A Place for New Music: A Discussion on Concert Hall Venues

3. Poor Venues Acoustics and Other Distractions

RUSSELL JOHNSON: If you have an audience which is sensitive to acoustics, or a music director who is sensitive to acoustics or a group of performers, musicians who are sensitive, then of course they are going to keep looking always for a better and better place acoustically. But we also know, acoustically speaking, that all over the world there are a lot of very unsatisfactory opera houses and a lot of very unsatisfactory recital halls, a lot of very unsatisfactory concert halls and yet that’s where musical life is. Maybe 92 percent of musical life of the world is in acoustically unsatisfactory places.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I curate a series at Galapagos, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and it’s a raw, brick back room of a large and well-housed bar. The acoustic is maybe five on a scale of zero to 100. But the environment and the constituents of the neighborhood, the actual visitors to the space, create an atmosphere in which most new music proponents want to perform. They want to be there, they’re eager to be there, they volunteer to be there. So with the right environment as far as the furnishings of the room and the candles on the wall and the drapery in the background and the dimming of the lights, we can create a warmth and a coziness that the music demands and also a much more informal atmosphere than one would find at Alice Tully Hall. People can get up. People can change their positioning so they can get a better sightline of the stage, of the musicians if they want to. So the whole nurturing of the barrier is there and available and people come for that. They’re not coming for the 100 percent acoustic on the stage. They’re coming to be part of a new music community and they find it very inviting.

FRANK J. OTERI: Before the camera got turned on, we talked about our other favorite venue to pick on other that the Knitting FactoryLincoln Center. e talked about the New York Philharmonic premiere of what I believe was probably a beautiful piece, I’ve heard many other works of his and they’re all beautiful and I can only assume that this one is beautiful too. I say it was “probably beautiful” because I can’t say it with certainly even though I was at the premiere! I’m talking about Somei Satoh; I’m not sure I heard his music at that premiere.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: You didn’t hear it. You didn’t hear it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, and I heard parts of it and I what heard was beautiful, but it was an utter failure in that space and…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: And it wasn’t for wont of Kurt Masur trying to control the audience. That piece starts with 32 seconds of pure silence…resonant silence. A waiting, pending, pregnant pause. And the conductor, even though he tried three times, could not create the right pregnant pause to be able to start the peace. I think I found the right venue for Somei Satoh, which is the Angel Orensanz Arts Center down on Norfolk Street, but at the same time we’d have to create the right seating environment. No squeaky folding chairs, people reclining. So I think it could be developed, but certainly not in Lincoln Center, despite the best efforts of the maestro to create that environment.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well that then becomes another question, the proper environment to hear a new piece of music and obviously every piece comes with its own agenda and you certainly can’t to a new concert hall for every single piece of music that’s being done, although Carnegie Hall‘s attempt at this with their plans for that new Zankel Hall which has twelve different stages that change depending on what’s there is a pretty interesting way to deal with this issue. But the question now becomes how to experience a piece of music? Sitting, standing, laying down…what is the ideal physical state that a listener should be in when listening to music?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: Send that question somewhere else first.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think it’s an individual matter; it’s an individual listener’s concern. I mean, some people like to buy standing room, I mean, that’s where they’re more comfortable. Others are more comfortable in one of the new cinema seats, which is like a cushioned armchair with a reclining back, others are quite happy to sit bolt upright. It’s an individual decision that a concert hall can’t really facilitate. It can’t enable those people to have a multitude of ways in which to pose themselves to listen to the music.

LIMOR TOMER: I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit of a goofy question. I think the ideal way for me to take in a new piece of music is: A) to want to and B) to have a drink in my hand. I don’t mean alcohol necessarily but a glass of water, something. And I think that maybe that just symbolizes a willingness and a comfort level, you know and then I’m engaged and then I am open and then I want to listen. I can be standing, I can be sitting, I can be lying down. All that is sort of, if the composer tries to or wants to dictate the positioning of the audience, fine. I find it interesting what you said about Somei Satoh and Orensanz in this sort of ecclesiastical environment where certain pieces just live and breathe more comfortably.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: Yeah, and for Somei Satoh, the breathing is the thing. The space between the notes is absolutely of quintessential importance to the understanding of his music and if you miss the silence, you miss half the piece.

