Playing it by ear

 
Photo: John Brandenburger

Photo: John Brandenburger

Photo: John Brandenburger

Photo: John Brandenburger

“Jacques Barzun’s theme that the majority of men are outside the concept of C.P.Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’, and that most of us are part of a scientific culture, explains how easily we create gods of pseudo-sciences. We are surrounded by them today - economics, cybernetics, ergonomics, and, I believe, acoustics. If a few scientists wave some mathematics at us most of us swallow the results of their 'science’ without questioning. As Muggeridge says, 'Towards any kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo, we display a credulity which must be the envy of African witchdoctors.’ We neither question the scientists’ parameters nor do we ask if they have collected them all. The refreshing thing about Beranek’s book on acoustics is the empirical approach and collection of data of some 54 concert halls and opera houses throughout the world. 

We can go on measuring and calculating but finally any reaction to music is a highly subjective thingI believe it is also dangerous to talk about acoustics in an abstract way, to divorce them from their physical surroundings, because the whole architecture of the space in which music is made is as much responsible for our whole response to the music. It is dangerous to talk about only the acoustics of a hall as to think we can rely only on our intellect for judgement.”

Derek Sugden, 1967

('Snape Concert Hall’, Derek Sudgen [Ed. Rosemary Devine; Art Ed. Desmond Wyeth] The Arup Journal, Vol.1 No.4, June 1967 published by Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineers, Arup Associates Architects and Engineers, 13 Fitzroy Street, London W1)

During our research into the refurbishment of the former agricultural buildings at Snape, we came across a detailed analysis of the acoustic transformation of the maltings written by Derek Sugden, the main acoustician on the project. Sugden’s critique of the ‘pseudo-science’ behind modern acoustics was formative in our approach to our proposal. There are many examples of a tension occuring between the rationalisation of acoustic space and its subjective experience. Consequently, there is a long tradition of ‘fine-tuning’ or ‘playing it by ear’ when it comes to designing for the performance of music. 

The Bosedorfer Saal in Vienna is another such example, developed from a riding school into a highly-regarded performance venue in the late 19th Century. The acoustics were tested from horseback, listening for the right levels of reverberation whilst repositioning the fabric of the building.

Bosendorfer Saal, Vienna - converted from a former riding hall in the late 19th Century

Bosendorfer Saal, Vienna - converted from a former riding hall in the late 19th Century

(Von Fischer, Sabine., “Acoustics, Appropriated and Applied: Describing Sound in Architecture and Physics” Candide. Journal for Architectural Knowledge No. 06 (2012), p. 16)

O'dS