barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Dec 20 06:51:37 PST 2005
Remembering the thread a while back about the difficulties of "hearing"
among musicians on band stands, stages etc., here is an interesting, if
How's That Again? An Echoing Refrain
By BERNARD HOLLAND December 20, 2005 NY TIMES
Echo is the musical gift that keeps on giving, sometimes longer than you
wish it did. We get a lot of echo this time of year. Christmas music belongs
in churches, and the big ones are big hearted enough to make sure we hear a
single performance not once but a number of times in quick succession.
In the space of a second, light moves 186,000 miles. In the meantime, sound
has limped about, say, 1,100 feet. Think of fireworks in the distance. We
see them; the sound arrives later. Creating music indoors is like throwing a
number of balls around a four-sided handball court and waiting for them to
come back to you. If the balls are of different sizes and thrown at
different speeds, your ears, so to speak, will have their hands full.
Music lovers, critics and writers worry too much about acoustics. Truly bad
acoustics - whether you hear too little or too much - cannot be ignored, but
the imperfect world that lingers between the two extremes just has to be
dealt with. The hall is too bright (Walt Disney in Los Angeles); the hall is
dead (Royal Festival Hall in London). There are devils everywhere intent on
spoiling your listening pleasure. Go to concerts, and hear people cough and
cell phones ring. Stay at home, and your CD player skips or an ambulance
goes by the door.
Relax. Rise above it. The ear and the mind connected to it have marvelous
powers to adjust to less-than-perfect environments. Herbert von Karajan once
told me that his early years of conducting truly awful orchestras in
backwater opera houses did wonders for his powers of imagination. As the
Tallis Scholars began to sing in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near
Lincoln Center recently, the loud hum of what sounded like a ventilation
system made the heart sink. But oddly, after 10 minutes it was forgotten, as
if the brain had isolated an intruder and removed it to a place out of
This particular church, a very big one, offers an example of hearing too
much. Music made inside it enjoys an echo with a "hang time" of
extraordinary length. Good music can be made there, though a lot of good
music can't. The composers in this case were John Taverner, Thomas Tallis
and William Byrd, 16th-century Englishmen as ready to accommodate the sonic
goop of high ceilings as was their Venetian contemporary Giovanni Gabrieli.
They built waiting times into their music. All those gathering silences in
Bruckner symphonies come from a man who began as a church organist.
The best example I know of using bad acoustics for profit is the Berlioz
Requiem, which was done, I am told, at St. Paul the Apostle some 40 years
ago by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is a piece no
concert hall can hold. Berlioz's great, massed roars of music are
site-specific. They depend on rebounding sound for their full effect.
The place influences the performance, and sometimes the piece itself, more
than we realize. But if certain acoustical highs or lows are wanting, the
decent orchestra conductor adjusts how loud or soft different sections play.
And what conductors don't do, listeners' imaginations can. We also hear with
our eyes, and thoughts of warm music can be induced from warm-looking
The early enemies of the postwar early-music movement were performances of
Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven by conductors like Bruno Walter and Wilhelm
Furtwängler: allegro movements lazed along in contradiction to the up-tempo
velocities that musician-historians thought they had identified as original.
Maybe tempos became slower when concert halls became bigger: sound had
farther to travel, and more time was needed for the ear to sort things out.
But bad acoustics do have the ability to sabotage: it is a question of where
to put which performance. Bejun Mehta and Kevin Murphy singing and playing
Schubert lieder in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum not long
ago made no musical sense at all. Schubert wrote for the living rooms of his
Viennese friends, not soaring spaces and Egyptian temples. He meant notes to
be heard roughly once, not in the quivering profusions of echo in motion.
I can only imagine that music patrons of the Temple of Dendur come (and a
lot do) to admire the space and don't mind reducing Schubert to vague Muzak
rattling around the ceilings above them. Or maybe they know the repertory so
well that they look around admiringly and reproduce the real thing inside
their heads. Poor Schubert. Inside every fat man, as they say, a thin one is
trying to get out.
More information about the Dixielandjazz