Is this the concert hall of the future?

In recent years classical music has been involved in an increasingly frantic hunt for a big, new and younger audience. But there is a cogent argument that classical music cannot have its big new audience cake while continuing to eat the dogma of concert halls controlled by 19th century sonic conventions.

Any concert hall, whether acoustically 'good' or 'bad', modifies the 'true' sound of an orchestra to a considerable extent. An acoustically 'perfect' traditional hall such as the new Elbphilharmonie modifies the sound passively with reflective materials to conform with conventions dating from the 19th century. So why is modifying the sound actively using digital technologies to conform with a a new set of 21st century conventions unacceptable?

Using digital technologies to shape concert hall sound is not heretical. The only 'true' sound of an orchestra is what would be heard if the musicians played in an anechoic - acoustically dead - chamber. And anyone who has spent time in an anechoic chamber - which includes me in the now demolished EMI Central Research Lab facility at Hayes - will know that the sound heard there is uncompromisingly and unacceptably dead. Those who have not been inside an anechoic chamber should watch this YouTube video from 2' 40", preferably wearing headphones.

My recent post What next for Indian classical music? included a contribution from sarodist and faculty member at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay Avradeep Pal. Last year when Avradeep was carrying out post-doctoral research at Delft University I discussed with him the role of amplification in the usually conservative world of Indian classical music. Avradeep, who is something of a music purist, explained that amplification is universally accepted in Indian classical music. He went on to say that this ubiquitous amplification has not driven away the traditional core audience; moreover and crucially, it has played a significant role in the revival of the Indian classical tradition among young audiences. Can the Western tradition afford to ignore the experience of its Eastern cousin?

Avradeep Pal concluded his contribution on the fundamental changes in Hindustani music by observing that "I see this as a start of a completely new chapter in Indian classical music". In a similar way Western classical music is starting a completely new chapter. Historic business models and, crucially, music delivery platforms have been fatally disrupted by new digital technologies. Sony only introduced its first Walkman portable cassette player in 1979, yet mobile listening is now the primary method of music consumption and streaming is the preferred method of delivery.

Classical music's target audience is the head-fi generation whose expectations are defined by a new and radically different sonic conventions. Yet live classical music remains inflexibly wedded to centuries old sonic conventions. Which means digitally sound shaped performance spaces such as the San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox seen in the photo above the exception rather than the rule.

Why is the concert hall viewed, quite wrongly, as a technology-free zone? Quite wrongly, because, the 'perfect' acoustic of the highly-acclaimed Elbphilharmonie is the product of digital technology. Algorithm controlled parametric design was used to specify the 10,000 gypsum fiber acoustic panels that create the hall's signature sound. And the wooden Schalldeckel hood that Wagner specified for his Bayreuth Festpielhaus to cover the orchestra pit is both a screen to prevent the audience seeing the orchestra and a low-tech surround sound solution that blends instruments and voices to create the unique, but nevertheless artificially contrived, Bayreuth acoustic

I am not a philistine arguing for the death of the traditional concert hall, and I have written at length here about the sonic excellence of my local concert hall, Snape Maltings. But tinkering with cosmetic conventions such as informal concert dress and mobile phone programme notes has had no significant impact on the classical demographic. This post does not advocate indiscriminately amplifying Western classical music. But it does argue that the art form now needs to get real and choose between one of two options. If classical music really wants a new younger audience it must start to selectively adopt the 'up close and personal' sonic argot of that generation. If changing historically informed acoustic conventions is not acceptable, the classical tradition should focus on its current and basically static audience; which means revising current fiscal and mass market ambitions dramatically downwards.

Photo via San Francisco Symphony press office. I do not have social media accounts. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


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