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 Reproduct
By 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 ichard 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 tobe 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 later19th 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.
Thompson's narrative is elegantly written and wonderfully engaging. It tells the story of how Sabine's mathematical formulation of reverberation evolved into a science of acoustics that was soon asked to serve quite different ends. During the first three decades of the 20th century, two concurrent developments conspired to change the definition of good acoustics from those achieved in Symphony Hall. The first was the harsh, intrusive noise of modern industry and urban life, which prompted architects of office buildings and apartment houses to become increasingly obsessed with abolishing noise and creating acoustic isolation in interior spaces. The second was the new technology of sound reproduction, particularly the shift from acoustic recording to electrical means of reproduction. The transformation of sound into signals and back again into sound resulted in new experiences and expectations for listening. A "modern" sound became desirable. It had to be clear and focused. The environment for listening not only had to be silent but the listeners had to feel as if there were a loudspeaker right in front of them. The rage for noise abatement and for the novelty of technically reproduced sound led acousticians away from the reverberant ideals that Sabine and Higginson favored. Space had to be deadened. Indeed, as Thompson points out, sound and space, once inextricably tied together, became separated in the 20th century. Listening and sound itself became experiences entirely independent of the sense of place and even the visual sense.
The most dramatic example of the modernist elimination of the spatial
in the listening experience took place in the design of sound stages for
the movies. In most studio recordings of soundtracks (and later of operas
and orchestral music), the spatial three-dimensionality of the "live" musical
experience is discarded; not only does one not sense the physical placement
of instruments but the music reaches the ear of the moviegoer in a flat
and invariable manner. Radio City Music Hall, with its huge expanse of
seats, was regarded as a triumph for this novel technology of sound absorption;
although there were real musicians onstage, what one heard was a focused,
powerful sound transmitted by loudspeakers. Likewise, although the exterior
of St.Thomas Church in New York, finished in 1913, was reminiscent of Gothic
models, in its interior a new kind of sound-absorbent material was used,
so that every parishioner could hear the words of the sermon distinctly.
The astonishing, cavernous sound of the Gothic cathedral had been modernized
to meet the acoustical aesthetics of the sound-absorbent insulated modern
Not surprisingly, in the era beyond Thompson's scope — after the 1930s, particularly in the 1950s — new concert halls were intentionally built with a dryness and clarity quite at odds with Boston's Symphony Hall or the old Leipzig Gewandhaus. Half a century later, we have come full circle. We now reject the modernist sound ideal, whose high point was the midcentury. But why should this be so? Why, once again, do the finest acousticians, like Toyota, seek to replicate a sound ideal more akin to that of Sabine and Higginson, the ideal that became accepted well before the proliferation of sound reproduction? Thompson properly suggests that we live in an extremely eclectic moment. Our tastes for what sounds good are wildly divergent. We listen with headphones and high-fidelity equipment. We relish extreme amplification and the clarity of digital sound, even though now, with the advent of surround sound, many have conceded what some aficionados always believed: that there was something superior about vinyl and analog recordings.
At the same time, we retain — particularly when it comes to classical
or concert music — the ideals of silent listening in an environment that
distinguishes music from ambient noise. The pre-1870 music theater and
concert hall — and aristocratic ballrooms of the kind in Prince Lobkowitz's
Vienna palace, where Beethoven's Eroica Symphony premiered — were spaces
for socializing, conversation, even eating and drinking, as well as listening.
Sounds from the street and neighboring rooms were commonplace. Gustav Mahler
shocked the public in the late 1890s by darkening the Vienna opera house
and closing its doors, to
force the audience to concentrate on the work of art itself. Since then, our concert halls have become social morgues and windowless, isolated interiors. The distinction between what should be heard and what should not has become so extreme that patrons glare at those who fidget, whisper, cough, turn the pages of their program or unwrap cough drops — to say nothing of the umbrage taken at the intermittent ringing of cellphones. Toyota's new concert halls take this aesthetic into account, but they don't completely imitate the past. Their emphasis on a lush sound includes an extreme high- and low-end brilliance, focus and clarity that reveal a taste for the loudspeaker and for headset high-fidelity sound reproduction. Ironically, in Gehry's two new magnificent halls for music, adjustments must be made to accommodate electronically generated sound, in a way quite unnecessary in Radio City.
