The Halls Are Alive with the Sound of Music

...and the job of Scott Pfeiffer ’92 is to get
them to sing

By Judith Green

Acoustics today is at a crossroads. Not even half a century old as a profession, it has spent much of its first 40 years correcting expensive concert-hall errors. In recent years, however, it has begun to assert its rights in the architectural planning process, so that fewer structures of the kind so often seen in the 1970s and 1980s—grand statements on the outside, dull and dead on the inside—are being built.

Scott Pfeiffer has been lucky. He has worked in this field for 11 of its most interesting years, entering as it turned the corner from acoustical rehab to acoustical design.

In the nineteenth century, when no one knew anything about acoustics, cities built rectangular concert halls in which every sound carried to the four corners and shimmered in the air. In the 20th century, when acoustics became the province of science, when architects experimented with computer-mapping and computer-modeling, and when astonishing architectural rhetoric absorbed the attention of urban planners and financiers, it seemed for a long time that no one could build a concert hall that got it right the first time.

The archetype is Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, where the New York Philharmonic performs. It’s on its third acoustical makeover, and it still can’t carry a tune, acoustically speaking, in a bucket. Here the sound drops into a dead zone; there it buzzes or echoes. It’s erratic and unpredictable.

“We live in a time of iconic buildings,” says Scott. “If you think in terms of ‘form follows function’ [Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous dictum of architecture], one of their functions is to attract attention.” Increasingly, however, a breathtaking building, such as Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, is not just an architectural conceit but a collaboration between the architect and the acoustician, theater consultant, and structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers, using input from the musicians and actors who actually will create the sound inside the hall.

“It’s an alternative way of thinking,” Scott says. “Instead of waiting until the building is built and saying, ‘Let’s add the acoustics,’ if we’re able to get involved early enough, we can affect the outcome significantly.”

Scott is a senior consultant for Kirkegaard Associates, a Chicago-based acoustical-design firm that may be the best in the world.

When he started with Kirkegaard, the firm had 937 acoustical projects on its roster. “We number our projects sequentially,” explains Scott. “We’re in the 2,500s now.”

In its earlier years, as much as 80 percent of its work was acoustical rehabilitation: taking apart unresponsive concert halls to find out why they did so little for sound and putting them back together with better vibes. “Now we’re much more balanced” between original acoustic design and follow-up acoustic rehab, Scott says. “And I’m not aware that any of our designs have had to be renovated,” he adds, “except maybe for electronic upgrades as they become available.”

 

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Above, Scott Pfeiffer poses on the lobby balcony of the restored Tennessee Theatre, a Spanish-Moorish-style movie palace which was called “the most beautiful theater in the South” when it opened in 1928. Kirkegaard Associates, according to the company’s press release, “worked in close collaboration with the prime architect McCarty Holsaple McCarty and the historic preservation architects Westlake Reed Leskosky to ensure integration of acoustic materials, finishes and technology within the landmark building.”

At left and on the next page, Scott fine-tunes the acoustic measurement system before the first performance of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in the auditorium of the reopened Tennessee Theatre on January 27.

All Photos: Eric L. Smith