Halls Are Alive with the Sound of Music
...and the job of Scott
Pfeiffer ’92 is to get
them to sing
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.”
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.”