Let Us Fall Disabused of Every Notion We’ve Kept of Noise

by J. Winters

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Felt ceiling at Southern California Institute of Architecture.

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Conceptual draft of the Wild Beast Pavilion. Photograph: Stefanie Etow

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Conceptual draft of the Wild Beast Panel Design. Photograph: Stefanie Etow.

Let Us Fall Disabused of Every Notion We’ve Kept of Noise

A Voyage into into the Architecture of Sound

Craig Hodgetts is a subtle legend in Los Angeles, an architect, designer, UCLA professor, and thinker with a concern he considers a “small practice” called Hodgetts + Fung. Hodgetts’s firm, which he runs with co-namesake of note, Ming Fung, is a critical nexus of acoustic design, thought, and gossip in the city. Among acts and laurels, Hodgetts + Fung set forth the master plan that redesigned the Hollywood Bowl, manifested the Wild Beast Pavillion at CalArts, and are currently heading up the pivotal metro station at the intersection of the Los Angeles’ Green and Blue lines, where two freeway island levels conspire to the most incredible din and racket.

Hodgetts and I have a sit in the waiting room of his warehouse studio in Los Angeles County’s sweltering hotbed of design fussiness, Culver City. It’s afternoon, early June, two men chipping away at whether acoustic design is a matter of linear progress or whimsical fashion and novelty, and the objective ideal of acoustics in a performance space. He laughs: “I’m not sure there’s a there there, if that’s what you’re asking.” (In response to whether future musicians would be as desperate to tear down his Hollywood Bowl as they’d been to destroy and re-invent the previous incarnation.) The sun beats on our tête-à-tête with every passing moment; his bright 60-ish eyes shine out from beneath unruly eyebrows.

He references the heat of the room: “I’m probably 80 degrees right now,” he guesstimates. “That’s hot. But I don’t mind it. Our HVAC consultant would be out of his mind about this, thinking that a variance of more than five degrees is unacceptable. But I like it.” He likened this attitude to the approach of many acoustical consultants. “They are precise and they want measurable phenomena. They want metrics of performance.” In order to illustrate the intangible qualities of sound, Hodgetts turns to recorded music: “You and I both know that when you listen to a recording on vinyl, it sounds better, right? I mean, that’s basically a fact. But I can’t tell you why, and neither can engineers, but your ear tells you it’s a fact. You can’t measure that.”

Progress, Technology, and the Arts are uneasy bedfellows—awkward roommates, actually. In fashion and fine art, technology often catches our eye only when it fails (see: LED-encrusted crap on the runway; dull, looping video installations in born-to-die galleries). In triumph, it’s seamless—not for the technical gimmickry of innovation but for being a single, blistering unit of significance. Music is perhaps different, a product of more people caring and doing on a daily basis. Its relationship with technology is fluid; but that doesn’t mean every performance is created equal.

I am slotted in a handicapped box seat at the modern design masterpiece, the Suomen Kansallisooppera, overlooking the Töölönlahti Bay in Helsinki, for the performance of Arvo Part’s Berliner Messe. I have also been tucked into the cheap seats at the classically designed Estonian National Opera House in Tallinn for a performance of the same. And despite Part’s position as an outspoken dissident, and the fact that he wrote an entire score in tribute to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his Berliner Messe is of sufficient genius to also be performed in Putin’s Capital.

The experience in sound is transformative, but Part’s Berliner Messe is radically different between Helsinki, Moscow, and Tallinn. It’s not solely a product of the acoustic properties of the performance spaces, nor the musicians; these three proximal performance environments (just hours apart from each other by train) have widely divergent political, artistic, and linguistic characteristics, all of which come alive in the music. The performances are too rich and multilayered to fully parse, and we are left to wonder how much spatial identity is indelible, and how much of the performance can be manipulated with technological conceits in order to render symmetry across the cities. We must also wonder if doing so is a worthy goal. Variances cannot be quantified, or rather the quantities fail to tell the whole story; they can only be felt, and deeply. Delineating each is a task well beyond the engineer or the machine—in fact, it hearkens us straight to the ear telling you it’s a fact of Craig Hodgetts. Berline Messe is a study in vinyl.

Acoustics have always seemed like an emperor who may or may not be wearing clothes. Cadence, Tone, and Voice can make or break a performer. In the production of Sound, there may be nothing more important than Rhythm, Timing, Footfall, and Beat. But Acoustics seem like second-class creativity on the order of copy editor, or perhaps dry cleaner.

The pavement gets uneven when we move beyond amplification, mixing, and editing to acoustics and the architecture of performance spaces. We think maybe we are on to sonic manipulation of a third, fourth, or fifth order—and yet, it is a task taken up by premier creators of the first order.

As the type of sound edges towards perfection in a given performance, the acoustic design is required to do the same. But perfection means limitation: what’s good for Dudamel is bootless for The Doobie Brothers. “The main thing to take into consideration is required functionality,” advises Michael Brown of Newson Brown Acoustics, a major proponent of the clinical and metric manner of measuring acoustic performance. “You really can’t say any one building has the best acoustics, you can only have good acoustics in a given context.”

Context includes public spaces and restaurants. Having just had a splendid repast at a cacophony called Bestia, I asked Greg Bleier, the restaurant’s designer and one of Los Angeles’ most ascendant of his sort, why in such a beautiful space, nobody can hear anything. Bleier, a man of sharp wit who refuses to suffer fools, notes: “Yeah, it’s basically impossible to hear in there. Or maybe you’re just deaf.” According to Raj Patel, a London-born, New York-based acoustician of renown who designed SoundLab (a dazzling space simulation program that makes the trial and error component of acoustic design much more manageable), humans lose capability to hear at the extremes of the wavelength spectrum over time.

“Well, it’s two or three things” Bleier confesses. “The materials are hard because that’s the trend, and the budgets are tight and won’t pay for textiles. The kitchens are open, and like, loudly open. And acoustic design is almost always an afterthought—people just won’t allow for it in the budgets, so it becomes a matter of sound mitigation and slapping a few panels of Tectum up after the fact. It’s not really the best way of going about it, but that’s the situation right now.” Bleier then points out  the improvements at the recently renovated Dodger Stadium. “They did some acoustic magic there, and it is literally the first thing I noticed walking up to the park this spring. I couldn’t hear the crowd noise, the difference was shocking.”

A pile of factors augments how we hear a performance and its connected experience: what we ate for breakfast, the state of traffic on the way to the venue, the company we keep before and during the show, the price of concessions. These elements fall outside the control of precise acousticians with advanced tools; but in order to deliver a coherent sensual experience, they must be engaged. Acoustic design runs the gamut from the precious to the hastily utilitarian in the space of our daily lives, but in each case, the art remains the same: to permit music its power to make the space and its mechanics disappear, and with it, ourselves.


Written by J.Winters