Beware of creating museums of sound
A short while ago we were told by Universal Music ceo Max Hole that the problem with classical music in London is that it is performed in elitist state-of-the-art concert halls. Now we are being told by former Universal Music recording artist Simon Rattle that the problem with classical music in London is that there is no elitist state-of-the-art concert hall to perform in. If we overlook the irony it is good that sound is back on the agenda, but it is also important that the right agenda is pursued.
Unlike other blogs which have opportunistically jumped from the Max Hole to Simon Rattle bandwagon, On An Overgrown Path has been consistent in its position that nada brahma - sound is god. Back in 2008 the question was asked here Does the sound matter anymore? and there have been numerous posts discussing the importance of concert hall sound. But recently my position has shifted as I have recognised the irreversible and fundamental change in the way music - including classical music - is being consumed due to the hegemony of mobile listening via headphones. Last year several posts appeared On An Overgrown Path questioning the validity of the concept of 'concert hall sound' and these culminated in a post titled No one mixes for speakers these days. The arguments advanced in that post are very relevant to the concert hall sound bandwagon that is currently gathering momentum, so it is worth recapping on the key points.
Changes in listening habits fuelled by the rise of mobile technologies have dramatically changed the expectations of new and existing audiences, and it is an established fact that headphones are now the most popular way to listen to recorded music. The significant difference between headphones sound and concert hall sound may explain why classical music is struggling to connect with new young concertgoers. These shifting sonic explanations have received very little attention to date, whereas cosmetics such as dress codes have, which means the reassessment of sonic expectations is long overdue.
The true sound of an orchestra is the sound made by the instruments before any reverberation is added by the hall in which they are being played. Which means the 'true' sound is that heard in the acoustically dead space of an anechoic chamber, or in the open air. But sound totally devoid of reverberation is very unpleasant for both the audience and the players; which is why in the 18th century the concert hall as we know it today began to evolve. Today there are many fine concert halls; but they are tied to conventions established by the generation of iconic halls that were built in the last decades of the 19th century; these include the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna. These halls, together with more modern auditiria such as Snape Maltings, are quite rightly acclaimed for their acoustics. However, the acclaimed sound heard in them is not the true sound of an orchestra: it is the result of a subjective 'ideal reverberation time of around 1.8 seconds created artificially by acoustic experts using sound reflecting building materials. And that is the key point - human behaviour and acoustic technology have changed considerably since the late 19th century, yet the sonic conventions of the concert hall have remained unchanged since then.
Because today's concert halls are voiced by conventions dating back more than a century, there is a real danger they will become museums of sound that are irrelevant to the binaural sound world that is the norm outside. Let me emphasise that I am not suggesting stacks of PA speakers at chamber music recitals or heavily compressed mixes for classical recordings. What I am saying is that some important sonic conventions have become anachronisms and need questioning. State of the art digital sound processing and speaker technologies offer almost unlimited potential for a nuanced reshaping of the sound of live classical music and recordings to suit contemporary ears. To connect with Generation Y audiences classical music needs to be heard in a new breed of concert halls where the customisable sound is created by a combination of architects working with bricks and mortar and sound shapers working with digital technologies. Two composers who I admire enormously, Jonathan Harvey and John Luther Adams, have shown in different ways that sonic conventions can be questioned without throwing the artistic baby out with the bathwater.
It may be surprising to hear a vociferous advocate of 'serving the music' arguing for digitally voiced concert halls. But I argue for serving the music, not for serving a sonic convention that dates back more than a century. Simon Rattle is right to argue that London needs a new concert hall. But he is wrong to argue that the Philharmonie - seen above - should be moved across the Channel; because London and other cities need a new kind of concert hall that will serve the future as well as the past. We need informed debate about how concert halls can change and adapt to a new generation of audiences. What we don't need is everyone jumping on a bandwagon that will simply run out of steam when the Berlin Philharmonic leaves town.
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I haven’t tracked the debate, but I wonder if some of the participants are not really discussing the sound or music but merely the architecture. That’s where the elitism slur hits: elegant shrines to the concert-going experience designed to pamper the rich and priced to exclude music lovers not so well heeled. Architecture clearly impacts the sound and relies on a centuries-old model of live performance, but it loses its reason for existing when the setting itself overshadows the activity undertaken therein. (I’ve argued as much in your comments section regarding Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion, which sounds perfectly awful but has plenty of voicing and soundfield processing to no avail). In an era of elaborate (one might say Baroque) architectural fashion, simple seating in a roughly shoebox hall with proscenium is hopelessly passé. No architect would propose such an apparent abomination. Yet that sort of space is precisely the environment (or at least one example) in which orchestral music evolved.
Although one can argue that all things change and we must all therefore change with them, the traditional concert hall in which orchestras perform has been a reliquary for over a century already. The most significant reason is that the core repertory has not advanced much beyond the 1910s when Post-Romanticism was supplanted by Modernism. Why we continue to breathe life into 200-year-old Beethoven symphonies (or 400-year-old Elizabethan plays) is simple: people want to hear (or see) them. The music of John Cage, Bernard Rands, or György Ligeti? Not so much. It’s no surprise to me, then, that artistic failure -- especially on the part of composers, not performers -- has led to popular embrace of more contemporary artistic expressions (arguably cinema, television, videogames, etc.).
So while modern listeners may prefer the impression of sound emanating from inside the head (which it literally does with earbuds and nearly does with headphones, since they sit in or on the ear and close off ambient acoustic information) and in isolation from others, they are getting a wholly different experience that does not resemble concert-going and alters the sound of music fundamentally. Adapting to such expectations would undercut what remains of classical music performance. It would be the equivalent of downhill skiing in one’s driveway.
So it is not goodbye conventional concert hall sound, but hello to the opportunity to change and experiment with sound for different markets. But, that notwithstanding, don't let's get too hung-up at the thought of manipulating the sound of an orchestra. As the post points out, the sound is already artificially manipulated by the building materials that determine the reverberation time. In addition, many iconic venues such as the acclaimed Britten Studio at Snape have a tunable acoustic, albeit using movable panels not digital technology.
I was trained as a BBC Radio studio manager and have been fortunate enough to hear great orchestras in venues with superlative sound such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the revered Snape Maltings is my local hall. But I have been to many concerts and worked in the Theatre Royal Norwich which uses the 'Carmen' electro-acoustic sound enhancement system. This literally opened my ears to the possibilities offered by these new technologies, and has led me to question the view that digital sound shaping is a heresy. But I sense we are going to differ on this, which is no bad thing. But, please, let's avoid circular discussions. Below is a link to one of my posts about the 'Carmen' system.
But we will leave this debate here as it is entering the state of circular debate that holds little interest for anyone other than the participants.