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His Master’s Voice

President Charles William Eliot of Harvard unwittingly stimulated the creation of modern architectural acoustics when in 1898 he suggested that Henry Higginson consult with Wallace Sabine, a young member of his physics faculty, about the design of the new Boston Symphony Hall. Higginson, a financier, philanthropist, and owner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had commissioned the construction of the hall and he was determined that it keep out the sounds of the world and faithfully render the sounds produced within.

The design of acoustically satisfactory settings for voice or music had emerged as a new architectural problem in the late eighteenth century, when the shift from royal to public patronage of performances called for the construction of concert halls and opera houses on a far grander scale than those required for audiences limited to the circles of courts. For example, the Margrave’s Opera House at Bayreuth, built in 1748, accommodated 450 people; the Teatro alla Scala, completed in Milan in 1778, 2,300. Although the acoustics in most of the boxes were poor, La Scala was on the whole pleasing. All the successful European houses were the products of aural luck and reliable models. Some imitated classical designs; others, like the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, took the form of the shoe-box hall, a long space, rectangular in cross-section with a high ceiling and balconies along the sides.1 Several treatises attempted to establish geometric principles for assuring the good behavior of sound in a closed space. The original Drury Lane Theatre, in London, designed in accord with such principles, had to be rebuilt because it proved to be both visually and acoustically inadequate.

American architects sought to recreate the acoustical qualities of the good European houses, hoping, in a historicist spirit, to manipulate classical forms in ways that would both create excellent acoustics and associate their name with the structural design. The New York Academy of Music, for example, was patterned after the Berlin Opera House. But the results of such American projects varied in quality and few were wholly pleasing. The breakaway from classicism of Dankmar Adler, the Chicago architect and partner of Louis Sullivan, produced the acoustical triumph of the city’s Auditorium Building, completed in 1889, a functional structure in the American idiom. In designing the hall, Adler made the first use of the design principle advanced by the Scottish engineer John Scott Russell in 1838 (it is still used today)—that to optimize sight and hearing in a listening space, the seating should be arranged on an upward curve away from the stage so that a direct line can be drawn from the performer to the head and shoulders of each listener. But while Adler also held that the surfaces of a hall should be designed to turn sound toward the audience, he offered no dynamic principles—Sullivan said that he really relied on intuition—to account for the acoustical success of this and other spaces he designed, notably Carnegie Hall in New York City. At the time Higginson turned to Sabine, reliable knowledge bearing on the acoustic character of public venues of voice or music was in short supply.2

Eliot recommended Sabine because three years earlier, in 1895, he had asked him to improve the quality of the lecture hall in the university’s new Fogg Art Museum. An acoustical disaster, the hall echoed so much that it rendered the words of speakers virtually unintelligible. Hoping to fix the hall, Sabine chose to investigate the physics of listening spaces. He was, Emily Thompson notes in Soundscape of Modernity, familiar with the

theory of the conservation of energy, one of the powerful concepts that emerged in mid-nineteenth-century physics. How long it took a sound’s echo to fall to inaudibility—what Sabine called the “reverberation time”—depended on how quickly the original energy in the sound was absorbed by the room’s materials—its walls, seat cushions, curtains, fixtures, and the like. Sabine thus set out to measure the relationship of reverberation time to variations in the materials contained in different lecture rooms at Harvard, seeking to establish a quantitative measure of the dependence of reverberation on its surroundings.

By 1897, impatient with Sabine’s seemingly endless experiments, Eliot admonished him to get to work on the Fogg Lecture Hall. Sabine made the hall usable by having panels of sound-absorbing felt hung on the walls. Although he had not found the quantitative formula he had been seeking, he had apparently learned enough from his experiments to recognize that the reverberation time in the hall needed to be reduced, an effect the installation of the felt accomplished. But one night a year later, prompted by the invitation to consult on the new symphony hall, Sabine reviewed all his data and suddenly recognized in it a mathematical formula. In a given room, the reverberation time multiplied by the quantity of absorbing materials equaled a constant proportional to the room’s volume.3 “This opens up a wide field,” he told Eliot.

Indeed, Sabine’s formula, Thompson writes, could “be used to predict the reverberatory quality of a room in advance of its construction, a privilege long sought, but never before enjoyed, by architects or their clients.” It also gave architects vastly greater creative latitude. Instead of aping the spatial designs of successful halls, they had only to approximate their reverberation times; and in so doing, they enjoyed considerable flexibility in arranging the hall’s acoustically contributing elements.

With Sabine’s assistance, McKim, Mead & White, the Boston Symphony Hall’s architects, designed the space so that its reverberation time (2.31 seconds) was slightly shorter than that of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and about equal to that of the old, aurally satisfying Music Hall in Boston. Critics greeted the new hall warmly at first. They turned against it for a while, disparaging Sabine for presumptuousness in thinking that he could subject the quality of music to a scientific formula; but within a few years, having gotten used to the hall, they reversed themselves. Thompson reports that Symphony Hall is today considered “one of the best places in the world for listening to music.”

