The Shape of Sound

The Shape of Sound

The new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA is a music performance space in the round.  The audience surrounds the stage on all sides.

According to the Stanford University Site:

“Bing Concert Hall is designed by Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects, the internationally acclaimed architecture firm whose award-winning work includes many renowned performing arts venues including Zankel Hall at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Ennead’s additional Stanford projects include Mr. Olcott’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford Law School William H. Neukom Building, and Anderson Collection at Stanford University set to open 2014.

The lead acoustician of Bing Concert Hall is Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, a legend in his field whose projects include Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles, CA), and New World Symphony SoundSpace (Miami, FL).”

The shape of the space means that the sound emanates in all directions outwards from the stage.  In order to reverberate in a balanced manner, it must reflect equally off the room’s walls.

The job of sound reflection is performed by 10 large vertical surfaces, and an elliptical ceiling panel, all made from molded FRP.  The verticals (referred to as the “sails”) and the horizontal ellipse (called the “cloud”) were fabricated by Kreysler and Associates (American Canyon, CA).   The smallest sail is 29 feet high and 26 feet wide.  The largest is 39 feet high and 50 feet wide.  All of them feature a wave-design molded into the surface.

The sails are complex curved surfaces designed for both  aesthetic value and and acoustic control.  They are formed from 3/8″ thick FRP.  In order to meet the acoustic performance specifications,  they needed a mass of about 24 psf, and the material is considerably lighter than that.  They were backfilled with 1.5″ of concrete to add mass. ( If they had been made of solid concrete, it would have needed to be significantly thicker for structural reasons, and the sails would have become unreasonably heavy.)

The sails were molded in sections that were then joined together into the full panels, attached to a steel tube framing for rigidity and suspension in the space.  The biggest sail, for example, was molded in 7 panels.

The cloud is much larger than any of the sails, 127 feet long and 62.5 feet wide.  It integrates lighting slats, sprinklers and loudspeaker boxes.  It was made in 78 pieces.

The assembled sails and cloud weighed many tons, and large cranes were needed to install them.  A temporary floor was built, bridging over the entire central seating and stage area to accommodate the cranes.  (The stage is actually an elevator and could not bear the weight of a crane.)

The $119 million facility opened on Jan 11, 2013 with a concert by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson-Thomas.  In its review, the San Jose Mercury-News noted that any new concert hall needs adjustment, “tweaking,” and that it was too soon to pass absolute judgment on the performance of the hall.  It went on to say:

“The 100-piece orchestra sounded great.

“Tilson Thomas led his musicians in a performance of Debussy’s “La Mer,” and the sound popped like champagne from a bottle. It was bright, warm, fizzy, alive. One could feel the nerve endings of the music: This “La Mer” was physical, rolling through the bowl-shaped hall, a mid-sized venue with 842 seats.

“There was the clear ping of the harps, the brilliance of the trumpets. Crescendoes had body, and when the conductor brought some massive passage to a swift cutoff, there was no distracting echo in the hall, just the slightest tail of sound, and then silence. Impressive.

“During quiet passages, when the cellists and bassists plucked their strings, one could feel the pizzicato vibrations emanating from the wood of the instruments. Big unison tutti passages were dazzling, though not always balanced; strings sometimes were overrun by the brass, while the winds were buried more than once in the oceanic rumble. But this may have had more to do with the on-the-fly nature of the performance — the orchestra had arrived only moments before, and had no time to rehearse or feel out the hall — than with Bing itself.”

However, the review described the first half of the concert, (before the orchestral performance) as “less acoustically persuasive.”

“When the Stanford Chamber Chorale, conducted by Stephen M. Sano, sang a new work by Stanford composer Jonathan Berger, the voices were generally clear, but the acoustic verged on icy. That impression repeated when the St. Lawrence String Quartet — the university’s quartet-in-residence since 1998 — performed Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2. Collegial, if a little draggy, the performance felt somewhat remote, the sound more icy and thin than warm and deep; strange, as this terrific quartet is known for its rich, tactile sound.

 “Halls are quirky; maybe that’s just how it sounded from Row J, center section. And undoubtedly the St. Lawrence will adjust to Bing through the rest of this first season.”

Images courtesy of Kreysler & Assoc.