The Myth of the Walt Disney Concert Hall

Should you end up in L.A. ...

Sunday March 28

By A. Michael Noll


. . . in my opinion.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall cost nearly one-quarter billion dollars, and for this princely sum the sound should be excellent throughout the hall, with no excuses. However, the sound quality is not good and has harshness in the upper frequencies, while the lower frequencies seem missing in some portions of the hall. The music sounded worse to me than at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion just across the street, the former home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The audience surrounds the orchestra on the stage of the Disney Hall: front, sides, and behind. I was able to sit in two different locations during two separate concerts. Both locations would normally have been expected to have excellent sound, but did not. One location was in the rear center of the first balcony. In this location, the lower frequencies of the double basses, bass drum and timpani were missing, while the violins had a very harsh, strident quality. The other location was on the right side, nearly above the double basses and celli. Here the lower frequencies of these instruments were quite strong, but the timpani were weak and the violins still sounded harsh.

Wood, we have been told, is good for concert halls--after all, violins are made of wood. Wooden floors can add resonance to a hall, but not when the wood is installed against concrete or in strong curved structures, as in the Disney Hall. In this case, the wood simply acts as a highly reflective surface, making sound waves bounce around and impact against the surfaces, thus creating a harsh acoustic environment. The curved flat wooden walls and ceilings might look nice, but it is a myth that they create a good acoustic environment.

We attend concerts to hear the performers--not the audience. Coughs, whispers, candy wrappers, and feet shuffling are amplified and heard throughout the all--by other audience members and also by the musicians on stage. This is because of all the hard wood floors. And that is why carpets were invented and used on the floors of most halls--namely, to absorb audience noise. This kind of blunder is not what one would expect from an experienced acoustician.

One positive note, the hall itself is absolutely quiet, with no noise from the ventilation system or from outside traffic, although one feels air moving through the hall. The public spaces outside the auditorium are intimate with many fascinating nooks and crannies, although the large gathering space of a formal lobby is missing. But there is a fine space for pre-concert talks, and the ushering staff is friendly and helpful. One little nook is called the "student listening room" and is located within the auditorium but behind the huge reflective walls. The sound there is impressive in the lower frequencies, although the highs sound distant, as one would expect, and there was nothing to see other than the back of the walls.

There is also a subjective dimension: how a h all looks can affect how many people believe it sounds. The light-colored wood walls and ceiling of the Disney Hall thus can make some people believe it has a warm wooden sound. There are some who believe that the change in paint color from a white undercoat to the final dark blue decades ago somehow affected negatively the early reviewers of New York's Philharmonic Hall's "ill acoustic". Thus some of us close our eyes while judging the acoustics of a hall.

What can be done about the Walt Disney Hall? Unfortunately, the design of concert halls seems to be more of an art than a science with much good luck required for success. New York City's Philharmonic Hall opened in the 1960s and was immediately cursed with acoustic problems, although some seats had fantastic sound. A lengthy series of renovations, including a renaming as Avery Fisher Hall, compounded the problems until the hall became uniformly bad.

We do know that the uniformity of the decay in reverberation is probably more important than the actual reverberation time. We know to avoid parallel surfaces that can create standing waves. We know that concave walls can focus the sound-creating echoes. We are learning that the surface of the walls and ceiling should disperse the sound, and large highly reflective surfaces should be avoided. But we know much less about how to repair poor acoustics. And the New York experience shows that poor acoustics can actually be made worse through tinkering.

In the case of the Disney Hall, clearly the aisles must be carpeted and vinyl tiles used under the seats to absorb audience noise. This might also reduce the overall harshness. Some of the low frequencies are being absorbed by a reflective wall behind the orchestra and also by the surrounding audience. Reflective clouds over the orchestra might help here but would create serious issues with sight lines. We did notice that the auditorium itself is a huge cube with sloping walls, almost as if expecting that some day the seats and reflective walls would need to be changed. That day might be sooner than later, once Los Angeles gets over the Hollywood excitement of the visual impact of the new hall.

When you are next in the Los Angeles area, do visit the Disney Hall, at the very least to see an impressive work of architecture. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of the great orchestras, well worth hearing, even if the acoustics of the Disney Hall are not great. The musical performance quality of the Shostakovich symphonies that I heard was superb. Visit too the new Cathedral of Our Lady of Los Angels, two blocks up the street, where a very fine pipe organ awaits you.


Comments by webmaster Storrer

As one whose advisors at Harvard were the presidents respectively of the Audio Engineering Society and the Acoustical Society of America, and as one who has spoken at conventions of these organizations, I feel that I should add some historical notes to Mr Noll's critique, which I find mostly apposite to the only question relevant a music performance space; its acoustic.

It does not matter much what the space looks like if it doesn't sound good! Period. The architect must listen to his acoustic engineer, and hope he has a good one. The verdict on the new hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra is still out, but the NJPAC has been pronounced reasonably good but not great, even though 600 seats larger than the engineer would have liked (thus a suck-out of the violas which only a few conductors have seemed sensitive enough to compensate for). Listening to a self-serving Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor who wanted a Berlin Philhamonie-like chamber with seats behind the musicians has proved disastrous (yet they don't and won't replace the misguided conductor or the orchestral manager who approved of the idea), and there is no money left for corrections which, at least in this instance, are possible.

No particular shape nor materials are inappropriate in-and-of themselves! The two best-sounding orchestral halls in America are probably Boston's Symphony Hall in the Back Bay and Detroit's Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue. Boston's is a rectangular box with many parallel surfaces, yet heavy use of surface decoration breaks up the standing waves which would otherwise be present. Detroit's, famous for the 1950s recordings led by Paul Paray on Mercury, has been fully restored. It has some flat curved walls, but they are of plaster, not wood, a solution that works nicely. I've sat next to walls and in the middle of these places and never found a bad seat.

Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic for some sixty years, was faulted due to New York fire code. In a performance venue, a fire curtain is normally required to separate audience from stage until a half hour before performance. The NYPhil hall allowed for none such and the solution was a solid fireproof concrete stage floor over which was laid a thin veneer of wood. Without space beneath the wood, no natural resonance for the lower strings was possible, thus a strident, bass-shallow sound. Don't blame Bolt, Baranek and Newman, the acoustic firm (and inventors of the first successful "small" loudspeakers, the Acoustic Research brand), the architects weren't concerned with a simple think like sound.

Obviously, either the acoustic engineer for the Walt Disney Concert Hall doesn't know his business and Gehry can be faulted for not hiring the best when he had a quarter-billion dollars to spend, or Frank Gehry didn't listen to him which is even worse. Maybe Gehry's commission (the standard 10%, $25 million, or was it higher? Frank Lloyd Wright, a century ago, was one of the first to ask 10%) should not be paid until the sound is good?

By the way, Gehry's Balbao Museum's titanium already has problems, and I hear that his Children's Museum in Seattle is in financial trouble over upkeep. I'd appreciate any updates on these situations that viewers of this report would like to contribute.