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Organs in concert halls


MusingMuso
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It's a bit difficult knowing where to start with such a complex subject; not least because acoustic engineers have a language all their own, and it is not easy to get into the groove of their thinking and science.

 

Perhaps a good starting point might be to consider how different types of music, as well as instrumental/vocal ensembles, require different types of acoustic.

 

The music of Gabrieli positively thrives on a spatial acoustic; as does plainsong and much of the old catholic repertoire. The composers of organum exploited the sonorities of the great abbeys and cathedrals, with long held notes and sustained suspensions. The effect is quite overwhelming in the right building; especially with the right instruments and vocal style.

 

The music of Bach, being largely confined to Lutheran churches with more modest acoustic properties, exploits countrapuntal ingenuity, simply because it was possible to hear what was going on. The same music heard in a vastly resonant catheral, loses clarity and impact; no matter how superb the underlying quality of writing.

 

Chamber music is just that, and thrives on a more intimate room acoustic.

 

Baroque theatres often had a very special warmth; more often than not having wood clad interiors: ideal for Handel Oratorios and organ concertii.

 

The list goes on and on, and there can be no doubt but that music is not just music, but music with a particular acoustic in mind; from small chambers and theatres, right through to opera houses and vast cathedrals. Composers such as Mozart and Haydn wrote very differently for different situations; that much is obvious.

 

So before we hopefully disuss the organ and the acoustic environment of a concert hall, here is an interesting example of what happens when the wrong style of instrument is placed in the wrong acoustic environment.

 

It is the exact reverse of that which we normally complain about; a classical organ in a dead room. This example is a theatre organ designed for an acoustically dead theatre, placed in a big acoustic.

 

Does it come any worse than this, I wonder?

 

 

 

More to follow.......

 

 

MM

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There have been attempts to built concert halls which can accommodate music of various styles. A recent example is the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which has received rave reviews of its acoustics.

 

Although I have heard an organ recital there, I do not know it well enough to be able to comment on its success (or otherwise) in providing a suitable environment for all different styles of music. The reverberation chambers, when open, can add internal volume to the building, but I am not sure how much of a 'large cathedral' atmosphere these reproduce for some styles of organ music. Certainly it sounded nothing like St Paul's when I was there!

 

At the other extreme, I wonder how well chamber music sounds there (with the reverberation chamber doors closed, presumably). I suspect, even with its advanced acoustic technology, it would be just too big. Perhaps someone else with more experience can comment further.

 

I think the ideal would be to arrange to perform music of different styles in venues most suited to those styles. I doubt that we have yet managed to produce a completely 'one size fits all' concert hall.

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There have been attempts to built concert halls which can accommodate music of various styles. A recent example is the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which has received rave reviews of its acoustics.

 

Although I have heard an organ recital there, I do not know it well enough to be able to comment on its success (or otherwise) in providing a suitable environment for all different styles of music. The reverberation chambers, when open, can add internal volume to the building, but I am not sure how much of a 'large cathedral' atmosphere these reproduce for some styles of organ music. Certainly it sounded nothing like St Paul's when I was there!

 

At the other extreme, I wonder how well chamber music sounds there (with the reverberation chamber doors closed, presumably). I suspect, even with its advanced acoustic technology, it would be just too big. Perhaps someone else with more experience can comment further.

 

I think the ideal would be to arrange to perform music of different styles in venues most suited to those styles. I doubt that we have yet managed to produce a completely 'one size fits all' concert hall.

 

 

===================================

 

 

Thanks for your observations John. I think part of the answer must lie with the large horizontal reflector board, which can be lowered over an area of the stage, and which brings greater intimacy to chamber and baroque music performances for those sitting nearby.

 

Unfortunately, I have yet to re-discover the web-site which gave all the details of this, which I think may have been something to do with the architects.

 

As you say, the "all-in-one" concert hall probably cannot be created, which is broadly the path that this thread will probably go down, because I sense an element of compromise in an attempt to cover all things as adequately as possible.

 

I'm beavering away on this, trying to gather as much information as possible, but I wonder how many of us realise that human hearing both adapts, filters and attenuates?

 

That's the flip side of acoustic design, and one which acoustic engineers have to be aware of.

 

MM

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Sadly a lot of recent concert halls (by nomenclature) have been built, and older halls acoustically altered, of necessity to be so very general purpose as to have to accommodate not only various kinds of music but also speech (conferences, political meetings, etc.).

