Newsflash from New Liturgical Movement: “Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic”

Jeffrey Tucker at The New Liturgical Movement briefly talks about issues related to amplification and acoustics within a nave. It’s a few days old now, and the points are reasonably obvious, but nonetheless worth making. This section in particular, uh, resonates with me:

The liturgical choir, however, is there to assist the ritual and be part of a sound framework that is broad and inclusive of the entire space — to be part of something larger than the sound it is making.  […] Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic, and… [thus] I’m not sure that it is really possible to talk about acoustics without dealing with the style issue. How a parish deals with the issue of [acoustics] can be very revealing as to what the designers and decision makers regard as the modal music of parish life.

This is an issue with which the people who sing at my parish are currently struggling (including the priest); it is a building which was built in 2001 as a temporary space, intended in the long term to be the education wing of a larger complex which was intended to include a bigger Byzantine-ish temple with, likely, a reasonable acoustic. Because the nave was going to be classroom space eventually, it was built as acoustically dead as they could possibly manage. Low ceiling, ceiling tiles, carpet. The room actually sucks sound out of you before you ever have a chance to phonate — and that’s a feature, not a bug, according to the people who helped plan the current space. They figured the bigger complex was just a few years down the road, so it wouldn’t really be that big of a deal.

Well, already in 2003, they were realizing it was probably going to take another ten years before they would be able to build the church on which they had counted; now, eight years after the current building opened its doors, we’re looking at likely ten years before we’ll be able to knock down a couple of walls to expand what we have, let alone build another building. What we have is what we have, and that is not likely to change any time soon.

As a result, the conversation has shifted to how we can make the most of our “temporary” space that hasn’t actually turned out to be temporary. This effort was begun in earnest this last January, and a good amount has been accomplished since those pictures were taken. Still, a coat of paint isn’t going to fix the acoustics, and our focus is turning to what we can do about the acoustics. For me, it’s not an abstract question; it’s like singing into a wet towel, and I’ve been doing it for six years now. It takes a toll.

Truth is, there’s little we can do. The support beams in the structure above the ceiling tiles are horizontal; we’d get maybe eight inches if we took them out. This means we can replace the carpet with something less absorptive, like beauty bark, and/or replace the ceiling tiles with something a little less absorptive. The trouble is the next question which gets asked: how do we justify spending the money to do any of that when this building is intended to be something else in the long run, and spending the money now would simply set us back farther from being able to build the next phase?

I bring all of this up for two reasons. First of all, if there’s anybody who reads this who has solved a similar problem or has ideas regarding how this problem could be solved, I’m all ears, baby.

Secondly, I think this comes back to Mr. Tucker’s point: how those involved with decision-making at a parish deal with acoustics says a lot about what they think is important with respect to music. To that end — let’s be real, guys, we’ve got a 90% sung Liturgy. If it can’t be heard past the third row when the choir is screaming themselves hoarse, that’s a problem. I entreat anybody reading this who is ever involved either with mission planting or the building of a new church building — plan for the acoustics. Plan for the choir. Plan for the vocal health and longevity of the people who sing. Put a mission in a space that is reasonably live — nonstandard acoustics will hurt you, not help you. Involve the cantor/choir director in the design of a new building — they will be able to tell you what they need, and at a minimum, a vaulted ceiling with a floor that isn’t one giant sound absorber should be treated as a reasonable starting point. In general, please don’t deliberately hobble your singers and then say, down the road, when asked about it, “Sorry, we actually intended it that way.” Your clergy will thank you, too, particularly during Holy Week.

These things, truly, are not “nice to haves”. They are “need to haves”. It’s not a snobby musician thing; it’s the fact that if we get callouses on those two little flaps of flesh in our vocal tract, we’re done.

Churches are the last venue where one is at all likely to hear live, unamplified music anymore on a regular basis; we aren’t going to hear it at home, we aren’t going to hear it at school, and heck, a lot of the time we aren’t even going to hear it in an opera house anymore — and even in a lot of churches you’ll find amplification out the wazoo. Our ears have become accustomed to the nonstandard room as being the standard, and then just being able to turn up the volume if we can’t hear something. I cringe every time I see somebody chanting into a microphone; somebody has missed the point in that instance, and it’s either the person insisting on using the microphone or the person who has insisted that the cantor needs a microphone.

For further reading, I suggest Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. I also published an article a few years ago in The Journal of Singing on this topic — maybe I’ll repost the text here.

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5 Responses to “Newsflash from New Liturgical Movement: “Chant and polyphony call for a live space with a natural acoustic””


  1. 1 rwp 23 May 2009 at 10:45 am

    Seems like ripping up the carpet and putting in pergo flooring would help a lot. We’re in an old Methodist (I think) church, with hard surfaces everywhere. We don’t have an acoustics problem, thank God.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 23 May 2009 at 1:55 pm

      That’s exactly the idea presently being explored, but there are two troublesome obstacles.

