Just the Right Space

Last night Husband and I attended the local college Christmas concert featuring the band, choruses, community Choral Union,  and a small string group from Bismarck.  The highlight of the concert was Handel’s Messiah. It was wonderful.

Our college music department had a good reputation but fell on hard times a few years ago. They have repopulated the faculty with some really fine teachers. We also have a strong city music community,  and are blessed with very fine community vocalists and musicians.

The concert was not held in the cavernous college auditorium, but in a terrific space with to-die-for acoustics.  I refer to the Abbey Church connected to a Benedictine Abbey 20 miles to the east of us.  You can see part of the ceiling in the header photo. The church was built in 1906-1910 in the Bavarian Romanesque style.  They have a new pipe organ.

The sound was especially gorgeous for O magnum mysterium, a choral piece published in 1572 by Tomas Luis de Victoria.  The church provided just the right acoustic space that the piece was written for.  Look at the header photo and imagine how the sound goes up, fills the church, and then circles back to listeners’ ears from those round ceiling sections.

I remember when I was in the Concordia College concert band we had to play inside an enormous, concrete, sugar beet warehouse for the warehouse dedication in Moorhead, MN.  We played a Sousa march, and the place echoed so much that we had to play every note staccato. I can still hear the horrible echoes. Tonight was a delight.

What are your experiences with acoustics and sounds? What are good and not so good sound spaces you have encountered?

33 thoughts on “Just the Right Space”

  1. I think the most perfect acoustical experience I’ve had live was a performance at the Fitzgerald when Storyhill sang Steady On. There is a climax in the song when the instrumental accompaniment ends and it’s just the two voices exchanging lines into the stillness. The audience was rapt throughout, then broke into wild applause at the end.

    That was back when Dale was still doing Radio Heartland – the Duos concert.

    The concert was recorded, and it’s a fine recording, but unless you were there you can’t really imagine what it sounded like in the moment.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. In most areas of life, negative experiences are more recognizable and memorable than positive ones. My college built a new performance hall just before I got to campus. Audiences loved the acoustics of that space. That hall gave presence to all sorts of music. When actors spoke lines in plays you could hear every word from any seat in the theater.

    By contrast, the last classical music performance I attended was very much the opposite. Cello master Yoyo Ma gave a solo concert that–for reasons I never understood–was moved to the the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The featured music was Bach’s unaccompanied solo compositions. When Ma began to play, complicated and intrusive echoes turned the performance into an acoustic disaster. You couldn’t even discern the main melodic line because so many echoes were bouncing off walls and ceilings at different distances. I wanted to flee to run away, but stayed out of respect for the soloist.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Perhaps thirty years ago, Iris Dement performed at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing. We were a bunch of friends who decided to make a day of it. We explored the area during the day, and had a nice dinner before heading for the theater. It’s a beautiful old theater, but from where we were sitting in a side balcony, we could hardly hear her. During intermission we found an employee of the theater to alert them to the problem. He shrugged, nobody else is complaining. We were a group of ten people, and not one of us could hear Iris properly, and swore we’d never go to the Sheldon again. I understand that the theater has recently reopened after undergoing extensive restoration; I hope they have fixed the sound problem.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I would guess it have to do with where you were sitting I was lucky enough to be in about the 10th row and the sound was fantastic that was when I realized that the Bach cello Concerto’s were more than just the familiar one and when I reported to my cello teacher that week that I have seen Yo-Yo Ma at the St. Paul cathedral he asked what he played and I told him the bach cello concertos and he just about fell off his chair

        i got to introduce my son to bobby mcfarrin that night too

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I’m glad you enjoyed it tim. As I wrote about the experience today I wondered if the sound was better for some seats than others. I saw Bobby McFerrin that night, too. He always performed barefoot, but for being in the audience he wore shoes. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Saturday night we heard bangs and booms and realized someone was shooting off fireworks not far from our home. It took a while to discern where the sounds were coming from, since trees and houses obscured our view .


  4. I have been fortunate to take some lighting into the chapel at the Sisters of St. Francis home, Assisi Heights here in Rochester. It’s a beautiful space similar to the header photo. I always looked forward to it.
    It has wonderful acoustics.

    Back in about 1986 I attended a concert at the Metrodome. The sound for that was terrible. Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. It was all a mush (although it depended where you were sitting; some places evidently were better than others). One band sounded just like the next and I couldn’t tell what any of the songs were. And so much pot smoke in the air and after a few hours we all had headaches and sore eyes.
    But a few months later, Pink Floyd played there and by that point, the sound guys had figured out how to work in a large round, inflatable space.

