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Designing buildings to play in

By David Owens / January 27, 1986



Buildings for Music, by Michael Forsyth. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Illustrations. Photos. 372 pp. $30. Back in 1975, when I lived in New York City and walked almost every day past Lincoln Center, I would see what is now Avery Fisher Hall (the Philharmonic's home), gutted for the purpose of yet another go at fixing up its notoriously bad acoustics. I thought to myself then that a book such as the present one would not be long in coming.

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In a way it was, but here it is: a layman's book on the architecture of music, or at least the architecture that surrounds it. Music and architecture have long had a kinship claimed for them by critics. But they have not always been the happiest of bedfellows, as witnessed by the sufferings of musicians and listeners across the years, when certain auditoriums were inappropriate to what was going on inside.

Author Michael Forsyth is a lecturer and researcher on architecture at England's University of Bristol, and he raises some points in this study concerning not only musico-architectural history, but issues vital to musical art, namely, the relation of music to the space in which it is heard:

The music of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, for example, has on modern listeners only a portion of its original effect, not only because our ears are accustomed to being wowed by richer harmonic styles, but because their works were originally heard in small, contained, fairly ``live'' chambers. Every listener got the full effect of warm, wall-caromed sound. Today's wholly different acoustic ambiance is what may give classical period music a ``weak'' sound to some people. Our ancestors didn't hear differently, so much as they heard in different surroundings.

Many singers' voices and careers have been foreshortened by having to make themselves heard in today's ever-larger opera houses. Should Mozart's Susanna have to belt like Br"unhilde in order to be heard? Something is wrong, and it is complained of (and written about) widely today.

The waning intimacy of concert halls (since the late 1700s) has made demands for more and more volume and weight of sound. Instrument construction has leaned toward the sturdier, the larger, and -- in cases like the violin and the piano -- has undergone drastic changes in the constructive materials themselves, all in the interest of increased loudness.

Mind you, Forsyth does not parade these arguments like a banner. ``Buildings for Music,'' first and last, is a historical monograph. His research yields up an encyclopedic history of concert halls, theaters, opera houses, pavilions, and the like in Britain, France, Germany, Austria, the United States, Italy, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, Argentina, and plenty of other places where Western musical art has been plied. It is more than a coffeetable book (although it is lavishly and profusely illustrated and weighs a ton). But neither is it a dull, learned physics treatise or a tendentious polemic on musical decadence. Forsyth's reserved writing is completely approachable, if a little dry in places, and the numerous plans and schematica included are highly instructive.

Forsyth scythes a path through other interesting fields such as the public concert itself. Some auditoriums have focused attention on the people assembled as attenders, themselves often forming a species of theater -- from the Paris Op'era's ostentatious grand staircase to John Cage's insistence that every sound heard (every cough, sputter, program crinkle, and latecomer) is an integral part of the total concert experience.

Apart from a few errant musical comments in places, this is a likable tome which ought to enjoy a welcome on many a bookshelf. Forsyth's gentle history certainly finds its niche and fills a need. Moreover, like the buildings its author describes, the book has beauty, utility, and a resonance appropriate to its contents.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.