Out of Place: A HyperHistory of the Elusive Acoustics of Concert Hall Venues

Whether church, temple, or synagogue, houses of worship are primarily designed for congregations attending religious services. While music-making is an important aspect of services in many faiths, it is not the principal purpose of the venue. Therefore, concerts that take place in houses of worship are recontextualizing a space conceived and constructed for a very specific, unrelated purpose.

From an acoustical standpoint, two important exceptions come to mind: organ recitals and choral music. Especially in the Christian faiths, the organ has historically been an integral part of church architecture. Organs benefit from the unusually high ceilings and the hard surfaces associated with churches since medieval times. There is virtually nothing to absorb sound in a traditional European-style, pre-Reformation church. (Newer churches have a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and, consequently, acoustical environments.) In traditional church spaces, sound reflections are abundant. Maximum, almost uncontrolled reverberance is favorable for organ music. Similarly, choruses benefit from the rich reverberance of a church acoustic.

There is a logical historical reason for this. Since medieval times, an enormous amount of music has been written with the intent and expectation of performance in a church space. Composers through the Renaissance, Baroque, Classic, and Romantic eras understood this and wrote sacred music that would benefit from the essentially uncontrolled reverberation of church space. (See Michael Forsyth, Buildings for Music: The Architect, the Musician, and the Listener from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985)). That same acoustical environment is a murky disaster for solo piano, chamber music, and chamber orchestra—secular music intended for performance in secular venues. Cutoffs and separation are difficult, which means that phrasing and articulation are seriously compromised.

From Out of Place: A HyperHistory of the Elusive Acoustics of Concert Hall Venues
By Laurie Shulman
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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