THE ORGAN OF DAVIES HALL
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ACOUSTIC EXPERT
by Mark Anstendig
©1984 The Anstendig Institute
Shortly before his death in October, 1983, Robert Newman, senior acoustician of Bolt Beranek and Newman, the firm that did the acoustic of Davies Hall, told me that "every new concert hall is an experiment" and that no one could tell beforehand how the acoustic would turn out.
The bottom line in any acoustic is what it sounds like, i.e., what one hears. And there is the rub. Hearing is the human capability that is easiest to fake. It is possible to test whether or not one hears the informational aspects of sound, which include words, meanings, musical pitch, etc., though only if the subjects submit to the tests. But one's sensitivity to the experiential aspects of sound cannot readily be tested. The experiential aspects include all nuance, expression, quality of sound production, i.e., the most important aspects of music--those qualities that make the difference between pedestrian and fine music-making.1 Without elaborate preparation, a person's sensitivity to the equalization of sound cannot be tested either. That is because most people have never listened for the equalization of the sounds they hear and are not trained in recognizing frequency ranges as opposed to pitches.2
Hearing is one of the most private, carefully guarded of human capabilities. Most people know that their ability to hear all the various aspects of sound, especially those contained in music, is faulty and do not want others to know just how little they actually hear of a musical performance. For example, most people cannot concentrate absolutely steadily and evenly through the time-span of a whole melody without their mind wandering or the intensity of their concentration fluctuating.3 Understandably, those people would not want that fact known. Because the sonic arts lie at the pinnacle of human experience in our society, the ability to hear carries with it a certain prestige. For this reason, many people try to give the impression that they are sonically more sensitive and aware than they really are.
Even with the informational aspects of sound, true testing only happens in very special situations over longer periods of time, such as in ear-training classes in music schools or between music-student and teacher. Group music lessons such as the conducting classes in music conservatories are among the few opportunities in the world to really observe the great differences in sensitivities to all of the various sonic aspects of music, both informational and experiential. I have taken part in many ear-training and conducting classes. In these classes one quickly finds out that each and every aspect of hearing demands training and practice, even among the "gifted", if one wants to obtain true acuity in recognizing those aspects. For example, someone with perfect pitch does not necessarily have to have high sensitivity to rhythm, nuance, or expression, and someone with highly developed sensitivity to rhythmic or expressive qualities might have great difficulty naming pitches.
Of great importance is that being subjected for long periods to sound of certain qualities conditions one to accept those qualities as correct, even though they may be wrong.4 The prevalence of gross distortions in recorded sound-reproduction and in most room acoustics has conditioned the public to accept those sonic distortions as correct and to not be disturbed by other distortions of sound. Performers also listen to records and hear music in bad acoustic surroundings. Their imitation of those sound qualities further contributes to the prevalent disorientation and lack of true sonic discrimination in hearing among musical circles today.
These facts explain much of the current confusion of opinion in recognizing a good or a bad acoustic and in distinguishing the differences between them.
The organ of Davies Hall presents a splendid example of these problems of hearing. Most organs are installed in the absolutely worst type of acoustic environment imaginable...in large churches constructed of highly reflective stone, marble or other very beautiful, but super-hard, super-reflective material. The churches are constructed for other reasons than acoustics, and an organ is simply added to the room, often as much for decoration as for practical usage. Therefore, people are used to hearing miserable-sounding, distorted organ music in rooms where the sound-reflections, echoes, and reverberation often muddy the sound to the point of total sonic confusion and where the equalization is changed to the point that one hears more unwritten sounds (overtones, etc.) than the actual sounds the organist is playing (fundamentals).
Davies Hall is a faulty hall with many acoustical problems. But it is not as bad as most churches or other buildings that house organs. Although still sonically indefensible, the organ in Davies Hall, at moderate volume levels, is noticeably better-sounding than those organs to which most people are accustomed. In fact, the organ is conceived as an integral part of the design of Davies Hall and therefore is somewhat better-sounding than most types of music performed on the stage of the hall. Furthermore, most organ music is written in a manner that takes into consideration typically bad organ acoustics and most organists are highly experienced in adapting their playing to all types of acoustical problems. These facts account for the prevalent, generally splendid opinion of the Davies Hall organ's sound-qualities.
The organ of Davies Hall may well sound better than an orchestra on the stage. Being against the back wall, that wall is no longer an extra reflecting surface to confuse the sound as it is with performances onstage.5 In fact, because the wall serves as a radiating surface, not as a source of delayed sound-reflections, the organ's sound is better, more evenly projected into the auditorium than the sound of performers onstage. But the improvement is only a matter of degree.
In truth, the organ has major problems in the quality of the bass tones and in equalization. Correction of these problems would demand a rebuilding of the instrument and probably of parts of the hall, since the pipes producing the bass tones would have to be completely relocated.