      1) Underneath the carpet is nothing but concrete, and uneven concrete at that. (Yes, this building was built precisely to our specifications. And to quote Bp. Hilarion, “I will not elaborate on that.”) We would have to fix that, and also put something called a vapor barrier on it before we could put down the flooring.

      2) Total price tag, therefore, is likely going to be close to $5k. That’s a worthwhile investment if we’re going to be in that building for another 5-10 years, absolutely. However, with certain voices still putting forth the idea that “We’re going to advance to the next phase of the building project as soon as we can”, making it sound like we’re just a couple of years away if we play our cards right when the reality is that it will be another 5-10 years, no question about it, unless somebody at our parish wins the lottery, it becomes harder to justify spending the parish’s money to improve the current building, particularly when carpet would have to be laid down again once the current building is converted into classroom space.

      If 2) can be overcome, 1) will be less of an issue; if 1) weren’t a problem, 2) would be less of an issue. And, believe me, I understand the financial concerns; I’m certainly in no position to donate the money myself. That doesn’t change the fact that after six years of fighting the lack of acoustic for 5 services a week or so, it’s taken a real toll. The priest understands that, God bless him, because he has to fight it himself, and he’s trying to convince those who need convincing.

      Again, I implore anybody reading this who might be involved with planting missions or helping to guide designs of new church buildings — plan ahead for this stuff. It really is a matter of vocal health and longevity, not just optional aesthetics.

  2. 3 Dan Clayton 23 May 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Mr. Barrett,

    You do seem to be a bit caught between a rock and a hard place, having to make music in an acoustically unsympathetic worship space where the concept of a “temporary” building has been blurred by time into “temporarily permanent.”

    In our acoustics consulting practice we frequently help congregations with situations like this (although yours appears to be particularly acute). Yes, the ideal liturgical space for an Orthodox church such as All Saints would be lofty, hard-surfaced, reverberant (for choral music) and responsive (to support congregational participation). If the natural acoustics are lively enough, a subtle speech reinforcement sound system might be needed to bring clarity and intelligibility to the spoken word. You can read more about this philosophy on my firm’s web site: http://www.claytonacoustics.com

    I looked at photos of All Saints on the church’s web site. The current building is what it is, and unless a new church will never be built there is little to be gained from a large, intrusive, expensive renovation. Raising the ceiling up into the truss space of the gabled roof, or even removing the ceiling entirely would simply expose the roof structure, air ducts, light fixtures, sprinkler pipes, thermal insulation and so on. The net acoustical change would be a wash, if not worse than what you have now.

    Here are some practical suggestions for making the building you have somewhat better for liturgical music now, while not ruining it for classroom use in the future:

    1) FLOOR:
    a) Remove the carpet from the sanctuary platform and the nave. Level the “uneven” concrete floor by grinding high spots and/or filling low spots. Cover with a good quality vinyl composition tile (VCT) or sheet linoleum. Some thicker linoleum products are resilient, providing suppression of footfall noise.
    b) VCT and linoleum are available in a vast array of colors, finishes, faux patterns, and the like. Clever designs using these relatively common flooring products can provide convincing imitations of traditional decorative floors made of terrazzo, stone, marble, wood, etc. Just a change in color or pattern can easily define a processional aisle, special liturgical space, etc.
    c) There is nothing acoustically beneficial to be gained from an engineered wood floor. It will cost more and not last as long as other flooring materials.
    d) As for carpet, if the concrete is uneven or rough the carpet will not wear well in the long run, and might need to be replaced in any event when the building is converted to classrooms. Besides, is there anything wrong with VCT or linoleum in classrooms, except that it lasts longer and is easier to clean than carpet?

    2) CEILING:
    a) Replace some of the existing mineral composition ceiling tile with 2’x2′ pieces of 1/2″ sheet rock (painted before installation). A few guidelines for where and how much to do:
    b) Above, around and extending 4′ to 6′ into the nave from speaking locations on the sanctuary platform (to help project speech toward the congregation).
    c) Same treatment for the choir area (for the same reason).
    d) One ceiling tile width around the perimeter of the room (to take advantage of wall/ceiling reflections, primarily for the congregation).
    e) A modest percentage of tiles above the congregation, in a checker-board or randomly/evenly distributed pattern. Start by replacing about 25% of the tiles, listen to the change for a few weeks, then replace another 10-15% and listen again, etc.
    f) Be careful not to over-do it! A room with primarily hard, thin surface materials (which reflect high frequency sound energy but absorb low frequencies) can easily sound shrill and harsh if the high, mid and low frequencies are not fairly well balanced.
    g) With some care taken during removal, clean packing and dry storage, the existing ceiling tile could be reused when the building is converted to classrooms.

