Now that the acoustical engineers who brought us the wonder that is the Four Seasons Centre are about to arrive back in town to prepare the Royal Conservatory of Music's new Koerner recital hall for its début in September, I'm sure we're going to hear a lot about silence.
Music and architecture are no less susceptible to fads than the rest of the world. One person's cork-platform sandals are another person's 4,000-seat multipurpose public auditorium. So far, the 21st century's big performance-art-meets-architecture fad has been the silent performance space. I'm beginning to wonder whether, two or three decades from now, people will wonder what we were thinking in spending millions of extra dollars to create acoustic cocoons for our concerts and operas.
Of course, no one wants to be distracted by the loud rumble of the subway (Worst place in Toronto? The candybox Art Deco theatre at the ROM) or the blare of an emergency siren (There's at least one instance at every Tafelmusik concert at Trinity-St. Paul's Church). But does the extraneous noise really detract from our enjoyment?
In an effort to out-silence a recording studio, the new opera house was built as a building within a building so that, when the double exit doors are closed, there would be no perceptible sound or vibration inside the auditorium (assuming one could hear that with no human beings present).
Koerner Hall at the Conservatory's just-about-complete Telus Centre was designed and built along the same principles. (There's a specific acoustic standard for these halls that marks a level of zero for sound not produced by its occupants.)
A wonderful interview I had Wednesday with my freelance musician-turned-critic colleague Tamara Bernstein, curator of the Toronto Music Garden, provoked me into thinking about silence again. You'll have to wait until next Thursday's edition of the Star for the full interview, but I will share this now:
Working with the Music Garden, which sits next to an airport, a streetcar line and a busy harbour, Bernstein has discovered that the kind of beautiful, captivating silence that leaves us feeling like better people at the end of a concert comes from the psychic connection between our ears, the music and the energy of the performance -- not from what's going on around us.
On a different level, it made me think about how annoying the crinkle of a candy wrapper can be in the city's finest acoustically-engineered halls: the Glenn Gould Studio, George Weston Hall, the Four Seasons Centre. It's something you'd hardly notice at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, a converted Victorian gasworks. Yet the acoustics are not what guarantee a good or bad performance.
With the summer festival season coming right up, we'll be sitting in barns, fields and other sorts of places that might drive an acoustical engineer to drink. But my guess is that no one is going to remember how loud or quiet the performance space was. Instead, we will remember whether or not we liked the music and the musicians.
Although I've been to more than a hundred concerts since, I still think fondly of my first visit to Westben a couple of summers ago, when the music merged with the sounds of the fields and woods beyond as night fell. It was magical, yet far from silent, in the acoustical sense.
Here's John Cage's take on the intersection between sound and silence. I love the fact that this is a "full orchestral version" of his piece, 4'33":
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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