower harmonic changes that won’t create that “blur.”
The old Paris Opera (Salle Garnier, 1875) was built for social display, with ultra-grand staircases, boxes, and a lighted theater during the performance, so you could check out who was wearing what jewels or making out with what duke that wasn’t their husband, etc.
Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus (1876), however, was designed for the “pure” experience of the music, according to his ideas of needed theatrical reform, with its bare-bones (uncomfortable) seating, darkened theater, and covered orchestra pit that gives a blended mellow tone to what most of us think of as the “strident” Wagner orchestra.
Lepizig’s second Gewandhaus (“cloth merchant hall” 1884) influenced the Symphony Hall in Boston. The famous Sydney Opera House in Australia (1960s) was a financial disaster in the construction, and didn’t even include facilities for opera, despite its being known by that name. How about Paris’ IRCAM (1978), the brainchild of Pierre Boulez, an underground part of the Centre Pompidou? Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (1888) is a legendary reverberant space. The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center in New York (1966) is an uneven acoustic experience, depending on the seat. Avery Fisher Hall (also Lincoln Center, 1962) is generally acknowledged to be an “enemy” acoustic, despite its multiple renovations. Carnegie Hall (NYC, 1891) is legendary, though the installation of concrete under the stage in the 1990s alarmed purists, and to my ears, changed something aurally.
Many of the perceptions of sound are calculated from the audience perspective, naturally, since they are “paying the bills,” but the players themselves need to hear each other, and this gives rise to different opinions of halls based on whether you are making the music or receiving it. Public concerts themselves began in public houses (bars and coffee houses) in London and the like, in rooms not designed for music at all, with orchestras of smallish size and chamber-music-like transparency. So, when you hear a symphony by Haydn or Mozart in a big concert hall, but played by a “period” group, you aren’t getting a fair experience of the texture or volume.
To sum up: there is no “one” sound or solution. As Verizon says: “Can you hear me now?”
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Mary Kier says
I enjoyed this blog. Especially the idea that Gregorian chant probably developed do to the huge spaces and reverberation, out of necessity. Also acoustics is often overlooked by the casual concert goer. Very informative and insightful!
Thank you Mary for your devoted reading!