The Importance of Performance Acoustics

By Georgia Rodgers

30 July 2015

Recently, an article in the Telegraph posed the question ‘Do Acoustics Actually Matter?’.

Music journalist and academic Ivan Hewett said that ‘ ought to be robust enough to communicate across a variety of acoustics’. As a professional acoustician with an interest in music, I reckon this is an important question that warrants further discussion.

Acoustic character is important. Different spaces sound different and this can be stimulating musically, but this is highly dependent on the type of music you're playing. In some cases, the acoustic character of the particular space is fundamental to the work (for example Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room and Peter Ablinger’s 3 Places). In other pieces, the room should be supportive (especially if the sounds are quiet) but anonymous so you can concentrate on the sound of the instrument itself (such as Laurence Crane's Four miniatures). Sometimes, where there's heavy amplification and electronics, the spatiality of the music totally swamps the room anyway (Xenakis' La Legende d'Eer). 

I think that good music is generally robust enough to stand up to non-ideal acoustic conditions. I have attended a number of concerts in the car park Ivan mentions and they were wonderful, despite being essentially in a concrete box with a train line next to it. I've been to lots of great concerts at Cafe Oto in Dalston, which is also basically a concrete box.  On paper this should sound mediocre but it doesn’t. This could be because it is quite a small space with low ceiling height, so if you combine it with an audience of about 60 people, there's a reasonable amount of absorption per cubic metre. It also has decent insulation from external noise.

On the other hand, I have witnessed performances where the acoustic conditions were a little too poor and did affect the music. There are a number of factors that contribute to this: the room might be too large and generally unsupportive; there may be a busy road or train line, or noise from neighbours or other parts of the same building.

The golden rule should involve getting some minimum standards right (isolation, reverberation) and worrying less about other issues. Most of that applies to spaces refurbished or reclaimed for performance. It's a bit different when you're building a brand new space, when you can feasibly design in excellent acoustics.

For any type of performance space, the basic principles of acoustics should always be included in the design. Without the basics, a space can become difficult or impossible to use for performance. So the answer to the question is almost certainly 'yes'.


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