Fun To Do The Impossible, Albert Einstein

The Sounds of Music

Want a concert seat with good acoustics? So does the pianist
By Byron Janis
Published in The Wall Street Journal, January 27-28, 2007

Acoustics are rarely discussed from the concert pianists’ point of view, yet arguably it affects us the most. An audience member unhappy with the sound in their part of the auditorium can change seats, but we cannot.

Therefore the position of the piano on stage is of utmost importance — moving it only a foot in either direction can make an enormous difference in the sound and therefore in the performance.

As you are rehearsing on stage, you wonder why you have spent so much time at home fine tuning the pedaling, the dynamics, and the tempos when they will all need altering in this new acoustical environment. These last-minute adjustments remain one of the concert pianist’s major challenges. Whatever sound we hear on stage governs our performance and, one could almost say, becomes our “co-creator.” If we find the sound to be on the dry side, we will probably use more pedal to help add color. I will even sometimes try to quicken the tempo ever so slightly to ensure that the music has its proper flow. If the sound is too reverberant (overly resonant and losing clarity), the reverse would apply.

A different kind of problem presented itself with the building of Lincoln Center ‘s Avery Fisher Hall in 1962. The acousticians seemed to have been interested in a highly articulated, clear, brilliant treble sound. While that might suit much contemporary music, works of the classic, Romantic period of the 19th century require just the opposite — a blending of the notes and the addition of a much-needed bass sound, which provides the warmth and sense of harmony so crucial to music. Unfortunately Avery Fisher, which was redone several times, still needs improvement. There is talk now of yet another renovation.

The greatest concert halls we have — Symphony Hall in Boston, Carnegie Hall in New York and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, to name a few — combine clarity and brilliance without sacrificing warmth. It is interesting that all were built before 1901, prior to the availability of scientific instruments. Apparently, the human ear was (and for me still is) the best instrument of all.

Let me tell you just a few of my own adventures with music’s most unpredictable partner — acoustics:

In 1957, at a recording session at Orchestra Hall in Chicago , with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I wasn’t surprised when I did not hear enough piano sound during a brief rehearsal. Normally, when I had experienced that at rehearsals for concerts there, I was not worried, since I knew that I would have my “real” piano back with a filled auditorium. But in a recording session there is no public to change the acoustics — so I quickly had to find a way to get the sound I needed.

I had seen some sheets of plywood backstage and, knowing that wood was the best reflector of sound, I asked the stagehand to bring me some. One piece was close to perfect — it was about 15 inches wide (roughly the distance between the keyboard and the lid, an area which normally doesn’t need any sound reflector). When leaned against the left side of the piano near the keyboard, it rose a foot above the instrument. I sat down and played a few passages — it worked! It gave me the sound I needed. I have never forgotten that piece of plywood. It should have gotten credit on the recording!
When I was 10 years old, I played on an important radio program called “The Magic Key.” A celebrated soprano named Grace Moore was on the same program. During rehearsal, I saw her putting a cupped hand behind her ear. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a strange lady — what’s she doing?” Later I realized that she did this to amplify the sound of her voice, using her hand as a reflector. Not only can you hear your own voice better but the voices of others as well. Try this at a concert and you’ll have your own personal amplifier.
Vladimir Horowitz, the great pianist with whom I studied, told me how mystified he was when Maurice Ravel asked him to play a new piece, “Jeux d’Eau” (“The Fountain”), without using any pedals. Fortunately, it went unheeded; otherwise we would have heard a lot of “dry fountains”!

Some 30 years later when visiting Ravel’s home outside Paris , I had the opportunity to play his piano, and after only a few moments understood the puzzling “no pedal” request. Composers usually write for the conditions at hand. In his case, the piano was a Bechstein grand, and the room in which he wrote was small — about 12 by 24 feet. The sound was so excessively sonorous that no pedal was needed and, indeed, would have been detrimental. So the acoustics in Ravel’s room were the culprit responsible for the “dry fountain.”
In New York in the summer of 1957, I recorded Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” his major work for piano. Several days after finishing, I went to the studio to listen to the different takes. I happened to choose the ones for the final recording on a Friday. Returning to the studio on Monday I was shocked at what I heard. Everything sounded lifeless and heavy — too slow. I know we hear things differently on different days, but this was too much.

I asked the crew if they had heard the difference. To my relief, they had. They were as perplexed as I until one of the engineers cried out, “I know what the problem is — the air conditioner was turned off over the weekend and the speakers have been badly affected by the room’s heat and humidity.” There was no point in listening any further until the air conditioner could dry everything out. We enjoyed a purposefully long lunch before returning to the studio and to the tapes. As if by magic, the Friday performances were back! Shortly afterward, I was told that the air conditioners would have no more weekends off.

These are but a few examples of how capricious acoustics can be. And when we realize that even fur coats can affect the sound in a hall, you can see just how capricious.

So the next time you complain about the sound in a concert hall, pity the poor performers. Before a recital we must position the piano based on the acoustics of an empty hall, not a filled one. Hopefully, we make the right choice — no changing of seats for us!

Reproduced with permission of the Wall Street Journal