    3) OTHER SOUND ABSORPTION:
    a) Reduce the amount of sound absorbing furnishings and fixtures, such as heavy cloth banners, curtains, etc. The All Saints web site shows congregation chairs which appear to have vinyl covered padded seats and backs. Chairs without pads would be best, but the acoustically impervious vinyl is much better than an open weave fabric.

    I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to contact me offline if you would like to discuss any of this further.

    Best regards,
    Dan Clayton
    Clayton Acoustics Group

  3. 4 Dan Clayton 26 May 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Mr. Barrett,

    (I posted this reply a few days ago as a “guest.” I’ll try again, now having registered with WordPress.com.)

    You do seem to be a bit caught between a rock and a hard place, having to make music in an acoustically unsympathetic worship space where the concept of a “temporary” building has been blurred by time into “temporarily permanent.”

    In our acoustics consulting practice we frequently help congregations with situations like this (although yours appears to be particularly acute). Yes, the ideal liturgical space for an Orthodox church such as All Saints would be lofty, hard-surfaced, reverberant (for choral music) and responsive (to support congregational participation). If the natural acoustics are lively enough, a subtle speech reinforcement sound system might be needed to bring clarity and intelligibility to the spoken word. You can read more about this philosophy on my firm’s web site: http://www.claytonacoustics.com

    I looked at photos of All Saints on the church’s web site, as well as your Flickr page. The current building is what it is, and unless a new church will never be built there is little to be gained from a large, intrusive, expensive renovation. Raising the ceiling up into the truss space of the gabled roof, or even removing the ceiling entirely would simply expose the roof structure, air ducts, light fixtures, sprinkler pipes, thermal insulation and so on. The net acoustical change would be a wash, if not worse than what you have now.

    Here are some practical suggestions for making the building you have somewhat better for liturgical music now, while not ruining it for classroom use in the future:

    1) FLOOR:
    a) Remove the carpet from the sanctuary platform and the nave. Level the “uneven” concrete floor by grinding high spots and/or filling low spots. Cover with a good quality vinyl composition tile (VCT) or sheet linoleum. Some thicker linoleum products are resilient, providing suppression of footfall noise.
    b) VCT and linoleum are available in a vast array of colors, finishes, faux patterns, and the like. Clever designs using these relatively common flooring products can provide convincing imitations of traditional decorative floors made of terrazzo, stone, marble, wood, etc. Just a change in color or pattern can easily define a processional aisle, special liturgical space, etc.
    c) There is nothing acoustically beneficial to be gained from an engineered wood floor. It will cost more and not last as long as other flooring materials.
    d) As for carpet, if the concrete is uneven or rough the carpet will not wear well in the long run, and might need to be replaced in any event when the building is converted to classrooms. Besides, is there anything wrong with VCT or linoleum in classrooms, except that it lasts longer and is easier to clean than carpet?

    2) CEILING:
    a) Replace some of the existing mineral composition ceiling tile with 2’x2′ pieces of 1/2″ sheet rock (painted before installation). A few guidelines for where and how much to do:
    b) Above, around and extending 4′ to 6′ into the nave from speaking locations on the sanctuary platform (to help project speech toward the congregation).
    c) Same treatment for the choir area (for the same reason).
    d) One ceiling tile width around the perimeter of the room (to take advantage of wall/ceiling reflections, primarily for the congregation).
    e) A modest percentage of tiles above the congregation, in a checker-board or randomly/evenly distributed pattern. Start by replacing about 25% of the tiles, listen to the change for a few weeks, then replace another 10-15% and listen again, etc.
    f) Be careful not to over-do it! A room with primarily hard, thin surface materials (which reflect high frequency sound energy but absorb low frequencies) can easily sound shrill and harsh if the high, mid and low frequencies are not fairly well balanced.
    g) With some care taken during removal, clean packing and dry storage, the existing ceiling tile could be reused when the building is converted to classrooms.

    3) OTHER SOUND ABSORPTION:
    a) Reduce the amount of sound absorbing furnishings and fixtures, such as heavy cloth banners, curtains, etc. The All Saints web site shows congregation chairs which appear to have vinyl covered padded seats and backs. Chairs without pads would be best, but the acoustically impervious vinyl is much better than an open weave fabric.

    I hope you find this information helpful. Feel free to contact me offline if you would like to discuss any of this further.

    Best regards,
    Dan Clayton
    Clayton Acoustics Group

    • 5 Richard Barrett 5 June 2009 at 3:43 pm

      Thank you! I’m sorry you got caught in the spam filter — that seems to be fixed now.

      The floor suggestion has been made by others, and is presently under consideration. We’re waiting for a quote at this stage of the game, I believe. If it winds up being reasonably, well, reasonable, then perhaps the ceiling tile suggestions can also be looked at.

      Thank you again for such a detailed and helpful suggestion!

      Richard


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