    There has always been some good natured conflict between sound guys and lighting guys.
    At a conference we were outside and saw a helicopter replacing the signage on a tall building. The sound guys said you wouldn’t have known about it if you hadn’t heard it first. Yes, but you wouldn’t be able to see it if it weren’t for light. Who care’s about seeing it? You need to hear it! Ect…

    Why do sound guys always count to ‘2’?? Because on 3 you lift.
    Nicknames: Squints and Squeaks.
    I’m happy to stay over in the lighting booth; too many issues out of my control in sound world.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. One of my pet peeves is lousy acoustics at music venues, especially those venues where the solution to that sound problem is invariably to crank the volume up even louder. 😦

    Orchestra Hall in Mpls. is certainly one of the best acoustic venues I’ve been in. The goal of any venue is to make the full dynamic range audible in any seat in the house. Some of the most glorious moments in music are when a full orchestra can play a pianissimo so softly that one must hold one’s breath to hear it, but it can clearly be heard in the back row of the balcony.

    The worst places to hear music are usually enclosed stadiums. Metrodome probably had the worst acoustics in the world, as did the old Met Center in Bloomington. Surprisingly excellent though is the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul. We heard Simon and Garfunkel there about 10 years ago and the sound quality blew me away.

    Other bad venues seem to be low-ceilinged rooms that are long and wide. Another problem is venues that have no sound absorption structures in place, so everything echoes back and forth. At least hang a few heavy curtains somewhere, folks!

    Another annoyance to me are restaurants that are so loud and echo-y that normal conversation is impossible unless you are talking directly into each other’s ear. Turn the music down, owners! Or at least fix up a quiet zone in one corner of the room that is separated somehow from the noisy part of the room and doesn’t have music blaring. Why noisiness is equated with quality or ambiance or vitality is beyond me. Give me an old-fashioned, sedate, low-volume place anytime.

    Chris in Owatonna
    (sounding particularly curmudgeonly this morning) 😉

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I agree, Chris, about loud restaurants. Unfortunately they seem to be all the rage at the moment.

      There was a small restaurant, Scusi, on St. Clair Ave., in St. Paul, not too far from Steve’s old house, that served authentic, good quality Italian food; the din in the place, however, was unbearable. You literally could not carry on a conversation in the place. Not only did they have an open kitchen where the cooks had their own radio blaring, the restaurant itself had both piped in music and two TVs going simultaneous. Add to that only hard surfaces, nothing to absorb the ambient noise; it was intolerable and completely ruined the dining experience.

      Fortunately the tables were covered with good quality white paper so we could communicate by writing messages to each other! As we were leaving, we made a point out of mentioning to the hostess that we had enjoyed the food, but wouldn’t be back due to the intolerable noise level. She told us she heard that complaint a lot, but the owner liked it the way it was. It closed about one year later.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. i grew up Catholic and we attended church every Sunday. It was a big, old church with a large organ up in the choir loft, so I remember lots of good church music as a youngster.

    My favorite recent experience was when I won a pair of tickets to The Rose Ensemble concert in St. John’s University Main Hall. This space used to be a church, complete with arched ceilings, stained glass windows, choir loft, etc. The space was made for The Rose Ensemble’s type of music and it was a gorgeous place with amazing music. A very memorable evening.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. From reading I’ve done it seems designing the acoustics of a performance space is tricky, being a mix of science and art. Some experts think it is necessary to build a concert hall, then experiment to achieve ideal acoustics. One of the difficult things is getting a space that has the best blend of subtle echo effects. Hard, flat surfaces produce heavy echoes. Soft surfaces (curtains, seats, audience members) absorb sound and diminish echoes.

    The acoustics of the Minnesota Orchestral Hall are widely praised. People who haven’t experienced that place might want to do a computer search to see the odd use of cubes in the ceiling and walls. Those cubes supposedly diffract sound waves. The intention was to have echo but not oppressive echo.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. The Elbphilharmonie is a new concert hall Hamburg, Germany, and is said to be the most acoustically advanced hall in the world. It has 10,000 special acoustical panels.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Sound is hard. Everyone can tell when they suck, but no one notices when they’re good, so good on YOU Renee paying attention at the concert. And like others have said; sometimes you get just the right reverb and it’s a beautiful thing.
    I’ve seen too many bad plays with bad mics, crackling, squeals, ect… I’ll just hide over here behind the light board.

    My son had just started college. Goes to chapel the second day he’s there and they’re having sound issues. So he goes over and helps them figure it out. And got a student worker job on the spot. Kept that for 4 years.
    Atta way kid.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I can imagine that sound is especially difficult because it is affected by so many variables other than the physical space itself. Things like temperature, humidity, how many live bodies are in the seats, and where those seats are located all come into play, as does the power and quality of the sound equipment. I don’t know to what extent this is true of lights, as well. Ben?


      1. Lighting is easier to fake; the audience never knows for sure if it was supposed to do that or not. I read recently, when doing lighting ‘on-the-fly’ for concerts, if you make a mistake, own it!

        other than maybe people don’t like the lights in their eyes, it’s hard to go wrong. color choices, patterns, all that stuff is purely artistic choice. You don’t have to like it but at least it won’t make your ears bleed.

        Working on lighting for our upcoming holiday concerts. I’ve rented some fancy lights plus I have this new lighting console. My head is so full it might explode. It’s borderline terrifying and thrilling.
        Sure am learning a lot.

