Not long after pianist Keith Jarrett gave the first jazz recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall in November, his sardonic comments about the hall began to reverberate in music circles.
Jarrett's criticism -- "It was like being at the center of a big bowl, with the sound stirring around and never finding any sort of focus" -- soon reechoed as cocktail party chatter. Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., recalls that people would sidle up to her at parties and, with barely contained relish, say: "Gee, I hear there are problems with the sound."
But the problem -- at least in this case -- was not the sound. At issue was something that has vexed the hall since its inception: amplification. Complaints arose as early as the climactic opening gala in October, when many in attendance had trouble understanding what hosts Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones were saying into their microphones, and continued in January, when British theater director Simon McBurney read aloud from Berlioz's letters during the Philharmonic presentation of the composer's "Symphonie Fantastique" -- again to the confusion of numerous concertgoers.
"In Disney Hall, amplifying the sound is problematic because the hall is so vibrant," says sound designer Mark Gray, who came to that realization during the galas when he worked on the premiere of John Adams' "The Dharma at Big Sur," a piece for orchestra and electric violin.
As Gray's experience indicates, the need for enhanced sound in Disney extends beyond jazz or pop music. Some contemporary classical pieces, like Adams', require amplification or reinforcement, as do programs, like the Berlioz concert, that involve the spoken word.
Whether creating sound designs for Adams' 9/11 piece, "On the Transmigrations of Souls," at the Royal Albert Hall in London or working with the Kronos Quartet in a small jazz club in Norway, Gray's challenge, he explains, is to achieve aural clarity.
"It's potentially a very deadly situation," he says. The acoustics in some halls are so alive that they are "just screaming, 'Don't put a speaker in this room!' "
The science of sound
The nature of the sound in a given venue depends on its reflective, diffuse and absorptive surfaces. A reflective wall throws back sound directly, whereas sound hitting diffuse surroundings acts more like a wave hitting the shore -- its reflections scatter. Absorptive surfaces swallow reverberations.
In Disney Hall, the curves of Douglas fir are diffuse and reflective. And although that's great for natural sound, it's not ideal for amplified sound.
"That is something that I'm actually pleased about," Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen says -- because it indicates how good the natural acoustics are. "The room is like a fine instrument that has to be treated in a very special way."
"It's a very, very bright-sounding hall," says Gray, and overamplification can make the sound muddy. "One of the largest issues is to keep the sound as "acoustic" as possible."
With contemporary classical music, mixing the sound has to be especially subtle. While a composer may want to emphasize a particular instrument, other instruments won't need amplification because the room will do the job.
Because the mix must be so delicate, it can also be critical for a technician to hear the sound in the hall. But Gray notes that one problem at Disney has been the different arrangements for amplifying different types of music.
During jazz and world music performances, the mixing console has usually been brought into the hall, to the middle of a row in the orchestra section. But during the gala featuring the Adams premiere, Gray had to work inside the sound booth at the back of the section. His only connection to the sound was what came through a small window.
"In the booth, you lose the sense of what the audience hears," he says. "It's like driving under the influence of alcohol: You have no idea of the feel of the steering wheel."
In part as a result of Gray's experience, the mixing console is now brought into the hall for most concerts.
Onstage, meanwhile, there are different arrangements according to the type of music being performed. For jazz and world music, players and singers perform on a flat stage. For orchestral works, the musicians sit on risers.
Because of the stage design, when the risers are in use, running cables under the stage can be problematic. That may not affect the sound, but "a job that should take 15 minutes takes three hours," Gray says.
"Let's say they had to perform Steve Reich or [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or other music that is going to entail amplification in the orchestra setting -- it's not as easy as it should be. You're driving on the freeway, and there are speed bumps every hundred yards."
"We knew there were going to be some issues," Borda says. "It's been a learning experience. We've had 90% improvement since our very first concert here, but we'll get that other 10% over the next few months."