Audiences of the World, Arise!
by James Boyk
Harvard magazine, Nov.-Dec., 1990.
Reprinted as "When The Absolute Sound Isn't" in The Absolute Sound, issue 73, 9/10/91.
Copyright © jwb 1989, 1990, 1997.
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 I 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 some 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.