This Music Hall Is Pretty Much Star Wars Meets Bach
It used to be that music was composed for the physical spaces in which it would be performed. Haydn had Esterhazy palace. Bach had St. Thomas Church. For these and other artists, sound and space were inextricably linked; architecture played a vital role in how the music was written and experienced.
Today, music is tailored primarily for digital distribution. There are exceptions, sure (David Byrne, for example, has talked about how architecture shaped his music and that of others), but composing music with a specific venue in mind has become less integral to the creative process. A new venue in Brooklyn wants to revive that lost tradition.
National Sawdust is a new non-profit space in the bustling Williamsburg neighborhood. From the outside, it looks like any other repurposed factory; from the inside, though, National Sawdust looks (and sounds) nothing like your typical music venue. The space is the work of architecture studio Bureau V and engineering firm Arup, and it’s full of design details that are meant to create a hyper-tailored acoustical experience. With bright white walls, strips of light, and angular sound panels, the venue looks like something out of Star Wars, though its acoustical properties are more aligned with those of an 18th century chamber hall.
The design process started with what sounds like an obvious observation: New York City is loud. It’s not just loud on the street, it’s loud underground, too. National Sawdust is three blocks from a subway line, which is great for concert-goers, but terrible for acoustics. If you’ve ever lived near a subway station, you know this. As a train passes, vibrations travel through the ground and into the steel frame of a building, creating an audible rumble. To solve this problem, Arup acoustical engineer Raj Patel says they made the venue a box within a box.
The 35 x 50-foot room where musicians play is actually nestled like a Matryoshka doll inside a bigger brick envelope and separated by layers of concrete, wood and giant springs that absorb vibrations and dissipate them as heat. “It’s entirely separated from the brick building and from the ground,” Patel says. It’s essentially a reconfigurable black box theatre, except it’s white.
The room has four white walls covered with fabric panels shaped like shards of glass. “The fabric is the equivalent of what you see outside of a speaker,” explains Peter Zuspan, a co-founder of Bureau V. After 3-D modeling the space, Zuspan and Patel realized that getting the proper level of reverberation in so small a space required making the panels around 65 percent permeable. That would allow sound to pass through the skin and either bounce off the concrete walls or be absorbed by curtains behind the panels.
Much of the intimacy you feel in a music venue depends on how quickly you sense sound reaching your ears. Patel says that, ideally, the sound coming from the stage and all its reflections should reach your ears in under 80 milliseconds. “If you don’t have the right sequence of reflections in that window the room architecture and the performers feel like they’re far away.” He likens it to hearing an announcement on a train. “Normally you understand the first word, maybe the second,” he says. “But soon after that the words get jumbled because of reverberation.” After 120 milliseconds is when the sounds begin mixing together and you can get a broader sense of the room’s architecture.
Not every type of music calls for the same level of reverberation, though. Contemporary music, with is sharp clarity, requires less than something like chamber music. For that reason, Zuspan and Patel designed the room without a fixed stage. “We very consciously said we’re not going to do that here,” says Patel. “We want to allow musicians to pick where they perform and compose work from a specific location.” Patel says there’s no right or wrong way to stage a concert, though he imagines more contemporary musicians will play along the long axis of the room, where the sound will be clearer and more direct to the audience, while a group like a string quartet might be interested in setting up on the short end of the room, to allow the sound to float more freely.
The space is doubling as a recording studio, which allows artists in residence to write and record music as it was intended to be heard live. Zuspan says the ultimate goal is to provide a space that works hand-in-hand with the musicians, subtly influencing the sound like a modern-day Abbey Road or Sound City. “Or maybe that’s my architectural arrogance thinking that it should be important,” he says with a laugh.
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