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.