July 8, 2016

Fine Tuning

Subtle acoustical adjustments enhance Galvin Recital Hall’s versatility

This following article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of Fanfare magazine. 

The Chicago Tribune called it an “architectural and acoustical gem,” even naming it the best new Chicago-area concert venue of 2015. But what makes Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall—one of three performance spaces in the Bienen School of Music’s Ryan Center for the Musical Arts—such a spectacular recital setting?

Piano player performs on Galvin Recital Hall stage

From the undulating walls of African moabi wood covering the hall’s interior to the stunning Chicago skyline views through the floor-to-ceiling glass stage wall, audiences attending an event in Galvin Recital Hall have much to appreciate. Even better than what can be seen is what can be heard: exceptional Bienen School faculty, students, or guest artists performing in a superior acoustical environment, which can be customized to each event’s exact needs using the room’s special features.

Concealed in the recital hall’s rippling walls are several banners made from layers of heavy sound-absorbing fabric; when activated to various degrees, these affect sound reflections. Sometimes the banners are used to control a particular reflection, while in other cases they are used to reduce the room’s overall reverberation. When lowered in front of one of the recital hall’s wood or glass surfaces, their sound absorption radically reduces the strength of the reflection on that surface.

Determining the hall’s optimum acoustics for various instrumentations was the primary goal of an all-day assessment conducted by the Bienen School of Music and Kirkegaard Associates, the acoustics firm that assisted in designing Galvin Recital Hall’s interior. Throughout the day, a variety of Bienen School performers took the stage for 30-minute sessions, repeating passages while subtle adjustments were made to the hall’s sound banners. After each passage, the performers were asked a series of questions to see if they noticed a change in the sound. If so, they were asked to describe and characterize that sound. Finally, they were asked whether or not they liked the change.

Joseph Myers, Kirkegaard Associates’ president and principal acoustician, said that in an ideal hall both the performers and the audience members are happy with what they are hearing.

“As an acoustician, there are two things that I am always, always concerned about,” said Myers. “One is, what is the audience hearing? Because, let’s face it, these rooms are created to let an audience hear a performance, and if the audience doesn’t get good acoustics, that’s a fundamental problem. But I am also asking, how does this sound for the performer? A performer who doesn’t feel comfortable with the sound on stage will not give the best possible performance.”

Many of the day’s back-to-back sessions—which included a voice and piano duo, horn solo, percussion solo, violin and piano duo, mixed chorus, piano solo, flute duo, guitar solo, and trumpet quartet—focused on finding this delicate sound balance to satisfy both the artist and the audience. The opportunity to observe disparate instruments in close succession allowed the team to more clearly isolate acoustical nuances as well as to better understand the banners’ effects on the sound.

“The artists need feedback. No one can operate in a vacuum,” said Jerry Tietz, the Bienen School’s director of concert management. “Singers need to hear themselves, and they are constantly adjusting. If they aren’t getting that feedback from a particular hall, they tend to oversing.”

However, Tietz explained, hearing an excessive amount of sound on stage is also problematic. “Brass players who are getting too much feedback end up walking on eggshells and constantly feeling that they are overplaying,” said Tietz. “You can’t get pianissimo through fortissimo while also worrying that your sound is much too live in the house. It can take a great deal of extra work and concentration on the part of the artist, when that concentration and focus should just be on the music making and the artistry.”

Galvin Recital Hall’s multiple sound banners are designed to accommodate the varying needs of the school and its performances. The rear balcony wall contains two sets of banners, which are generally used to reduce the return of sound to the stage and to give the acoustics greater crispness and clarity. At the back of the stage, five large banners can be deployed over the 40-foot glass wall to better control the sound on the stage and also significantly reduce the room’s overall reverberation. More delicate adjustments can be made using the four small banners on each of the side walls.

The hall’s uniquely shaped interior serves a specific acoustical purpose as well. The curved ceiling and side walls support early reflections and scatter the sound, while the smooth walls closer to the stage keep reflections accurate with minimal breakup. Myers says that no matter where an audience member is sitting, a combination of these sounds will be heard.

“When you are a listener in the room, you get very clean, accurate early reflections and then you get more diffused and blended later reflections, which gives the room this really nice combination of good clarity and presence with a nice smooth, mellow reverberation,” said Myers.

Tietz noted that because the hall allows for so much clarity and warmth on its own, using the sound banners is not absolutely essential. “If there were no banners, the audience’s experience would still be fantastic,” he said. “What we’re talking about are very delicate and nuanced shifts and adjustments just to make conditions a little bit better.”

Following the testing day, Kirkegaard Associates outlined the results of their observations in a comprehensive report that now serves as a guide for performances in the hall. Different guest artists may have their own preferences, so these recommendations are only a starting point; final decisions regarding acoustics are usually determined in the dress rehearsal.

Regardless of which banners are used, audience members attending an event can expect that the room’s conditions have been optimized for that specific performance to offer the best possible audience experience.

“If you are coming into Galvin Recital Hall and you see that the banners are deployed in any fashion, that represents a purposeful and deliberate decision,” Tietz explained. “Their deployment has been determined by the artist—with assistance from those of us familiar with the space—as the optimal setting for this particular artist, in this particular hall, for this particular music.”

Story by Katelyn Balling