The bass tones of the organ share some of the problems of the bass instruments of the orchestra. They are too diffused, unfocused, and without solidity. This is especially evident in their failure to support the full-organ in loud tuttis. The sound quality of the bass creates the curious impression that it is diffused all around the listener instead of radiating directly at him. The difference in solidity and focus of tone between the bass tones and those of the state trumpets, which are directed straight at the listener, is striking. In fact, the more solid and firm sound of the state trumpets clearly backs up The Anstendig Institute's analysis that the acoustical problems of Davies Hall are mainly due to the placement of the stage out into the hall and to the sonic confusion caused by too many very highly reflective surfaces in the hall. The state trumpets radiate straight into the auditorium from the back wall, against which the stage should have been located. They are also placed so high that they radiate past (and thus avoid the problems caused by) the hanging plastic reflector-diffusers. (The use of sound-correcting reflectors is in itself a clear-cut admission that the acoustic of the hall is faulty.)
The bass tones have another extremely disconcerting and disorienting characteristic: they distinctly sound like they are coming from above instead of in front of or below the listener's head. Correction of this problem and an attempt to correct the diffuse character of the sound would entail major relocation of the pipes that produce the lower tones.
The sound of the organ is also unequalized. Although the organist made a spectacle of solo low bass pedal-tones in a performance of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, an adequate bass failed to materialize in the full-organ fortissimos. Sitting two-thirds back in the orchestra section, the huge chords of the third movement were a blast of painful high-frequency hash. The loud passages of the Liszt "Fantasy and Fugue on the Choral Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" had the same overly loud high frequency hash, which obliterated most of the detail in fast passagework in the musical mid-range.6 The high frequency peaks were clearly centered in the frequency range between 2000 and 4000 hertz. This is the frequency range where human hearing is most sensitive. The louder the overall volume level, the louder these frequencies are heard in relation to the other frequencies. If an organ is to be built to play at enormously loud volume levels, this characteristic of human hearing has to be taken into consideration and compensated for.
Since the organ is high up against the back wall, it evidently projects over the heads of the orchestra and conductor and thus sounds proportionally less loud onstage than in the hall. This has to be a problem of not having a conventional stage up against the back wall of the hall. In the Saint-Saens symphony, everyone onstage was playing away as contentedly as one could imagine, but the audience in the middle of the first floor heard only the organ. Quite astonishingly, even the trumpets at the end, which are usually too loud, were drowned out. Obviously, those onstage heard things differently. They had to. The balance problem was so gross that the musicians could not have been hearing the same sound. Even the worst of musicians would have suffered. It had to be the hall.
I have always been certain that, in Davies Hall, one does not hear the same onstage as in the hall. I had confirmed this by carefully questioning the musicians. On April 29th I was able to attend a short rehearsal and concert of I Musici and listen onstage for a few moments.
The most important observation, which has much to do with the acoustical problems, is that the auditorium itself is almost as live as the stage. Onstage, noises that first sounded like they came from the stage turned out to be ushers in the very back of the balconies. Every noise in the auditorium was loudly and clearly audible with great immediacy. This liveness of the auditorium, especially in the back and sides near the reflecting surfaces of the balconies and the walls, which is a lack of enough sound-absorbing surfaces, is an important cause of the hall's acoustic problems.
The sound on the stage with I Musici was much better than in the auditorium. There is some mid-range thickness, which a group like I Musici, which listens to each other, compensated for rather well. And the tone is more diffuse than desirable. But onstage, the sound was not bad. However, I Musici is a small group that was able to sit to the far-front center of the stage, and thus avoided the problems of the back and side reflecting surfaces of the stage itself, as described in our other acoustic papers.
Sitting up front, close to the stage during the performance, the sound was very similar to that onstage. Clearly the hall has a very uneven acoustic, which becomes worse the farther away one is from the stage and the more equidistant one is from the reflecting surfaces of the side walls and the balconies. Close to the stage, the direct-radiated (primary) sound travels a very much shorter distance than the reflected sound. The reflected sound is therefore proportionally much lower in volume in relation to the direct sound than is the case farther back in the hall. By mid-auditorium, the proportional difference between the distance traveled by the direct and by the reflected sound is smaller. Therefore, the reflections from the side-walls and the hanging reflectors are proportionally very much louder in relation to the direct sound, confusing (blurring) the sound and changing the equalization. (The sound is touted to be much better in the shallow side balconies. That is because these balconies are right up against the wall on their side, and the opposite wall is far enough away for the reflected sound to be quite low in volume in relation to the direct sound.)
While still not perfect, the acoustic in the center of the first few rows is quite listenable. One is at least hearing very nearly what the musicians onstage are hearing. That is because the hall and stage are essentially one continuous unit. The closer one sits to the stage, the closer the sound is to what the players themselves are hearing (and, as mentioned, the proportionally louder the direct sound). These comments, I should emphasize, apply only to performers at center-stage, front. An orchestra spread out over the whole stage has more balance and equalization problems due to the back and side reflecting walls of the stage and radically different distances to the side reflecting walls.
