by James Boyk
Harvard magazine, Nov.-Dec., 1990.
Reprinted as "When The Absolute Sound Isn't" in The Absolute Sound, issue 73, 9/10/91.
Copyright © jwb 1989, 1990, 1997.
Why are we condemned to bad halls and thus inferior performances and sonic frustration? Why can't we have the pleasure and satisfaction we need? What is to blame?
Not caring enough! That's what. And who is to blame? Not the acoustical consultants, because they don't have the final say. Usually they're hired by the architects. When there's a disagreement, guess who wins? Sometimes the acousticians aren't even told what the real possibilities are for a hall. The architects monopolize contact with the client, present a set of drawings to the acousticians as a fait accompli, and ask for sonic massaging of a design which may be fundamentally bad. The acousticians could scream, but would the architects hire them again?
You can blame the architects, but their temperament and training make them care about sight, not sound. And who wouldn't accept the contractual power when it's offered?
The money people, that's who is to blame. They should put our musical fate in the right hands, and see that those hands are not tied. Often it seems that their real interest is merely to have a hall that will look nice for visits with VIP friends.
Can you really blame them? After all, they've probably never heard a great hall either. They don't know what they're missing: the power, the delicacy, the sheer riveting beauty of music in a great hall like Symphony Hall in Boston, or Carnegie Hall in New York (at least as it used to be; I haven't heard it since they "improved" it).
Acoustics is not the money people's field; it's not how they made their money. Can you blame them when in good faith they put themselves in the hands of professionals? You can't blame them.
But I do. Why do they run these competitions for architects when they should be for acousticians?
Everyone has a hand in the pie: trustees, architect, acoustician. Who speaks for the audience? No one. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, and they are all protecting their own counter space, not thinking about the poor sap out at the table. Instead of sonic haute cuisine, the poor sap gets acoustic fast food, no nourishment for the ear or spirit.