Ways of hearing

Disney concert hall, Los Angeles

I am not an acoustic specialist and I have no technical knowledge of the subject. I do, however, possess a very sophisticated piece of equipment – a pair of ears – which tell me, even before my eyes have registered a space, how big it is (including parts behind or above me), what it is made of in terms of mass and texture and how open it is to its context. I have dedicated most of my life as an architect to the question of spaces for performance; I am also a musician.

Along the way I have confronted many self-declared sound specialists, and I have noticed that we, as a profession, tend to lend our ears to them, to capitulate to their superior knowledge, to such an extent that we have forgotten how to talk and think about sound for ourselves.

The aim of this article is to suggest a range of approaches towards recovering and opening our ears. The situation I am describing is not anodyne in its implications. Over the last 10 years, more than 1.5 billion euros have been spent on the Rolls-Royce of sound space, namely the circa 2,000-seat symphonic concert hall, and – in nearly every case – one hears the architects and clients talking of a search for perfection in acoustics as being the driving force of the design. I am immediately suspicious when this “perfection” starts to become orthodoxy. If one looks at the very similar halls (either built or being built) in Rome (Parco della musica, 2002), Los Angeles (Walt Disney Concert Hall 2003) , Copenhagen (Koncerthuset, 2009), Hamburg (Elbphilharmonie, opening planned for 2014) and Paris (Philharmonie de Paris, delivery planned for 2014), all by big-name architects, one could think that musical history has ended and the answer to all problems has been found, sitting on the edge of the former Berlin Wall, built shortly before it, to be precise. Hans Scharoun and Lothar Cremer’s Philharmonie represents a dangerously appealing cocktail of mould-breaking technical chutzpah and extremely bold spatial design; it is a seductive model for any contemporary architect. Added to this, it houses the greatest orchestra in the world, and therefore can’t help sounding good.

The Berlin club (as we may call it) is all the more elite for being (in the case of four of the five halls cited above) the work principally of one acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. All of the architects involved are distinctive and highly intelligent, but have chosen to wriggle within the same very tight straight-jacket. The club rules do not permit open debate and discussion: the vast amounts of money in play generate a kind of omerta; no-one dares speak openly – although musicians I know all have very precise and sharp off-the-record opinions. Spaces for sound generate silence rather than conversation and exchange; lessons are not expressed and therefore not learned.

Even among the priestly caste of professional acousticians there is no consensus: scratch the surface and you will find muttered dissent about the “vineyard” hall, which, despite its merits of openness, density and proximity for the audience, is often felt to favour a certain clarity of sound, resembling high definition, studio-style recording to which our ears have become culturally accustomed. It is worth stating that our ways of hearing (to recoin a phrase of John Berger) are
not stable, and have degraded from the warmth and richness of vinyl to the compressed, isolated experience of an MP3 on earplug speakers. The vineyard form is also – by its nature – rather quiet and unbalanced, with the audience set behind the orchestra hearing much less of the brass and hardly any of the piano (and lots of the percussion…). It is fine for dynamic, detailed sounds such as those of Stravinsky, but can be cold and impersonal for Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart.
We should remember that the latter two composed for “found space” auditoriums in palaces and for small theatres a fraction of the size of Berlin. The acoustics they generated would have been far more lush and enveloping than the dry halls advanced as exemplary today, and closer to another (currently unfashionable) paradigm, the incredibly rich and warm sound of the Vienna Musikverein.

I have spent a thrilling evening within reach of the double basses in Berlin, and a transcendent one in Los Angeles (Keith Jarrett solo, with an absolutely electric atmosphere, decidedly an outcome of the auditorium shape). I am not debunking the Berlin form, but suggesting that our failure to hear it correctly can be a costly one; musical history is immensely rich and varied, and we should expect to be able to hear it in a variety of halls, particularly smaller ones. This problem is extended when we consider that the symphonic form is not the only program offered here: these halls serve up to 30% of the time for amplified music (mostly middle-aged rock and jazz), which rarely sounds good (I have heard Roy Haynes’ cymbals echo around a famous hall, and Keith Jarrett’s trio unbalanced, whereas they sounded perfect and close in an open-air Roman theatre – apparently his favourite venue). Moreover, when artists move, express and engage with the audience, it is hard to do this through their backs, so plenty of people lose out in vineyard auditoriums (I hope very much that the costly metamorphoses proposed for Jean Nouvel and Brigitte Métra’s Paris hall will overcome this successfully).

The quest for perfection often entails missing the point in other ways. Jazz music has thrived – has written its history, in fact – in a collection of imperfect small-size venues, where background noise, poor ventilation and improbable levels of audience density might be thought to be antithetical, unconducive to good music. Open your ears to musicians and a different picture emerges: a great European pianist, showing me around the Rome hall prior to a concert, complained that it drained him of energy, feeling like an airport: “I play best”, he said, “when I am in a tiny club and the people are close enough to touch me, I can feel their breath.” A supreme American pianist once complained to me that a brand-new hall, while apparently having great acoustics, had an icy visual atmosphere which he could not equate with the sound; he felt off-kilter and played badly. Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York – the music’s grown-up, Sunday-best “proper” venue – feels like a tomb or museum rather than a dirty but fertile garden where sounds can grow. There is another fertility question engaged by the search for perfection: our multi-billion euro concert halls are full of people in their sixties, unable to reproduce into a younger audience. Who will be filling these vast halls in 20 years?

What can we do about this? I suggest we talk openly, and listen. I am a Senior Fellow of Richard Sennett’s Theatrum Mundi community, whose aim is to do exactly this, as heterogeneously as possible, and thereby change the paradigms inquiry is into sound; we create collisions between people who control traffic noise as well as composers, performers, political activists and architects. Two of our fellows – composer/producer Brian Eno and tenor Ian Bostridge – might never meet, other than to exchange pleasantries. With us they are engaging in dialogue about their respective – and, at times, surprisingly similar – sound universes, and they have contributed the thoughts included here, which can be a point of departure.

This article was originally published in Architecture D’Aujourd’hui.