Sabine soon found himself in high demand as an acoustic expert, consulting on small jobs such as the removal of a loud echo from John Jacob Astor’s indoor tennis courts and large ones such as the acoustical design of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Thompson points out that he was enough of a product of late-nineteenth-century academic culture to refrain from aggressive commercial exploitation of what he had learned. He charged modest consulting fees, declined payment from clients he considered friends, and, when evaluating the acoustical quality of a manufacturer’s materials, insisted on open publication of the results.

Beginning in 1911, he assisted Raphael Guastavino, the son of a Catalan immigrant who had established a successful construction firm used by a number of prominent architects, in developing two brands of tiles (one called Rumford Tile, the other Akoustolith) made acoustically absorbent by their interior pores. Both were eventually installed in hundreds of churches, temples, chapels, and secular buildings in the United States.4

Although Sabine, who died in 1919, did not train any students, architectural acoustics was by then capturing attention in the world of science and engineering. Interest in the subject had been prompted in part by the scientific mobilization during World War I, when acoustic devices were used to detect oncoming aircraft and networks of sonic detectors were deployed to locate enemy artillery and submarines. It was also stimulated by the rapid development of electroacoustics, notably in the laboratories of AT&T, whose interest in telephonic speech and hearing stimulated the development both of the “capacitance” microphone, which would detect and reproduce sound with sensitive faithfulness, and of the vacuum tube devices that would amplify it.

In the 1920s the profession of architectural acoustics emerged in the United States, its membership sizable enough in 1928 to found the Acoustical Society of America. Its practitioners taught in universities, and worked for architectural firms and manufacturers of building materials; and they increasingly figured in the business of radio and talking films, industries that the new electrical microphones and vacuum tube amplifiers had made possible.

One of the more successful practitioners of the new architectural acoustics, Thompson writes, was Vern Knudsen, a physicist who had worked at the AT&T laboratories during World War I, earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago, and then joined the faculty of the junior college in Los Angeles that would soon become UCLA. Drawing on his industrial experience, he used the new electroacoustic technologies to study sound and to advise the expanding movie studios on the design of their new sound stages. Unlike Sabine, Thompson notes, Knudsen was exuberantly commercial, glad to make lucrative arrangements with Paramount, Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers, and MGM, which paid him more than his annual UCLA salary.

Knudsen and his colleagues recognized Sabine’s work on reverberation as the scientific foundation of their profession. But Thompson contends that their absorption in electroacoustics prompted them to advance a new conception of the very meaning of “good sound” and, in so doing, to create a new “aural culture,” transforming what people heard and the ways they listened to what they heard.

The “soundscape” of Thompson’s title is the aural landscape, a combination, in analogy with the visual landscape, of physical presence and aesthetic perception. “A soundscape, like a landscape, ultimately has more to do with civilization than with nature, and as such, it is constantly under construction…,” she writes. “The American soundscape underwent a particularly dramatic transformation in the years after 1900. By 1933, both the nature of sound and the culture of listening were unlike anything that had come before.”

Thompson is a historian of technology and the coeditor of The Architecture of Science,5 a pioneering collection of essays on its subject. Her Soundscape of Modernity is an original account of the science and technology of architectural acoustics during the first third of the twentieth century. But far more than that, it is a historical tour de force that ambitiously addresses all that contributed to the formation of the modern soundscape—music and its audiences, urban sounds and their control, architecture and construction, and the acoustical side of radio, recording, and talking film. She has drawn on a remarkable variety of works and manuscript collections and has masterfully integrated her material in an absorbing book, as accessible in its technical content as it is provocative in its cultural interpretations.

In the 1920s, Thompson notes, visitors to New York City were struck by the city’s din, and its residents “all perceived that they lived in an era uniquely and unprecedentedly loud.” She points out that urban mechanical noise inspired a number of musicians, including, as early as 1906, Charles Ives, in his pioneering attempt in Central Park in the Dark to break down the distinction between noise and music. Evocations of sirens, subways, or nightclubs found expression in, for example, Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” James P. Johnson’s Harlem Symphony, and Duke Ellington’s Harlem Air Shaft. Ellington noted, “You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An airshaft is one great big loudspeaker.”

The American urban soundscape also influenced more formal composers. Edgard Varèse, a French composer working in the United States, wrote Amériques, a symphony for a 142-piece orchestra, including two sirens, that Leopold Stokowski conducted in 1926 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Similarly, Americans such as George Antheil, from Trenton, treated the piano as a percussion instrument. His early works drew the attention of Ezra Pound, who declared that Antheil had used “actual modern machines” to create musically “a world of steel bars, not of old stone and ivy.” Thompson writes that musicians like Varèse and Antheil helped teach American audiences “not only to celebrate the noise in music, but also to appreciate the music in noise.”

