Thursday, November 30, 2017

Technophobia has no place in the concert hall

Two different sources determine the signature sound of a concert hall. One is the direct sound coming from the performer to the listener; the character of this sound depends on the technique of the musician and the natural tone of their instrument. The second sound source is indirect sound which comes to the listener as reverberation. The unique characteristics of this reflected sound - reverberation time, frequency range and loudness - determine whether a hall is acoustically 'good' or 'bad'. Since the late-19th century the characteristics of this critical reflected sound have been controlled by the use of hard reflective surfaces. For instance, in the much-lauded Elbphilharmionie 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels line the auditorium's walls to manage the reflected sound.

Today classical music is struggling with the problem of concert halls that are deemed sonically unacceptable such as the Barbican in London. Much attention has been focussed on effectively rendering existing London halls redundant by building a new sonically superior hall at considerable cost. But puzzlingly little - in fact no - attention has been paid to the possibility of easing the problem of inferior acoustics using new technologies. Direct sound determines the essential characteristics of the music. Indirect sound determines the characteristics of the hall. Indirect sound is subordinate to direct sound, and is therefore less demanding in terms of frequency range, transient response etc. Which means that indirect sound is very amenable to sympathetic re-shaping by digital variable acoustics systems.

A variable acoustic system is totally different to amplification: amplification messes with the direct sound and a variable acoustics does not. Variable acoustics use digital technologies to control reverberation time, early reflections, and other key ingredients vital to the sonic clarity, warmth, and resonance of a concert hall. Example of variable acoustic systems are the CSTB's CARMEN® system which I have experienced in Norwich's Theatre Royal and which is deployed in the new Théâtres Les Quinconces-L'espal in Le Mans France seen above, and the Meyer Sound Constellation system. Writing of the latter system none other than Alex Ross explains that:
[With Constellation,] the Meyers have thus had a democratizing influence, allowing ensembles to obtain pleasing results in problematic spaces. They have helped to make classical music a more mobile, adaptable beast, one that is freer to roam the entire cultural landscape. A mirage of the Musikverein can arise almost anywhere, with a few swipes on a screen.
Classical music has mortgaged its birthright to streaming and other new technologies, and welcomes live Facebook concert relays with standing ovations. Yet it remains almost 100% close-minded to considering the nuanced use of digital technologies as an easement for acoustically compromised venues. I am not suggesting amplification of direct sound and I am not proposing the death of the traditional concert hall. But I am suggesting that digital technologies could provide a cost-effective way of enhancing acoustically mediocre venues, thereby expanding the reach of classical music. As an earlier post pointed out, classical music's big challenge is bridging the technology gap

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1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

As somebody who has experienced Meyer sound systems in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me add my endorsement. I tend to hate most amplification but this really is different.