LIMOR TOMER: And just the building, just the Orensanz has that…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: Quality.

LIMOR TOMER: Quality in it, so…

RUSSELL JOHNSON: Oh, all right, I’ll try. I guess realizing that over the last 200 to 300 years a lot of the music we consider classical today was actually composed to be played when the emperor was dining and entertaining his guests.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: Background music.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: In Vienna in the summer particularly, tea houses… A lot of the music that we consider sacred today was performed in that kind of environment. Also in parks, in very elaborate bandstands over the years, so having a drink in your hand to listen to music is not new.

LIMOR TOMER: Well no. I don’t pretend it is. It’s just, to me it has the connotation of a comfort level and a lack of formality that I think helps me and other people deal with the demands of new music, unfamiliar music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yet at Carnegie Hall you can’t have a drink in your hand.

LIMOR TOMER: No. Drink bad, Carnegie Hall.


The interior of Boston Symphony Hall
Photo courtesy Boston Symphony

RUSSELL JOHNSON: In fact, at Boston Symphony Hall, for years, they’d clear out the whole main floor. They’d occupy the entire main floor with tables and about ten or twelve people at each round table. That’s been going on. I don’t know if they’re still doing it, but for most of the last 100 years, they’ve been doing it. So again…

LIMOR TOMER: That’s not new.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: It’s not necessarily the Mahler Ninth; it’s a lighter version of symphony music. I’m sure we can think of many examples where food and drink are very intimately involved with listening to and performing music.

LIMOR TOMER: And it’s found in other cultures too.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said something very interesting. “A lighter form of listening to music.” So does having the drink in your hand or being engaged in another activity other than sitting upright and listening to music imply that you’re not completely listening in some ways?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I think what happens in these circumstances is, you go through a number of minutes where you’re talking with your neighbor and eating and drinking and then most of the audience turns their attention to the performance. So I’m going to stop there.

FRANK J. OTERI: There was a comment that Molly made that I just absolutely adored, she said that we’re talking about musical Darwinism. If the music’s good enough, won’t people shut up and listen, no matter what?

COLETTE DOMINGUES: No!

LIMOR TOMER: I’ve seen that happen actually. I’ve seen it not happen but I’ve also seen it happen. Yeah, I curate a series in a space that’s a restaurant. And so it’s a very dangerous place for musicians. And I’ve seen musicians absolutely take over and it’s not just the music, it’s the projection or the communication skill. It’s like what you said about the buskers, the communication skill of the performer up there that just shuts down what we call the silverware channel. It’s just gone.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: And I bet you’ve also seen spectacular artists who have not been able to transcend the hub of noise.

LIMOR TOMER: Oh, yeah, well absolutely.


The new Iridium
Photo courtesy the Iridium, New York, NY

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the most tragic concerts that I’ve attended was a duet concert at Iridium, which has relatively good acoustics for a jazz club where they serve food and I have heard a number of splendid concerts there. This was not one of them. Even though it was musically fantastic—it was Charlie Haden on bass and Geri Allen on piano—and it was summertime but the air conditioner was loud, so they decided to turn the air conditioner off and they decided to do the thing without amplification. You know, it was a fantastic idea in the abstract, but a deadly idea for this room. So it was just piano and bass with no amplification at all and busboys were taking away entrees and drinks and all, and they drowned out the entire gig. You couldn’t hear anything. While the little I heard was fantastic, it was an utter failure because it showed a total lack of understanding for that space. Yeah, the music was good enough and you know the audience was quiet, but the staff was not.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: Yeah you’ve got a similar situation at Belle Epoque, but the staff are all very concerned about the music so they’re literally on tender feet. They’re very, very respectful. So it’s the same kind of environment with the eating and the drinking and the busboys, but everyone is very respectful of the sound so it works beautifully.

FRANK J. OTERI: Sometimes it’s not even a question of volume. One time I was at the Beacon Theater. And you know, concerts there can be pretty loud, but despite that, the ushers were talking all the way through it and it was extremely intrusive. The audience was completely engaged, but the staff wasn’t, and it was a problem.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: That’s a matter of getting your act together and making sure that your business skills are in place so that you can actually go and manage the staff prior to the event so they know what is going on. That’s a shame because that could’ve been avoided.