But for many urban Americans, the noises of the modern city were far from inspiring. Efforts at urban noise reform began early in the century. Thompson observes that they were organized along with similar progressive movements for public health, urban planning, and economic regulation. In New York in 1906, Julia Barnett Rice, the medically trained wife of the publisher of the reformist magazine Forum, organized the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise (its name seemingly associated it with groups formed for the suppression of vice). Rice’s immediate targets were whistles blown in rivers and harbors for reasons other than safety or navigation, hoots that disturbed residents and patients in hospitals near the waterfront. Congress forbade such whistle-blowing in the Bennet Act of 1907.

The noise abatement movement pitted middle-class reformers against lower-income Americans—for example, street peddlers or Coney Island barkers—who earned their livings by making noise. In 1907, after the police commissioner banned the use of megaphones on Coney Island, a veteran barker complained, “What would Coney Island be without megaphones? How are you going to get a crowd to come in and see the boy with the tomato head?”

By 1914, many American cities had established quiet zones around both hospitals and schools, and zoning laws kept businesses and factories out of residential areas. But in the 1920s the din of the city was worsened by mounting automobile traffic and the spread of technologies that generated sound with electrical power. In a poll conducted in 1929, about one in eight New Yorkers complained about the noises of loudspeakers. They blared advertisements above the doors of radio retailers and even from airplanes flying very low over the city. (In Chicago, when complaints about a woman’s radio failed to make her turn it off, neighbors threw bombs at her apartment.)

The country’s first Noise Abatement Commission, established in New York City in 1929, made use of the new electroacoustic instruments to measure the din. Its investigations revealed that the noisiest spot in Manhattan was the intersection of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue and that the noise of the subway system reached 120 decibels, the threshold of human pain. In 1930, the city passed a law requiring anyone wishing to use a loudspeaker out of doors to obtain a permit. But an amendment to the Sanitary Code that would have identified and made illegal a wide range of noises (including “those from Bells, Gongs, etc.”) was not adopted. In 1932, the commission was dissolved, having achieved few results.

The Depression no doubt did much to kill the noise abatement movement, but Thompson convincingly contends that attempts to regulate the public soundscape were also severely undercut by the success of architectural acousticians in controlling the private one. Architects told prospective clients that homes and offices could be acoustically insulated by using sound-absorbent building materials. In the Twenties, more manufacturers began producing such materials, among them the Johns-Manville Company and the Celotex Company, which brought out Acousti-Celotex tile, whose sound-absorbing qualities were improved by numerous holes drilled through its surface. Industrial psychologists reported that noise reduction increased workers’ efficiency and thus reduced costs, a point that manufacturers such as Johns-Manville stressed in their advertising.

Thompson points to the New York Life Insurance Company building, completed on Madison Avenue in 1929, as an example of the acoustically modern work environment. Its windows were made of extra-thick glass to keep noise out and the building was artificially ventilated so that they need not be opened. The building had interior walls of solid masonry, cork floors, and ubiquitous wrappings of thick, sound-absorbing felt. An observer noted that in a large office active with telephones, typewriters, filing, and human traffic, “not a sound above a murmur” could be heard. Similar sound-deadening measures marked the sleek skyscraper of the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, a building of “silver stillness,” in the phrase of a local newspaper.

The new theaters and symphony halls of the Twenties and Thirties were designed as “coupled” acoustical spaces, an idea promoted by Floyd Watson, a consultant to the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York. They combined a still listening space characterized by minimal reverberation time and a reflective performance space that both pleased the ears of the players and projected their music to the listening space.6 The audience areas in these halls were so effective in absorbing sound that a leading sound engineer later wrote that listening to music in one of them was “rather like listening to a very fine FM-stereophonic reproducing system in a carpeted living room.” Yet despite their ability to control reverberation time, acoustic experts did not always succeed in arranging for satisfactory sound, as in the later case of Avery Fisher Hall, at Lincoln Center.

Knudsen and Watson both held that the best listening environment was the reverberation-free outdoors. This claim arose in part from Knudsen’s research showing that the intelligibility of sound increased with reduction in reverberation time; it prompted a revival in the construction of outdoor theaters. Knudsen contributed to the design of the most famous, the Hollywood Bowl, in Bolton Canyon near Los Angeles. The stage was set in a shell of concentric elliptical arches (originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) made of a hard, sonically reflective mixture of concrete and asbestos that cascaded outward, projecting the sound toward the audience seated in the reverberation-free bowl of the canyon. The Hollywood Bowl was widely regarded as an acoustical triumph.

