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The fine art of listening

The Soundscape of Modernity Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900--1933 Emily Thompson MIT Press: 500 pp., $47.95 * The Audible Past Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction Jonathan Sterne Duke University Press: 452 pp., $22.95

October 19, 2003|Leon Botstein | Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

ALL reports indicate that Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed with the acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, sounds fantastic. It is an acoustical success, perhaps the finest symphony hall built in modern times. From the point of view of concert hall acoustics, Gehry and Toyota triumphed earlier this year with the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Despite these accolades, it is not at all obvious what expectations and standards of judgment lead us to praise or condemn the sound of a hall.

What are good acoustics? Are there objective, stable criteria for optimal listening, particularly to music? Emily Thompson's fine book reveals that acoustics, like most other cultural values, have always been subjective and influenced by historical circumstances. She chronicles a trajectory of architectural design and acoustic engineering from the construction of Symphony Hall in Boston in 1900 to the 1932 opening of Radio City Music Hall in New York. Although Symphony Hall has long been regarded as perhaps America's best concert hall for symphonic music, it opened to mixed reviews. Yet it was the first major concert hall to be built under the guidance of a scientifically trained acoustician, Wallace Sabine. The sound ideal that Sabine, the architects (McKim, Mead & White) and the orchestra's patron Henry Lee Higginson desired was different from that sought later by the architects and acoustical engineers of Radio City. Higginson's favorite composer was Beethoven; he wanted a hall that made listening to Beethoven a vibrant, impressive experience. His model was the Leipzig Gewandhaus, built long before any self-conscious science of acoustics had come into being. Sabine used his analytic gifts to calculate reverberation so that the architects' space could realize the highly resonant experience that Higginson thought ideal for symphonic music. Indeed, as Thompson notes, before the construction of Symphony Hall, architectural criteria -- visual sensibilities -- not acoustical ones defined the spaces for listening.

The greatest acoustics in the world are said to be found in Vienna's 1870 Musikverein, designed by the Danish-born architect Theophil von Hansen. It is telling that the Musikverein is affectionately known as the Golden Hall, a term that refers to its gilded interior. Built for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, the leading society for the patronage and performance of music in Vienna, the design was driven by visual symbolism. The hall Hansen built was an oversized, palatial ballroom, evocative in a neoclassic manner of the era of Mozart and Beethoven and their aristocratic and imperial patrons -- and of the classicism of Greco-Roman antiquity. Initially, like the 1869 Imperial Opera House on the Ringstrasse, Hansen's hall sounded harsh. To contemporaries, it lacked intimacy and subtlety. The reasons were obvious. The Musikverein and the halls and opera houses of the later 19th century (like Carnegie Hall, which opened, also to mixed reviews, in 1891) were responses to the growing urban audience for music. These halls were larger than their predecessors. The public that flocked to them and the musicians who played in them represented new habits in listening and music making. Before 1850, instrumental music had been associated primarily with domestic spaces and amateur participants. Attending a musical performance in magnificent surroundings, seated alongside fellow citizens primarily of the same class, and listening to professional musicians was a later 19th century development. By the end of that century, concert attendance had become a species of contemplation, requiring of the audience not only respectful and silent decorum but concentrated attention to the music alone, unimpeded by extraneous sounds, particularly from the increasingly busy and boisterous urban streets. Ultimately musicians, singers and audiences adjusted to the new, large, resonant spaces. By the time Higginson traveled to Europe and formulated his dream of building a great hall in America, the acoustical idea of a generous, reverberant chamber created by architects in search of the proper visual and social environment had become the norm. The ideal of a powerful enveloping sound emerged from a definition of visual space that permitted intense concentration and enhanced the visceral excitement of the listener.

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