Sound design for classical music

Last night I attended a performance by the London Philharmonic of John Adams’ Christmas oratorio El Niño. Searching on the web today for the names of the performers, I found this link. You’ll see at the bottom of a fairly short list is the name of the sound designer Mark Grey, who, it should be noted, is also a composer and does sound design for many of Adams’ works.

When I attended the concert it didn’t occur to me that the performance might have had a sound designer, but upon reflection, I remember that I was impressed at how well balanced the two classical guitars were with the rest of the orchestra, especially considering how far back in the auditorium we were sitting. On the other hand, the extraordinary clarity of some of the instruments, such as the pitched percussion—which was perhaps also subtly amplified—wasn’t really matched by the same kind of force coming from the string section. As an old-school orchestra concert attendee, I’m accustomed to attributing imbalances in the various instruments’ volumes to a variety of factors, including orchestration choices, room acoustics, and seating position. It’s interesting to see that modern orchestras have given up the ‘purist’ approach and are using sound designers to improve their performance and, no doubt, to bring more people into the auditorium (there were quite a few empty seats where we were sitting).

Incidentally, a few hours earlier, I had heard a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I listened, I wondered if Christopher Wren had given any thought to the impact of his design on the sound of the space. It is in some ways a sonically impressive space, with a long reverb and a tendency to fuse sounds, as well as to obscure a clear sense of directionality. When the choir was singing while they processed, I was convinced that they were coming from the back and then was surprised to see them arrive from the front. On the other hand, with music as contrapuntally and harmonically precise as is
Britten’s in this work, there was a tendency towards ‘mushiness’. But it was perhaps fortunate that this mushiness also obscured some of the difficulties that the boys choir had in negotiating Britten’s writing.

Another element of the sound design in St. Paul’s is that of the amplification of the voices coming from the pulpits. I must say, it is quite strange–very thin, which does not at all match the grandeur of the space, and placed a great distance away from the person speaking, so that there is a disconnect between what you see and what you hear. But in my experience, this is unfortunately quite typical of the sound design, or lack thereof, employed in places of worship.

Finally, I’ll just add that, whereas the acoustics of the space were not that great for the intricacies of the choral writing, they were great for the solo harp that accompanies the choir. But of course, the characteristics of attacks and decays coming from the harp is radically different to that coming from the voices.

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