Great Experience Is Crucial To Achieving Perfect Acoustics

I haven’t really been paying close attention to all the recent stories about the re-opening of the renovated Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, but a New Yorker article about how the acoustics have been re-engineered caught my notice. Our main guides through the article are acoustical-engineers Christopher Blair and Paul Scarbrough of the firm, Akustiks, who were hired to solve the sound problems of the hall.

The fact they were advising that the adhesive coating on wood paneling be 3/16 inch thick rather than 1/8 and were concerned that the fabric samples for the seating was too thin, you get a sense of just how exacting the tolerances they work with. So you can imagine just how upsetting it was to the original acoustic engineer when 200 seats were added to the initial construction of the hall in the 1950s without consulting with him. That decision apparently has contributed to the sound problems of the hall ever since.

The new design eliminates 200 seats, increases the pitch of the seating and moves the orchestra 25 feet closer to the audience. This will mean instead of 30% of seats being 100 feet or more from the orchestra, only nine percent will.

But Blair and Scarbrough say that the audience experience of the space is of greater influence on how the room sounds than all the science based adjustments they are implementing, something known as psychoacoustics.

Scarbrough said that the Royal Festival Hall of London was one of his favorite venues: “You cross the Thames on the Hungerford Bridge, you can see Parliament, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The lobby is active, it’s like the living room for all of South Bank. You progress upstairs, and—”

“—and it almost makes up for the acoustics,” Blair interrupted.

“True. But you feel you’re in a special place. It’s the psychoacoustics that works so well there.”

[…]

People often have a special feeling about listening to opera outdoors, under the stars with a bottle of wine. The sound is usually weak, or amplified, or in other ways just not that good—yet, still, great.

The author of the New Yorker piece, Rivka Galchen, cites the way sound plays in Hagia Sophia, Chichén Itzá and Toshogu Shrine, in Nikko, Japan as examples of how people have been integrating psychoacoustics to create a sense of importance to a place.

For Geffen Hall, these principles aren’t just being applied inside the hall, but in terms of how audiences approach the doors and move throughout the space. We talk about how there is often a sense that you have to possess inside knowledge to attend an orchestra concert, but architect Gary McCluskie is quoted as saying that was the case if you wanted to even find the door.

“With the old hall, it was difficult to even find the entrance, unless you already knew where it was,” McCluskie said. They wanted the hall to feel welcoming to everyone, not only to those people who were—in whatever way—in the know.

Clearly, a great deal of effort and attention is being paid to getting things right and erasing past perceived flaws with the space currently known as Geffen Hall. In reading the article, I also became aware of the time and effort that went into writing the piece. This piece is set to appear in the print edition of the New Yorker on October 17, but Rivka Galchen notes that she first met with Blair and Scarbrough to discuss their work in November 2021, spoke to New York Philharmonic conductor Jaap van Zweden in June and references people she spoke with at two tuning rehearsals which started in August.

I just wanted to note that while I knock out these posts in the course of an hour or so, I need to acknowledge I am benefiting from much greater efforts made by others.

Org Culture More Important Than Artistic Reputation

A couple weeks ago Aubrey Bergauer hosted a LinkedIn conversation with Karen Freeman from Advisory Board for the Arts (ABA) to discuss what mattered most to arts professionals as they sought jobs in the arts. Freeman discussed a survey ABA conducted where they asked people to prioritize between different situations in order to drill down to what really mattered. An example Freeman gives is would you rather have great pay, but so-so benefits or a lower pay rate but with better benefits.

Among the criteria people had to prioritize were things like artistic reputation, work from home, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), shared governance, professional development, etc., They had over 1500 respondents from organizations around the world, though with a slightly larger representation by U.S. based groups.

Freeman shared four findings among the many that she found most interesting. The first one revealed that respondents felt their current organization had medium healthcare benefits, good management, good job security, middle of the road flexibility with work hours, fairly good progress in diversity and equity and selective transparency. Freeman notes that a majority of respondents felt their organizations operated at the highest level of artistic quality which she attributes akin to a Lake Woebegone view that everyone is above average.

The second finding is perhaps the most interesting one because it provides insight into what arts organizations can do to retain employees (~13:30 in the video). In terms of what people valued most, Inclusive Culture was valued most and Other Office, which encompassed office space and technology fell at the lowest end of the range. Inclusive culture encompasses transparency, accountability, inclusive decision-making along with diversity, inclusion and equity.

Second most important was flexibility which includes flexible hours and work from home. Next is advancement, including opportunity to advance and supervise. Next is Manager which involves good manager, professional development and internal recognition. Health care and leave came next. Second to last was artistic reputation and community import.

This raises some interesting questions. There are already surveys that indicate trumpeting artistic excellence, while important, isn’t a top draw for audiences. Now we see it is almost at the bottom in terms of what organizational staff value. So perhaps it is time to examine the amount of emphasis being placed upon it.

I should note though that it isn’t clear how many of the respondents were creators and performers. Those groups may rate artistic reputation much higher than administrative staff.

Skipping to the fourth slide (~19:25) provides a little insight. When broken down by job role, people in the C-suite (aka highest paid person’s opinion) care most about artistic reputation (even more than artistic department) along with job accountability, manager quality and transparency. C-suite place least emphasis on job schedule flexibility, work from home and DEI.