The manipulation of sound, Thompson emphasizes, was greatly aided by the applications of electroacous-tic technology. In radio and recording studios, where external noise was excluded and reverberation minimized, music and speech were picked up by electric microphones. An engineer blended the signals, manipu-lating them to reduce reverberation further, or to add to it, so that what was broadcast or recorded sounded more like a live performance in a concert hall.

Film moguls like Louis B. Mayer wanted, and got, adjoining sound stages so well insulated from one another that, as Knudsen remembered Mayer’s telling him, “you can have gunfire on one stage and record chamber music on the other stage.” The advent of talkies, which put a premium on the intelligibility of the sound track to the audience, required acoustic makeovers of movie theaters, many of which originally had reverberant plaster surfaces and wooden seats. As the making of sound films progressed, “mixer men” became part of the production process. To gain effect and verisimilitude for the scenes, they modified the sounds picked up by microphones on the set and they dubbed in others. As early as 1930 the sound track was recognized as something assembled after the production rather than an acoustical record of the actual performance.

By then, Thompson writes, architectural acoustics and electroacoustics were steadily merging. “Physically as well as conceptually, the distinction between sound in space and sound signals in circuits fell away….” Rockefeller Center, completed in 1932, was a monument to such sonic melding. The RCA Building housed a dense concentration of facilities for the creation and dissemination of sound in broadcasts, on film, and on records. Among them, occupying eleven floors, was the National Broadcasting Company, whose studios were celebrated as a “gigantic cathedral of sound.” Radio City Music Hall, lined on almost every surface with sound-absorbent materials, had an estimated reverberation time, when fully occupied, of just 1.0 second, extraordinarily short for such a huge space. Audiences heard the performers indirectly, from loudspeakers hidden behind the golden grille of the ceiling arches. In Radio City Music Hall, Thompson writes, “the culminating technologies of architectural acoustics and electro-acoustics combined to transcend completely the physical space of the architecture.”

Thompson finds in the dissociation of sound from physical space and the reverberant time in which it was produced the defining feature of the modern soundscape, which was, she argues, a product of an increasingly consumer-based culture. Stripped of unnecess-ary elements such as reverberation, it physically and aesthetically embodied the idea of efficiency; and it exemplified human mastery over the physical environment.

But in the most original and provocative of her ideas, she also attributes to the increasingly manipulated soundscape a modern cultural significance arising precisely from the new relationships it established between sound on the one hand and, on the other, space and time. She writes:

When reverberation was reconceived as noise, it lost its traditional meaning as the acousticsignature of a space, and the age-old connection between sound and space—a connection as old as architecture itself—was severed.

Modern sound, Thompson holds, should be “recognized as a cultural artifact at the cutting edge of change” no less than, for example, Cubist art, Einstein’s physics, or Joycean stream-of-consciousness. She declares that the works of acoustical engineers had as much to do with how people understood their world as did the works of, say, Picasso, Dos Passos, Stravinsky, and Gropius.

Thompson may press her case too far. The acoustic revolution transformed the way people heard the world, but not necessarily the way they understood it. But if her cultural views are debatable, they are surely arresting. Indeed, her book, in exposing the production of what we hear, makes it difficult to listen to anything in quite the same way again.

  1. 1

    See Michael Forsyth, Buildings for Music: The Architect, the Musician, and the Listener from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 100, 219.

  2. 2

    In 1880, Charles Garnier shrugged off the success of his Paris Opéra, writing, “I gave myself pains to master this bizarre science [of acoustics] but… nowhere did I find a positive rule to guide me; on the contrary, nothing but contradictory statements…. I must explain that I have adopted no principle, that my plan is based on no theory, and that I leave success or failure to chance alone…like an acrobat who closes his eyes and clings to the ropes of an ascending balloon.” Forsyth, Buildings for Music, p. 179.

  3. 3

    Further refinements yielded an equation for reverberation time t equal to .164 V/Σ(an sn), where an is the absorption coefficient of material n and sn is the surface area of the material n in square meters. The absorption coefficient was defined as the amount of sound energy absorbed by a square meter of the material compared with the amount lost through a square meter of open window. In 1902, William S. Franklin, a physicist at Lehigh University, derived the form of Sabine’s equation theoretically, including the value for the constant.

  4. 4

    Before the Sabine-Guastavino tiles were developed, one of the most widely used sound deadeners was Cabot’s Quilt, a type of padded building paper that used long strands of cured eel grass sandwiched between sheets of heavy paper or asbestos sheathing; this had been devised in the early 1890s, independently of Sabine, by Samuel Cabot, of Boston.

  5. 5

    MIT Press, 1999.

  6. 6

    Other examples of coupled spaces are the Chicago Civic Opera Auditorium, Severance Hall in Cleveland, Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, and many college and high school auditoriums.

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