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March 6, 2007
by Jessica Sheridan Assoc. AIA LEED AP

Event: Resonating Frequencies
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.23.07
Speakers: David Byrne — former leader, Talking Heads & star, “Stop Making Sense”; Elizabeth Diller — partner, Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Moderator: Christopher Janney — artist, designer, author, Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter
Sponsors: The Center for Architecture; Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Conceptual rendering of Alice Tully Hall lobby, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with FXFOWLE Architects. Bravo Lincoln Center Redevelopment.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

“Does the venue shape the music or does the music shape the venue?” posed moderator Christopher Janney, designer and author of Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments. In a dialogue between musician David Byrne (arguing the former), and Elizabeth Diller, partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (arguing the latter), it was agreed that the question is cyclical.

To demonstrate how the venue shapes music, Byrne discussed how musicians often write music with a specific venue in mind. A punk band aiming to play at a club like CBGB’s, for example, would not write music that can be performed in an opera house. In the 1970s, composers Steve Reich and Meredith Monk began their careers performing at The Kitchen, which was a small loft space in Chelsea at that time. The repetition in their music reverberated off of the walls and tangibly washed over audiences, according to Byrne. This effect is not possible in larger concert halls.

The future of music is unpredictable, as the current venues of choice seem to exist in extremes, from arenas — where music is secondary to the communal mass experience — to the very individual iPod or automobiles. Since there have not been any venues designed specifically for popular music, Byrne wonders how the genre would change if there were.

Diller, on the other hand, argued that a venue is an extension of the performers and performances. Using the Diller Scofidio + Renfro with FXFOWLE Architects-designed Alice Tully Hall renovation as an example, she discussed the challenges of designing a music hall specifically aimed at becoming world-renowned for chamber music. Since there were strict rules — do not harm the acoustics, retain the structure of the existing hall, and keep all 1,100 seats — the project is 18 inches thick around the perimeter.

The guiding design theme addresses the psycho-musical experience, according to Diller, rather than acoustics. A high-performance wood veneer over a thin layer of resin sheathes the perimeter in a smooth, curving acoustic skin. Instead of using applied light fixtures, LED’s rest behind the resin creating a red/orange glow as lights are raised or lowered for the performance. The walls are isolated to reduce vibration from the subway. By eliminating visual and audio distractions, the listening experience becomes the focal point of the concert hall, and the music perceptually sounds better.

Both musician and architect agreed that ultimately both music and venue evolve from culture. A venue like Carnegie Hall was built for a specific type of music; it became a true destination for audiences; in turn, musicians began to play music that could be performed there. Patronage and audience determine the future of music and venue, and architects and musicians must please both.

WNYC’s Soundcheck recently invited Christopher Janney, David Byrne, and Ben Gilmartin (a prpject leader at Diller Scofidio + Renfro) to discuss the intersections of music and architecture. Click the link to listen to the show.

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