Sitting in the Grand Tier where one has very nearly a view of the whole hall, it became obvious that Davies Hall is built more in the form of the inside of a cathedral than of a concert hall. This seems to be one more misunderstanding as to what makes a good acoustic, in addition to the fact that the sound of the hall imitates the sound quality of typical, unequalized, distorted sound reproduction.7 The aim clearly is to achieve a hall with a long reverberation time, which can then be reduced by means of the retractable baffles.8 As explained in our other papers, this type of exaggerated reverberation only muddies the sound and plays havoc with the equalization.
Hall was built from many interesting new acoustic-technical points of view,
using the latest in techniques of controlling the character of the acoustic. As
Mr. Newman said, it was an experiment, only more so than most others. Davies
Hall was a form of high stakes risk, that lost, at least at this point in time.
Many things were attempted that were known from the beginning to be uncertain
in their outcome, including the extremely large audience capacity, the
possibility of using the hall for other purposes than concerts, the departure
from traditional form, and the lack of a conventional stage. None of it works,
and the Symphony, The San Francisco Performing Arts Center, and the city of
The situation is unpleasant in the extreme. But the situation overtly affects and is crucial to the whole community because, in the meantime, the hall is not the model of correct sound that such a hall should be. A community's classical musical activities set the cultural tone for the whole community and filter down through all other areas of life. The San Francisco concert-going public is becoming used to and thus conditioned to accepting a wrong sonic image and a poor quality musical experience, because a poor acoustic precludes the highest levels of musical experience.
Davies Hall was paid for by tax-free monies. That means the public paid for a substantial amount of the hall and that those in charge have the obligation to correctly inform the public of the results of its funding. In light of The Anstendig Institute's papers, which have been available to those responsible for the hall, and prevalent public criticism, the persistent reports that the hall's acoustic is excellent should be curtailed and replaced with the objective truth, which can only be that the acoustic, which leaves much to be desired, needs extensive corrections and that those responsible are doing everything possible to right the situation.
Davies Hall is not private property. But it is controversial. It should be regularly opened to investigation by all who are interested in investigating its sonic properties to explore the hall's acoustic during rehearsals and when the hall is empty. That would truly be educational and a service to the improvement of the arts.
The hall should actually be presented to the public for evaluation. Special presentations could be held during which those attending can sit in different parts of the hall while an orchestra is playing in order to investigate the sound quality (preferably with the orchestra repeating the same music). Funding for such a purpose is truly more necessary than for the continuation of concert seasons in an acoustic that does not allow the higher levels of musical experience to happen as they should.9 0f course, one can give the public anything it will buy, but then not with public funds under the pretext of preserving the higher arts. Performing in Davies Hall only lowers the arts. No one involved in any way with that hall should rest for one moment until it is either perfected or replaced. That kind of attitude is what real service to art, worthy of public funding, should be.
One thing, however, is now certain. There is no such thing as an acoustic expert. Too little is understood about all aspects of hearing, especially those aspects that come into play in the evaluation of highly refined sound experiences such as those of finest music. Also, as The Anstendig Institute's papers show, traditional, firmly believed theories such as those concerning reverberation, are either controversial or wrong, and many prevalent concepts of what correctly produced music should sound like are also wrong. It is time to wake up to the fact that the intrusion of modern acoustical science into the world of music has not brought acoustical quality any further. No matter how sophisticated the machinery it uses, the field of acoustics is still in a primitive stage in so far as understanding which sound qualities are desirable and how to achieve them is concerned.
As far as the organ of Davies Hall is concerned, until its sound is corrected, it does not make any difference how much it cost or how many thousands of pipes it has. In fact, the more costly and the more pipes, the more loudly and strongly a wrong sound-image is pounded into the trusting audience's heads.
1 Our paper "Hearing, The Informational and The Experiential” explains these aspects of hearing. An understanding of the contents of this paper is essential to any understanding and/or improvement of how one hears.
2 Equalization is the balance of the sound frequencies in relation to each other. Our papers on equalization explain the subject.
3 See our paper "Hearing, The Problem of Concentration”.
4 This point is explained in detail in "Hearing: Our Conditioned Responses to Music”.
5 Our papers on acoustics explain the problems of the reflecting surfaces in Davies Hall.
6 I differentiate between the musical midrange (between approximately an octave below and one and one half octaves above middle C) from the mid-range of the frequency spectrum, which is much higher.
7 Our paper "The Disaster in Modern Concert Hall Design" deals with the imitation of the short-comings of sound-reproduction in designing concert halls.
8 Our paper "Concert Hall Acoustics” explains the misunderstandings about reverberation and reverberation times.
9 The point that high levels of musical performance and experience are hindered by a bad acoustic is explained in our other papers on acoustics.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.