 

Symphony Hall, with its reverberation chambers and the large reflector over the stage represents an ingenious way to try to reconcile the conflicting demands. (It, too, is not only used for music. The ICC, of which it is part, contains halls ranging from small and intimate to Hall 1 which has 1800 seats in modern theatre style. Symphony Hall is actually IIRC Hall 2 with 2200 seats. Just down the road, of course, is the NIA - which has been used for large-scale grand opera - with a maximum 14000 seats.) Symphony Hall's reverberation chamber doors can be set in a number of positions, individually, from doors shut to fully open, and the reflector can be set very low or so high as to make no difference to the basic hall sound. These positions can be set in the memory system, one hears, and various conductors have their preferred settings stored.

 

Older theatres can have admirable acoustics, of course, and particularly notable are those designed by Frank Matcham - for example, Buxton Opera House. Playing there is a great pleasure.

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Sadly a lot of recent concert halls (by nomenclature) have been built, and older halls acoustically altered, of necessity to be so very general purpose as to have to accommodate not only various kinds of music but also speech (conferences, political meetings, etc.).

 

==========================

 

 

Public halls once stood unused most of the time, and that was very much the case with St George's Hall, Liverpool, Sheffield City Hall and many others.

 

From a classical music point of view, a lot of damage was done when commercial considerations meant that halls became venues for banquets, conferences, pop concerts and the like. I know that St Feorge's Hall, Bradford, once famous for a magnificent music acoustic, was refurbished with heavy curtains and thick-pile carpets, and is now more useful as a pop venue than as a classical music venue.

 

It's a sad state of affairs, but did local councils have much of an alternative, when the costs of running a largely unused hall are almost as much as a fully functioning one?

 

I suspect that the luxury of a dedicated concert hall in the lesser town and cities is now just wishful thinking.

 

MM

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==========================

 

 

I know that St Feorge's Hall, Bradford, once famous for a magnificent music acoustic, was refurbished with heavy curtains and thick-pile carpets, and is now more useful as a pop venue than as a classical music venue.

 

MM

 

And, of course, the organ has been allowed to deteriorate to the point of being completely unusable.

 

I'd like to add that I have sung to a large audience at St George's Hall. OK, OK, it was my school's speech day and I was one tiny part of the school choir. It had a very good reputation (before I joined I must admit) under the direction of the late Keith Rhodes.

 

That was in the good old days when the organ functioned!

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Having given the matter of concert hall acoustics some thought, and having gathered quite a lot of relevant information, I think I have to alter my perceptions a little.

 

I previously stated that special absorbent acoustic materials may be the reason why concert halls may seem to lack warmth and "middle" in the sounds which are heard by an audience, but actually, this seems to be less important than I had assumed. On the contrary, acoustic engineers try to conserve the energy produced by musical instruments by specifying hard, reflective surfaces in the form of panels and diffusers.

 

It may well be, that apart from differences in the shape of new concert halls when compared with older concert halls, the biggest single change may well be that of modern upholstered seating.

 

If sound absorbency is measured as an absorbency co-efficient, (where 0.00 equals no sound absorbency, and 1.00 equals total absorbency), modern seating acts very differently to older style wooden seating found in many theatres and concert halls. In fact, the difference is absolutely staggering, as the figures demonstrate.

 

Older theatre-style seating appears to absorb very little sound energy; the maximum absorbency being less than 0.1 right across the frequency spectrum, (most commonly measured across a range from 125 Hz to 4 Khz).

 

Even when unoccupied, fabric upholstered seating can absorb at least as much as 50% of the sound energy, and at most, around 90%.

 

However, it is more critical than this altogether, because upholsetered seating does not tend to absorb sound equally across the musical frequency spectrum. In fact, the greatest absorbency occurs between 1KHz and 4KHz, which is an especially critical frequency range in human, cognitive hearing. At this frequency range of sound, as much as 90% of sound energy is absorbed, with the figure increasing to almost 100% when a seat is occupied.

 

This explains my aural observation of modern concert-halls lacking middle-frequencies and "warmth" in the overall sound, despite having resonance. I suppose it's an effect we are all familiar with to some extent, when a resonant, empty church is suddenly filled with worshippers at a big service: the sound killed to a certain extent.

 

Apart from seating, other factors separate the concert-hall from the acoustics of a church or cathedral. In modern concert-halls, particular attention has to be paid to the specific, directional paths which sound takes as it leaves the instruments. A stage area will be highly reflective, with sound reflectors above and behind the players; often with a curved front wall which allows the instrumentalists to hear each other.

 

Once sound travels from the performance area, it then has to be focused and directed, and in this respect, the modern concert hall acts differently to older, more random designs. Most acoustic engineers appear to agree that the classic shoe-box shape is the best shape to use; especially those with adequate height and extensive side-wall, sound reflecting properties. However, the fan-shape is also popular with architects, but as with many cinemas of a similar shape, side-reflections are almost elminated. This may be useful in a cinema, but in a concert hall, it will often be a musical disaster. The Bridgewater hall is such a fan-shape, but multiple terracing and hard reflective surfaces, are a means by which the shortcomings of the fan-shape shape are lessened or even overcome.