When broken down by generation (~16:40), the starkest differences were that artistic reputation was most important to baby boomers and DEI was most important to Gen Z respondents.

Freeman also mentioned that they ran some simulations to make up for some potential flaws inherent to the surveying methodology they used to get the above results. In those simulations, when choosing between higher pay or artistic reputation, 54% of people would take the job with higher pay at a place with no reputation for artistic quality.

A second simulation they ran provided the choice between a place that had high pay, but hierarchical decision making, low transparency and accountability, and performative DEI against an organization with better culture on all these dimensions, but lower pay. In that case, 63% of people would take a job with the better work culture at the expense of better pay.

This was some new data for me insofar as what I thought were the start of trends are far more deeply held values than I anticipated. If you are similarly surprised, take a look at the video.

Making Venue Upgrades Pleasant For Everyone

I don’t remember exactly how, but I became aware of a grant program administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta (CFGA) called “A Place to Perform,” which supports the efforts of arts groups to access performing arts spaces.

A Place to Perform is an initiative of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta  created after the theatre space of the 14th Street Playhouse became unavailable to a wide range of Atlanta’s nonprofit performing arts organizations. Historically, A Place to Perform has provided grants to nonprofit arts organizations to assist them financially in gaining access to performance venues so they can produce performing arts experiences for the public throughout the metro Atlanta region.

This struck me as a great idea. Throughout my career I have frequently worked with groups who were looking to take the next step up from where ever they had been performing before. Often it was because they were attracting audiences that were too large for the spaces they used in the past or they wanted to do a show with higher production values.

Thinking about these experiences, it occurred it me that a program like the one for Greater Atlanta should also offer additional funding or include the services of some sort of guide/stage manager/technical adviser to help groups make this sort of transition.

A problem the venue staff of places at which I have worked repeatedly encountered with groups trying to make a transition from a space with smaller audience and technical capacities was a disconnect between what they envisioned and how to accomplish it.  Now granted, we often ran into the same issue with some repeat renters who seemed to start from square one year after year, but at least we had notes from early shows upon which to build.

With brand new renters it often difficult to just get to the point of creating an accurate estimate for equipment and especially labor.  Having a lighting and sound change, a curtain flying in while a set piece flies out and microphone packs being transitioned to other people can mean 10 people paying very close attention to what is going on where you had three at the smaller venue you were at previously.

If a grant program paid an experienced person to sit down and talk through your vision with you and then communicate that to the venue or even fund the person to coordinate those details through the run of the show as a stage manager or production designer, that would help the whole experience run smoother for everyone.

And yes, there is nothing keeping groups from including that in their grant application –except they don’t know that it will be helpful to have a consultant. Best approach might be to have something in the grant application and any applicant Q&A sessions encouraging people to think about whether they might need help and including it in their budgets.

This is not to say that venue staff can’t help. Every place I have worked, the staff has been willing to provide advice and patiently work with new groups. In a couple cases, staff has provided planning documents and templates which cut days off the rehearsal process.  The biggest problem has always been surprise additions which ends up over working the staff and raising the final bill for renters.

Placemaking As A Space To Process Trauma

Earlier this month, CityLab had an interesting article on the subject of trauma informed placemaking. For the most part, the article focuses on artistic projects which have given communities a place to heal after traumatic events, but also policy and practice enacted by municipal governments to avoid compounding the trauma of those displaced by natural disasters.

One of the art projects, Temple of Time, was erected after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida to provide the community with a place they could access 24/7 to process their grief and trauma. I would encourage people to check out the article to view the images because describing it as a 40 foot tall plywood structure doesn’t do justice to the elaborate scrollwork on what appears to be a Thai Buddhist temple inspired pavilion.

The other project discussed in the article inadvertently evolved into a larger placemaking effort than initially intended. Providence, RI had a building in one of their parks they didn’t know what to do with and had the idea to offer the space as affordable housing for artists.

Together they issued a call for the city’s first “Park-ists in Residence” to steward the property and carry out public engagement, working to reanimate the site and reimagine its relationship with the surrounding neighborhood.

[…]

Haus of Glitter had originally intended to use the space to host intimate indoor gallery shows, living-room concerts and salon events. “But with Covid, we found ourselves where people in the community were reaching out for support and asking for help and care during this crisis,” says Matt Garza, a founding member of Haus of Glitter. “And so we threw our old plans out the window.”

Haus of Glitter is the artist collective which became the “Park-ists in Residence” and ultimately ended up becoming a safe space for many groups, offering classes, setting up a community garden, hosting numerous performances, including an immersive opera based on the life of the house’s original inhabitant, “a short-lived naval commander and Revolutionary War figure…dismissed from the Navy, censured by Congress, and deeply complicit in the transatlantic slavery trade.”

The article notes that Haus of Glitter has ended their residence but seeks to replicate their model in other cities. The city of Providence apparently won’t be continuing the residency program, though there are efforts to continue activities at the park space and homestead. However, the project has had an impact on the city:

…the experience has given the city’s arts and culture department, and the wider planning department it sits within, a new frame for thinking about the intersection of place and trauma. And it offers a moving example for policymakers in other cities looking for ways to provide healing spaces for residents.

“Every city department touched this project in some way because of how ambitious and how long the residency was” says Micah Salkind, a program manager with the city’s arts department…