The Musikverien concert hall in Austria

Everybody is a critic.

Music for this episode is by the galaxy’s own Breakmaster Cylinder. Illustration by Jessie Lamworth.


KATE WAGNER: Hi, my name is Kate Wagner. I am the author of McMansion Hell, the architecture blog, and I’m also insanely into acoustics and concert halls.

I went to school for music originally. I was a composer and my job when I was in music school was working in a recording studio, so recording all of the recitals, and I got really into that. When you make pop recordings, you’re doing it in a really controlled environment, which is the studio which is engineered for a certain sound.

Whereas when you make classical recordings, you’re really dependent on the qualities of the concert hall in which the music is being performed. Recording engineers have to study room acoustics, so they have to understand how rooms work, and having already had a really lifelong interest in architecture, I just sort of became more fascinated with the rooms and people’s lived experience with music because I think that, you know, attending concerts is an entirely different and visceral feeling.

All concert halls are different. They each kind of have their own personalities and they’re each suited to a different type of music depending on when they were built. The architecture of the time and the funding of the concert hall really plays an influence in how a concert hall is designed. I’ve listened to quite a few concert halls in my day, right, and I just went to Europe to listen to more concert halls. And I, of course, have favorites. The Berlin Phil and the Vienna Musikverien, which is a 19th century shoe-box hall.

We listened to a Mozart violin concerto.

When I heard the Vienna Musikverien, it made me realize that every console I had listened to in my entire lived experience was mediocre. I just didn’t think that there could be a hall that sounded as good as that hall sounded. The space is like a super ornate Viennese 19th century building. I mean, it is just so extra like there are like gold naked women as the columns. They painted all of the wood to look like stone,.The ceiling is all gilded and like it’s super ornate and any kind of Greek architectural motive is somewhere in the hall. I mean, it is just so over the top and so excessive. It’s almost like obscene.

The hall is like rectangular shaped and relatively narrow, and if it weren’t for that architectural detail, it would sound so bad like you’re in an office cubicle except for louder and bigger. But those architectural details serve an acoustical purpose, which is to diffuse or scatter the sound, which makes it extremely warm. It gives it a sense of airiness, so to speak. The low frequencies in there are just like, it’s like liquid chocolate. I mean, when there’s a cello solo and you’re just like sitting there melting cause it’s like, it’s just like the cello is never going to sound better in any other room on this earth.

But it’s not as simple as saying that this one is the best. All halls have flaws. There’s not a single hole that’s perfect. I mean, the Musikverien, if you play like a Bruckner symphony in there, which is just like a huge orchestra, like over 80 people in the orchestra, it’s a little room and it’s just too much sound for that room and it ends up being overly loud. And it can be almost harsh and unpleasant because there’s just too much sound for too small a room. I mean, the acoustics kind of wage a war against themselves at a certain point.

I went to the Berlin Phil with two friends of mine, one of which was a musician, but the other was not. The one friend who was not a musician, she was like, “I don’t know if I should share what I thought about it cause like I’m not an expert.” I’m like, “Oh no, I don’t care. Like just what did you think about it?” And so she gave like this frickin’ spot on criticism of like what was and wasn’t good. And then she’s like, “I just don’t have a discerning ear.” I’m like, “Uhh, yeah you do.” I think most people have the critical faculties to describe how they interpret the world. Like this is how I feel when I write McMansion Hell. I think most people, they hate McMansions and it’s not because they’re jealous. I don’t think that’s really why. I think people have an innate understanding of how architecture was supposed to look like, and I think people are rightly discerning about things.

It’s encouraging people to seek things on their own and to be empowered to describe their experiences and become their own critics.

MARK BRAMHILL: Enthusiast! is produced by me, Mark Bramhill. Today’s music is by the galaxy’s own Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find links to Kate’s nub-tastic work, and lots more to be joyful about, at Enthusiast! is a new podcast — if you want to help the show out, please take a minute to write a review in Apple Podcasts. I really appreciate it.