 

The organ, as an instrument, is largely associated with ecclestiastical buildings, and even in those with little overall resonance, the absorption of sound tends to be of an even nature across the musical frquency-spectrum, as sound moves among natural, older-style materials. The vast majority of churches do not have plush seating, but either pews or wood and whicker chairs; neither of which absorb much sound.

 

In this environment, an organ will "bloom" into a noble sound; the building in which it sits acting as a sound resonator; irrespective of the overall extent of actual reverberation.

 

Perhaps there is another significant point to bear in mind.

 

Cathedrals and churches are seldom regular in shape, and the various nooks, crannies and architectural carbuncles add an element of chaos to the sound of almost everything, and it is for this reason that the tone-cabinet of "werkprinzip" designs was invented; focusing and directing the sound in straight-lines, straight into the ears of the listener, and thus bringing a degree of clarity to bear.

 

A further consideration is the nature of human hearing, which is absolutely critical in the 1KHz to 4KHz range: the very same frequency range absorbed instantly be peole and seating. In trying to compensate for this, acoustic engineers may seek to increase reflectivity and overall resonance, but what they cannot do is build in the chaotic elements of traditional buildings. Instead, they have to rely on a combination of direct sound and indirect sound from lateral and vertical sound reflections bouncing off walls and roof areas.

 

Thus, I would suggest that a concert-hall acts very differently to other buildings, and especially those traditionally associated with the organ.

 

What chance is there, I wonder, of an organ with a classical disposition sounding good, when the exact opposite of traditional acoustic and musical resonance occurs in modern concert-halls?

 

In fact, if one uses one's ears properly, it is possible to hear that even the most resonant modern concert-halls, resonate largely at the top and bottom of the aural frequency range; the middle frequencies vanishing very quickly indeed. (That seems to have been avoided at Birmingham and Budapest, it has to be said).

 

So is the "thin" and "distant" sound of so many modern concert-hall organs the fault of the organ-builder, the architect or the acoustic engineer?

 

In reality, the faults can probably be shared by all of them or almost none of them; especially when an organ-builder has to work "blind" to the finished venue, as was the case at the Bridgewater Hall.

 

I believe that it can be said that the acoustic nature of many modern concert-halls, requires a not inconsiderable compensation in the scaling, specification and voicing of a new instrument, as has been the case at the Disney Hall in America.

 

In more traditional (older) concert halls, a standard classical disposition can work well, as it does at Syracuse University in America, where Walter Holtkamp, (one of the great tonal geniuses of that country), blended older pipework with new, to fantastic musical effect.

 

 

But can the same thing be achieved in one of the newer concert halls?

 

Somehow, I doubt it, without recourse to tonal measures to compensate for the shortcomings.

 

That seems to have been largely achieved in the "Palace of Arts" concert hall in Budapest.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G747md4f9oU...feature=related

 

 

 

MM

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These are certainly good concert hall organ performances; as one would wish to hear!! Take a look at the interior of the hall in this picture.!! This is how to do it - plenty of volume and plain surfaces!

 

(And I'm glad to see that you are replacing debate with a little science.) :rolleyes:

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(And I'm glad to see that you are replacing debate with a little science.) :rolleyes:

 

 

==================================

 

 

Well, one moves from the general to the particular, but nevertheless, it still comes back to debate and hypothesis.

 

After all, concert hall acoustics, (using acoustic modelling), are approved by the clients at the pre-design stage, and much depends upon whether those who approve things are into Beethoven or Rock concerts.

 

I also suspect that the science is a bit 'iffy' in certain respects, because the figures I quoted for the absorption characteristics of seating, may well be arbitary rather than actual, due to the fact that foam padding, upholstery material, method of constructiion and shell material can differ enormously.

 

I even read somewhere, some time ago, that a closed seat can be acoustically tailored to match that of an occupied seat, using acoustic absorbent material on the underside of the seat. This brings consistency to the acoustic engineering.

 

Artec and Arup may have developed a good working formula, but I suspect that it remains something of a dark art to the majority.

 

MM

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==================================

 

 

I even read somewhere, some time ago, that a closed seat can be acoustically tailored to match that of an occupied seat, using acoustic absorbent material on the underside of the seat. This brings consistency to the acoustic engineering.

 

MM

 

The seats at the RFH (1951) were intended to have the same acoustic absorbtion closed as when occupied - however this was not actually the case as you could easily judge.

 

PS did you look at the picture in my previous posting and read the text beneath it????

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