        Liked by 3 people

  10. I was trying to have a back up but not instead of posting

    George went and played a couple notes to begin the concert and stopped and looked up at the ceiling and all the wonderful acoustic modifications and wanted to know who the architect of the building was and asked to get a list of other places where the architect had put in concert halls he was in love with the sound

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Minneapolis was and is full of horrible venues for getting good sell the old Minneapolis convention Center used to be a host to many concerts the med center was a horrible venue for concerts where the sound would get muddied up and you would be able to hear anything at all
    I remember one time going to the map sports center to hear JAMES TAYLOR play and realized it was from the venue it was the sound technician and the sound system James brought more than 100 speakers that he hung from the ceiling and had his soundman turn the volume to just the right level so that you got crispsound like listening to headphones instead of having to little power in the sound system and cranking it up to the max so that distortion an echo were common

    The same thing in reverse can be true I have always enjoyed concerts at the Guthrie where you can hear a guitar players foot tapping while they are performing but Joe Cocker had the volume turned up so loud that it actually did make your teeth hurt

    The same concert hall that George Winston proclaimed a masterpiece was complete sound hell when it’s a beautiful day ( remember white bird) turned it up too loud and we suffered through because of ignorance

    I was at rock been a couple years ago and the sound technicians were horrible and Loft and I made the comment to Krista that they should find a new set of sound technicians and she said she was sure that I was exaggerated a mistake and only to find out later that the people from the main stage agreed and replaced the song team later on that same day because they were so horrible

    macphail in Minneapolis build a new school and their performance hall his exceptional

    The new Guthrie has better acoustics than the old one and it’s really fun to listen to music again

    I think I’ve commented before that I was at the state fair concert where Carlos Santana was the lead actor and the sound was beautiful and Chris and marvelous and he was followed by Bob Dylan who came out with on two of the instruments and a buddy sound and it took a minute for your ear to get used to it but they were both fantastic just required you to wrap your brain around the offering from the performer

    I think I’ve commented before that I was at the state fair concert where Carlos Santana was the lead actor and the sound was beautiful and Chris and marvelous and he was followed by Bob Dylan who came out with on two of the instruments and a buddy sound and it took a minute for your ear to get used to it but they were both fantastic just required you to wrap your brain around the offering from the performer

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Orchestra Hall has wonderful acoustics, and they are even better since the renovation a few years ago. It’s a joy to hear music there. I’ve been fortunate to hear any number of world class musicians in that space. One of the more memorable experiences was seeing Aaron Copland.conducting the Minnesota Orchestra. The occasion was the 4th of July, and they were playing an all Copland program, concluding with Fanfare for the Common Man. Stirring, to say the least.

    I love the Ordway, as well. One memorable experience there stands out.

    I had season tickets to a variety of performances without really knowing anything about at least a couple of the groups included in my selection. Kodo was one of those groups. I’m guessing this was in the late 80s. At the time, I had never heard of taiko drumming, had no idea what to expect, and to be honest, I was bit nervous that Hans would be bored by an all drum performance. His taste in music is not nearly as eclectic as mine. I needn’t have worried. It was an extraordinary experience in every way. You could literally feel your sternum vibrating from the sound waves emanating from the giant drums.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Our family loved the Big Top Chautauqua tent performances, but the sound quality was not one of the reasons. That big canvas tent didn’t provide any reverb. Technicians made up for that with an elaborate sound board hooked to a series of speakers scattered throughout the tent. The sound wasn’t sweet or intimate, but thanks to all those speakers anyone in the audience could hear what the performers were doing.

    I watch a lot of TV and thus see too many commercials. It bothers me to see commercials where singers perform outdoors only the sound you hear was obviously recorded in a studio. As much as I love “nature” I never enjoyed playing guitar outdoors because none of the sound came back to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. We have a wonderful venue here, Renee, perhaps akin to the one pictured up top – Chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, and connected to St. Mary’s University. We’ve attended some choral concerts there, and the sound quality is as you described – “the sound goes up, fills the church, and then circles back”. I look forward to more.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. The comments about lighting made me think of a performance of the Trans Siberian Orchestra I attended. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of bands, but the ticket was a gift. The band has all kinds of flashing lights during the performance. I had to sit with my eyes closed. I have sensitive eyes and it was literally painful to try to keep them open through all the lightning bolts and flashes and pulses.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. TSO has kinda set the standard for “how much can you do” or maybe “How far can we go”.

      From a Technical / design standpoint they do amazing work and their designer, Bryan Hartley is really good. Tons and tons of special effects create some really mavelous lighting, video and flaming effects.
      I’ve seen them 2or 3 times.

      But from an audience POV, my opinion is it’s just too much. I can’t go anymore for a few years. I sit there with my jaw hung open with the amazing lighting and effects.
      And then the second part gets bigger still!
      It’s just overwhelming. You can’t evn comprehend it all.

      Linda, I don’t blame you. And how would you know if he made a mistake?? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Sundin Hall at Hamline University has nice acoustics. Small space, very intimate. I saw Martin Sexton there and his mike wasn’t functioning, so he just pushed it away and sang the entire show without amplification. It sounded wonderful.

    Liked by 4 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.