Thompson's path-breaking account of the transformation of the technology, architecture and culture of acoustics in the early 20th century is complemented by Jonathan Sterne's more theoretical attempt to understand sound and listening as historically contingent phenomena. He rightly points out that the way we talk about sound betrays uncritical illusions. What, after all, is the difference between live music and recorded music? Why should the live performance be preferred when there is nothing inauthentic or dead about a studio recording? Furthermore, as Sterne observes, the technology of recording and sound reproduction in the days of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison was directed at objectives quite different from our later employment of it. Technology does not define the course of its own history. The earliest sound-reproducing devices were thought to be analogous to domestic photography — a means by which people could document themselves and preserve their personal experiences. Listening to commercial musical recordings was not the inventors' primary goal. Nor does recording technology document objectively. Cylinder recordings were used in the early 20th century by American anthropologists to capture examples of the vanishing cultures of the Native Americans (as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály did to preserve authentic Hungarian rural folk traditions). Yet it is naïve to think that what these recordings bequeathed us was a true representation of the past. So too in classical music when performances were adapted to fit on the limited space of the early disks.
For Sterne, sound is a historical subject that is no more "transhistorical" than fashion design or any other form of cultural taste. He analyzes the development of the stethoscope, the telephone and such long-forgotten devices as the gramophone to show how sound — and in particular the sound of the human voice — gradually became a focus of intense interest. But from his viewpoint, the "cultural status of the voice" in modern times transformed sound recording, not the other way around. Larger historical forces generated a desire for the illusion of reality through audible reproduction. The search for increasingly refined techniques of sound reproduction sought to create the illusion of the absence of a medium of reproduction. Listeners then made an imaginative leap into believing that what they were hearing was authentic and true to life but as disembodied sound — or, as Sterne would have it, the voice chemically embalmed.
Sterne spends considerable time on the idea of fidelity. Both he and Thompson tell remarkable stories of contemporary reactions decades ago to what we now regard as primitive modes of reproduction. Audiences and the public in the early days of sound transmission and recording believed that the live voice and the recorded voice were very nearly equivalent — hence the success of the Gramophone Co.'s logo of the dog who hears "His Master's Voice." If we were to listen today to a 1927 Orthophonic Victrola recording, we wouldn't believe, as consumers in the 1920s did, that "the human voice" emanating from the machine is human. It is astonishing to discover that in early 20th century concert-stage demonstrations by singers and their recordings, connoisseurs judged the reproductions to be as good or perhaps better than the living originals. All we hear today are the surface noises, the squeaky sounds, the pale intimations of what we now deem high fidelity.
As provocative in its choice of subject matter as Sterne's book is,
it is marred by politically correct moralizing, particularly about the
evils of capitalism and consumerism. Sterne is also too enamored of modern
critical theory and its academic polysyllabic jargon. Foucault, Derrida,
their Frankfurt School progenitors and their American epigones play a dominant
role. There is, in short, much theorizing. Sterne's original ideas about,
for example, the relationship of medical technology to attitudes toward
sound become mired in a dense fog. ("In other words, audile diagnosis shifted
from a basis in intersubjective speech between doctor
and patient to the objectification of patients' sounds — in mediate auscultation, patients' voices existed in relation to other sounds made by their bodies, rather than in a privileged relation to them.") Repetitions abound. Catchphrases, such as "middle class" and "the Victorian parlor," and odd asides occur too often. We encounter a "Magyar" language, "the language of the Hungarian ruling class until after World War I," used in telephone broadcasts from Budapest (the kind of broadcasts that allowed Proust to listen to Debussy at home). But that language was — and remains, well after 1918 — simply Hungarian. Nonetheless, Sterne breaks new ground, focusing on the need to understand sound and listening as issues of history. Thompson uses that insight to unearth new evidence that alters and augments our understanding of 20th century modernity. In contrast, Sterne bends his fascinating material into a methodological and interpretive logic, assembling his data to serve a thesis.
As performers and audiences delight in the new concert halls brilliantly produced by Gehry and Toyota, there is a lesson to be learned from these books: We need to reconnect listening to life and think about how and why we listen. We should reconsider our connection to the spaces and social circumstances in which we listen. Gehry's particular genius as an architect is that in his new venues for music, he invites us to look as we listen and to embrace the public space we share with others. There may well be no philosophical priority to the live performance. But in our post-postmodern world, there is an imperative that Gehry reinforces: to relinquish occasionally our privacy, our CD players and our portable machines and sit alongside our fellow human beings to be moved by the sounds made by musicians we can see as well as hear, in real time and real space. •