No electricity required

I would like to call your attention to a post from A.C Douglas at Sounds and Fury. I think this is part ofa very, very important question, and we’d be smart to think through the wisdom of  the path towards a multimedia concert experience before it becomes an unchangeable fact. I like to think I’m about as unreactionary and open-minded as anyone, but that doesn’t mean that I think all modern day trends are good ones…..

He calls our attention to this recent news item….

“Berkeley’s Cal Performances, one of the busiest arts presenters in the country, thinks it may have an answer [to the problem of concert hall acoustics]: It has endorsed the new world of sound enhancement, at least for the coming season, by installing an “electroacoustic architecture system” in Zellerbach Hall, its main venue. It involves lots of microphones and speakers, a supersonic mixing board, computers, and all sorts of digital equipment”

I’m not sure either exactly what this has to do with ipods, but I’m very glad to see him challenging the assumption that this is somehow a good idea.

But, I digress….

Mr. Douglas quotes the following from Sequenza 21.

“Why is making halls sound better with electronics any different from making them sound better with architecture [sic!]? […] If your goal is to make music sound as good as possible in the space available, electronic reinforcement is a very useful tool.”

Well, it is not that it is “different” to make halls better with electronics than with architecture, it is that it is impossible to make acoustic music better with electronics. Classical music is acoustic music*. One of its many strengths is that it is not limited or dated by technology. There is no circumstance under which the sound of an orchestra or a string quartet or a voice recital can be improved by amplification. Electronic reinforcement may be a necessary evil in outdoor concerts and pops shows, but, even a necessary evil is still evil. During my rock years, I learned a lot about sound reinforcement and worked with it every day, and the main thing I learned is that it is just about the bluntest tool imaginable. What they are trying to do in Berkeley is comparable to trying to play a Bach suite with your bow attached to a tractor.

As it turns out, we at the Oregon East Symphony have the fate of working in hall that can, at best, be described as “acoustically very problematic.” We’ve been working with the city and other civic groups for years to improve things. We have bought a new shell, we are working on reducing absorption, we want to completely take out the existing balcony and install one that is shallower, and we want to put some deflecting baffles in the room. All will improve the sound. Amplification will only make the problem worse. If a space murders musical sounds, adding more sound to the space will just give the room more sound to murder. Also, the laws of thermodynamics tell us that once musical information enters the mircophone, then the cable, the pre amp,. the console, the power amp, the speaker cable and the speaker, at every stage in the process the signal will be degraded and corrupted, because each stage in the process generates a certain amount of chaos. You cannot put the sound of a Strad through an electronic circuit and have it emerge on the other end with equal clarity, detail and purity.

Also, I can’t think of any sound engineer on earth I would trust to regurgitate my Daphnis and Chloe performance through an “electroacoustic architecture system”….

I did just a little quick research on the series at Berkeley, and it certainly seems they do interesting and ambitious things, and this system might be great when they have pop, world music and novelty acts come through. However, please turn it off for Brahms.


*The subject of electronic music is a complicated one, and not something I’m going to even try to tackle here. However, music created on a computer or in a studio is generally not what is going to be performed in a 2000 seat arena, so we can save that discussion for another time.


 AC DOUGLAS Follows up

 “there’s an entire generation walking about out there that imagines what they’re hearing through their iPod headsets is what music — genuine music; classical music — really sounds, and ought to sound, like. Is it any wonder that Berkeley’s Cal Performances imagine there’s not only nothing amiss with amplification of acoustical instruments performing classical music, but that it’s a really nifty way to correct for the acoustic deficiencies of a concert hall? And is it any wonder that BCP is absolutely certain the overwhelming majority of its audiences will agree with them? For if they weren’t absolutely certain of that audience response, you can bet your last bippy they never would even have contemplated such a grotesquely mindless “solution” to the acoustic shortcomings of Zellerbach Hall.”

He’s right, and it’s important that we stress the difference between live and recorded music if we want people to come to concerts. Recordings are wonderful, but concerts can do things they can’t. If we turn acoustic concerts into electronically corrupted and manipulated events, we lose the main reason for punters to fork over the cash for a night out at the symphony

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “No electricity required”

  1. David Newby

    Thanks for this posting! I conduct the Antelope Valley Symphony Orchestra, a professional-student ensemble at Antelope Valley College. For years, the college has had no performing arts center, so we’ve appeared at our community center. The college is now set to construct its own theater, but the architects are bent on installing an electro-acoustical sound system that they say will make an orchestra shell unnecessary. Faculty resistance has been virtually useless.

    I’d appreciate any additional comments you might have on the issue. And, if you could identify any other sources for opinions on electro-acoustical vs. natural sound support, I’d be grateful.

    Thanks, David Newby.

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