Sound Effect

Advances in science have yet to improve the acoustics of concert halls.

Caroline M. Trusty

Three summers ago, I had the opportunity to stay in Munich for a few days. Excited by the prospect of being in a city with such a rich musical tradition, I made sure to see the Munich Philharmonic’s concert, which was held in the Philharmonie hall in the Gasteig cultural center. The Munich Philharmonic is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished orchestras worldwide, and since its founding in 1893, it has been led by illustrious conductors Rudolf Kempe and Sergiu Celibidache. The orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s fifth symphony met my high expectations, but I remember being disappointed by the Philharmonie’s acoustics, even as a young and rather inexperienced classical music aficionado.

This discrepancy was puzzling. One would think that one of the best orchestras in the world would have a home venue fit for its skill and that a hall built in the 1980s would have been designed with the scientific tools necessary to ensure that it would, at the very least, match the sound of older concert halls around the world. Instead, the Philharmonie is notorious for its subpar acoustics. Shortly after its opening in 1985, Leonard Bernstein suggested that Munich “burn it.”

Designing a concert hall with the best conditions for classical music remains as opaque as ever—and perhaps advances in modern science have even mystified further the necessary conditions for good acoustics.

TEARING IT DOWN

Since Bernstein’s harsh advice, others have also critiqued the acoustics of the hall; Italian conductor Riccardo Muti refuses to perform there. “There are seats behind the orchestra, and it’s pretty acoustically terrible,” says Eric J. Heller, chemistry and physics professor who taught Science of the Physical Universe 13: “The Physics of Music and Sound” last fall. “I heard the city of Munich is thinking of tearing it down.”

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In building the Philharmonie, the city had to consider factors aside from the music itself, and the hall’s acoustics ultimately paid the price. For a cultural center like Munich, it was important to have a space that would look  impressive. “If a city builds a concert hall…they’re going to go for something fancy,” Heller says. “It’s a gorgeous space.” The expansive wooden walls and panels and the hall’s fan-like shape make it easy on the eyes, but they also contribute to its poor resonance. The wooden walls and panels are actually apt for concert spaces, since wood ensures that sound will bound off surfaces rather than get absorbed. However, the shape of the hall requires sound to travel further to reach a surface, so much of it dissolves before it can bounce back to create a reverberation effect.

Unforeseen logistical problems plague the hall as well. “The part that was supposed to be the opera house became the concert hall,” says Federico Cortese, music director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. “They switched the large space [to house the Munich Philharmonic], and that screwed up the acoustics. The place is famous as a concert hall, but a rather unfortunate place to perform.” Though the intended opera house was more appropriate for the Philharmonic’s size, it was acoustically unfit for classical music performance.

ECHO CHAMBER

Even good performance spaces are borne from negotiations between conflicting needs, and Harvard’s Paine Hall was no exception. Before its recent renovation, which took over a year, Paine Hall had acoustic problems of its own. The Fanny Peabody Mason Music Building, which houses Paine Hall, had retained its original ventilation system from 1914. “It was configured with a huge fan in the basement that inflated the whole building like a big balloon,” says Robert E. Olson Jr. ’70, the architect who spearheaded the renovation project. “The ductwork that carried the air through the building would carry sound up and down as it distributed through the building. That was the state of the art in 1915…. But you would hear steam and banging [in the music hall] and you would hear the practice rooms and the custodian’s office in the basement on the second floor.” The music department had to close access to practice rooms when there was a concert in Paine Concert Hall because the sound could be heard through the vents.

Though the old ventilation system has recently been renovated, the compromise in acoustics that was made in the building’s construction in 1914—based on the different needs for a speaker and for an orchestra—remains. “For a concert hall, you want something called a reverberation time, which is the time it takes for sound produced on stage to decrease in its intensity by a factor of a million,” says Heller. “You want that to be about 2.1 seconds or so, but that’s terrible for speech. It’s too much echoing. It makes speech way too difficult to understand. You’d want [the reverberation time] to be a little over one second in a speaking hall.” Given Paine Hall’s dual purpose, its reverberation time falls in between the ideal lengths for a lecture space and concert hall.

The renovations to the building’s ventilation system were extensive yet Paine Hall’s physical appearance was untouched: It was a conscious decision to keep the acoustics of the hall the way it was. “The acoustics are good. They are as good as they can be given the hall’s size and shape,” says Anne C. Shreffler, interim chair of the Department of Music.  “It’s a multipurpose hall for lectures and performances, so it was not designed to be the perfect hall.”

Though Paine’s versatility limits its potential to be a perfect venue for a single purpose, the ability of a multi-purpose space to possess great acoustics is evident in Sanders Theatre’s success. “First and foremost, Sanders is a classroom until mid-afternoon,” wrote Ruth Polleys, program manager of Memorial Hall and Lowell Hall, in an email. “This was indeed the original plan for the space. I don’t think [Sanders Theatre] was built as a concert hall. It happens to be a wonderful hall, with wonderful acoustics...but Sanders is also perfectly designed for speaking,” says Cortese. The hall was designed as an academic theater but its acoustics came out impeccable, which enables it to be used for perfomances. The mystery behind Sanders’ sound led Wallace C. Sabine, who founded the field of architectural acoustics during his time as a Harvard professor of physics, to use the space to conduct experiments that would eventually lead him to discover the formula for reverberation time.

FINE-TUNED

Though the music department has been committed to balancing the two functions of Paine Hall, in 1990 the music department made a decision that privileged its concert hall function over its lecture space function. The seating in Paine Hall was to be replaced, and there was an extensive debate on whether or not to add wooden pullout desks so that students could take notes on a hard surface during lectures. “I’m very pleased that they chose not to do this in 1990.... It would have added a lot of hard, reflective surfaces, which would [have] drastically changed the acoustics,” says Nancy B. Shafman, director of administration for the Music department.

Even without the addition of the desks, the replaced upholstery on the seats noticeably changed the character of the hall’s acoustics. “Sound gets absorbed by material. We put pads on the back of the seats, so that even if the seat was empty we would get a similar absorption affect as if a person was sitting there,” says Olson. The type and amount of upholstery affects the acoustic differences musicians will feel between a rehearsal—when all the seats are empty—and a concert. Without this provision, the presence of an audience would affect not only the ambiance of a performance but also its actual sound.

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