Concert Hall Acoustics and the Sounding Heritage of the Interwar Period in America: The Coolidge Auditorium (Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1925) | Mark A. Pottinger
In 1895, when the young physicist Wallace Clement Sabine examined the reverberation time of a lecture hall on Harvard’s campus, the science of architectural acoustics was born. Sabine’s work influenced countless architects and physicists alike, including the famous New York City–based architect Charles A. Platt and MIT physics instructor Clifford Melville Swan, a former student of Sabine’s. Both Platt and Swan collaborated in the construction of the Coolidge Auditorium, which is housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Built in 1925 and dedicated “to promoting the study and appreciation of music in America,” the five-hundred-plus seat chamber hall exemplifies the idealized music listening environment of the interwar period in America.1 This was an era that rose from the horrors of World War I, when many Americans found themselves besieged by the sounds now shaping modernity, be they the hustle and bustle of the automobile, office machines of endless motion and activity, the riveting of steel, or even the latest jazz tune thumping from a local bar.
By the 1930s, several cities throughout North America and Europe established antinoise commissions, which encouraged local governments to pass noise-abatement laws to counteract the increase in nervous anxiety and mental illness then occurring in urban communities.2 Architectural acoustics thus became a necessary science owing to the increasing levels of sound that defined the spread of urbanism in America. The concert hall acoustics of the Coolidge Auditorium is a result of this societal view of the destructive impact of noise in American cities. It is ironic, however, that with the increase of noise abatement within concert hall construction, early twentieth-century music became louder and more discordant. It was as if the composers and musicians of the day, in opposition to local governments, sought to mirror in music the noise of the modern world rather than to avoid it altogether.3
Beyond the repertoire of the musical vanguard and its ability to disrupt sound-control measures in the concert hall, the introduction of live radio broadcasts forced acousticians to adapt to a new listening paradigm that embraced the engineered sound of aerial transmission and reception, a factor that still influences the design of modern concert halls today. This article therefore attempts to reconstruct the listening soundscape that informed the construction and patronage of the Coolidge Auditorium in the mid-1920s, a time bombarded with the noise of “progress” and the proliferation of sound recordings and electronic distribution systems. By so doing, my hope is to highlight the changing attitudes toward music, broadcast sound, and noise in the early twentieth century that shape the current listening environment in the concert hall. The 1925-built Coolidge Auditorium thus represents a “sonic oasis,” a separate space in the nation’s capital that underscores for us today the conflict in society between preserving the live music of the past and embracing the electroacoustic sounds of the future.4
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