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Listening to Architecture: The Concert Hall as a Medium of Musical Culture

Colloquium Musicology
Darryl Cressman, Maastricht University

Thursday 24 November, 15:30-17:00
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, room 3.01

Concert halls are designed for attentively listening to music. To guarantee that the listening experience mediated by these buildings is acoustically correct, architects rely upon mathematical formulas to measure and predict how a building will sound. Armed with these formulas, they are able to experiment with unconventional concert hall designs without compromising sound.

The achievements of modern architectural acoustics are a valorization of the mathematical formulas used to predict acoustics. Indeed, the development of a predictive theory of architectural acoustics by Wallace Sabine in 1900 has been celebrated as the beginning of a new era of understanding sound and acoustic design. But, overlooked in this scientific triumphalism are the musical standards and expectations that shape the acoustic design of buildings for music. Sabine’s formula transformed our understanding of how music behaves in an enclosed space, but it did not change our understanding of how music should sound in these spaces.

Examining the history of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (opened in 1888) demonstrates how, in lieu of an acoustic formula, musical culture, especially ideas about listening, influenced ideas about acoustics and acoustic design. Exploring the designs for the Concertgebouw proposed by architects, patrons, and musicians reveals that prior to quantification, acoustics were more closely aligned with musical and aural discourses.

Darryl Cressman is an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at Maastricht University. He received his PhD from the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in 2012. He is the author of Building Musical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Amsterdam: The Concertgebouw (University of Amsterdam Press) and has published research in the fields of sound studies, the philosophy of technology, science and technology studies, and media history.