plural noun: venues
- the place where something happens, especially an organized event such as a concert, conference, or sports event.”the river could soon be the venue for a powerboat world championship event”
the county or district within which a criminal or civil case must be heard.
I know everyone mainly listens to music via headphones now, (or in my case, via my car’s speakers), but we still acknowledge that most music was/is intended to be heard in a space built for listening. Maybe not exclusively for music listening, but listening. This past “spring,” I’ve had the chance to play and listen in a pretty wide variety of spaces, and most of them didn’t get too much in the way of the music involved, which was heartening. But the fact that these spaces included two very different chapels AND two somewhat different cement-box buildings in two months tells a lot about where we play music for people.
During this year’s SEAMUS conference in Connecticut, I performed Scott Miller’s piece “Contents May Differ” for amplified bass clarinet and fixed media electronics – in a space that certainly was not built for such a piece. The old campus chapel did contribute a lot to the work, though, since the resonance of the building heightened the resonance of the multiphonics in bass clarinet part as well of the rumbling bass sounds (adapted from the same multiphonic resonances) in the electronic part. In fact, any more resonance and there might have been some real trouble – maybe some chapel fixtures shaking and the like.
Of course, there was a lot to look at while you were listening to the concert in this venue as well – not an insignificant part of the experience.
The other main hall for the conference was in a huge monolithic building – when I asked for directions to the space, people told me to “walk down the hill until you get to the Brutalist architecture”. Lots of cement, lots of grey, lots of mainly hard surfaces, and the performers seemed to be at least the length of a football field from the audience. The sound, which of course at this conference was mainly electronic, wasn’t really adversely affected acoustically, but it was hard to concentrate on the pieces in the space that was nothing so much as a stone cube. I’m happy that Scott’s piece was scheduled for the less minimalist church space, even with the smaller audience seating available there – even depressing pieces were more fun in the chapel.
Last week I experienced another cement box, though smaller, at a show by Gabriel Kahane and Rob Moose in my old hometown. I remember playing there myself in high school – it was sort of an intimate brutalist hall, again with grey concrete and a stage that seemed far away for the size of the room. It has been recalibrated, though, or so a local musician told me. Apparently Steve Reich has played there and described the room as an acoustic nightmare, so adjustments were made in response. The last time I played there was 5 years ago, when it was still in process, playing a bunch of multimedia pieces. Here’s a photo of John Sampen doing similarly last year in the venue. There’s more cloth now in addition to the cement and wood panels.
All told, even with the adjustments, it was not my favorite place to here Gabriel Kahane’s songs. The amplification necessary for the guitars and electronic sound processing was reinforced by the hall echo, and got in the way of the lyrics some of the time. The best sound balance happened when the singers faced the audience directly – but that may have been partly psychological, since then the listeners can read the performers’ faces better and get the sense of the text from more than just hearing the words.
The next time I actually performed after SEAMUS was part of an event for donors at the Ragdale Foundation. There. I just performed in my studio, which had high ceilings and good sight lines, but not much space for the listeners. I did two slightly different open studios that day – one in the afternoon for the other residents, and one at night for both residents and donors. Those who came to both were surprised at the difference in the sound between the performances. I explained that many people believe (for a variety of reasons, including lowered heat, lowered use of electricity, less activity in the general environment) that music sounds better after the sun goes down, and many of the residents hadn’t ever thought of that. I suppose that the more we all use headphones the less we think about sound in the actual air.
I was back in a chapel at the end of April, when some of my songs were done in Portland at the Back Cove Festival. This festival usually takes place in rooms at the Portland Conservatory, which have a basic auditorium feel. However, this year featured a bunch of organ music, so the large church next door was used. I think the audience had a better time at this venue than in the previous years’ auditorium, but the performers had a bit less fun. They had to worry about sight lines more, fitting around the altar steps, and most importantly, hearing each other through the pretty substantial echo. The audience had a lot to look at, though, and depending on where you were sitting/which ensemble was playing, you could hear fairly well. And when the organ kicked in, it was obviously worth it. If scheduled there again, I would think carefully about what kind of piece to bring to the Festival – probably something like organ music.