Performing In Virtual Acoustics - Essay By Tom Beghin
September 2009

When musicians discuss acoustics, they usually have in mind concert halls or recording venues, not living rooms or private music rooms (which we call "practice rooms"). The historical reality for late-eighteenth- century keyboard music, however, is that most playing and listening would have occurred in precisely the latter two. Transporting a grand piano to the theatre (as Mozart did) would have been the exception. By contrast, the lady of the house kept her square piano at a designated spot in the house.

For the Virtual Haydn we deliberately did not favor one music-making context (say, the concert) over another (say, playing at home, having a lesson, or a performing for a handful of people). Haydn was a quintessential homo rhetoricus, a man who reveled in (musical) language and who adjusted his compositions to people, technologies, and circumstances, at every moment in his long career. In my own work, both artistic and scholarly, I have stressed the plural in the various realities surrounding Haydn's keyboard works. He wrote them for different people, different instruments, and different social contexts. When it comes to acoustics, how can I in my interpretations embrace the plural for people, instruments, and circumstances, and revert to the singular, as in one concert hall or one recording studio,?

Virtual acoustics, rather than complicating any previous insight, helped bring all elements together, in ways that acoustics, the non-virtual kind, might not have. There's the simple reason of practicality: I wouldn't have conceived of going to specific places with specific instruments, with lots of equipment and manpower just to record a small group of pieces. But there's also psychological awareness: a "reconstructed reality" paradoxically tends to make one more conscious of one's behavior than the reality itself.

To give an example. I'd been aware that Haydn wrote his two only "concert sonatas" (Hob XVI:50 and 52, of 1794-95) with English instruments in mind. In contrast to the Viennese pianos that Haydn had known before, the English pianos' imprecise "feather-duster" dampers, heavier hammers with more layers of softer leather, thicker soundboard, and much more equalized striking points (i.e., the points where hammers hit the strings) inspired him to embrace fuller and more homogenous textures, to incorporate more silences in his musical narrative, and draw attention to that English "after-ring" (a lingering resonance after the release of a key) as well as to paint grand, long-winding bel canto lines

This story, however compelling from a purely instrument-technological point of view, became much stronger when told in an actual eighteenth-century English room. We visited and reconstructed the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. Its shoebox dimensions (21 m long, 10 m wide, 9 m high) are similar (albeit about 1/3 shorter) to those of the now non-extant Hanover Square Rooms in London, where Haydn would have heard performances of solo keyboard sonatas and concertos. (Haydn must have visited the Holywell Music Room too: he received his honorary doctorate just one block away, in the Sheldonian Theatre.) Already at our first contact, bringing with us a historical English piano, we realized what a perfect match instrument and room were: no hard or energy-intense reverberation, as Haydn would have known from Eszterh�za or various other larger rooms in Vienna, but a warm acoustical enhancement of the characteristics already present in the instrument, expandable and to be shared by listeners seated on fixed benches all around the room.

Viennese grand pianos, on the other hand, because of those builders' preference of harsher leather for the hammer coverings, produce much more articulate attacks of sounds and, thanks to their deliberately non-uniform striking points, have clear and diversified registers (bass, tenor, treble, and so on). While these instruments operate beautifully in a private room, when brought to a larger space, they start relying on the lively acoustics of a formal salon or a ceremonial room, with their high ceilings, reflective mirrors or marble walls. Differently to England, acoustics and instrument seem to be fulfilling two distinct but complementary tasks: the Viennese piano provides a crystal-clear declamation; formal Viennese acoustics provide gravitas, rounding off the sounds' sharper edges while allowing the instrument to "grow" in the larger space.

Perception of a room, either through headphones or through speakers, became an essential factor in my recorded performances. The damper-less effects, obtained by operating hand stops rather than knee levers, so much loved in the eighteenth-century but less familiar today, mingled lusciously with the acoustics of the Eszterh�za Music Room. I found myself looking up to a virtual high ceiling, wondrously following the reverberations that came out of my self-created pantalon. The less-spectacular acoustics of smaller rooms featuring the square piano did not tempt me to make my gestures unnecessarily grand. Not projecting my sound to some listener "out there," I felt encouraged to play solely for myself, perhaps with a special guest at my side, or a few household members behind me. Cast in the smallest room of all, the clavichord became almost a room unto itself, a most private space (with its own resonance, in the case itself) that I treasured for free fantasizing and experimenting. At the other end of the spectrum, the Holywell Music Room demanded a deliberate projection of sound to an audience: in this setting, as the only time in the overall project, we used the piano lid as a sound reflector in the modern way�away from the player, the instrument sideways on the stage, the audience on the player's right.

While the speakers would create an acoustical context in which I could relax and enjoy my sonic surroundings almost as a listener of my own playing, I found that my performing in the virtual room became more focused and ready for recording when we switched to headphones. Occasional listeners with me in the lab commented that I played "better" when the room was "on" than when it was "off," without actually themselves hearing the reverberation (since I was the only person in the lab to wear headphones and hear the response of the virtual room), an intriguing observation that I made sure to test in the control room several times myself: a "dry" recorded version of myself performing in a virtual room somehow still sounded more interesting and alive than a recorded version of myself performing merely in the acoustics of the lab, with no virtual-acoustical feedback. This was evident in the variety of note lengths, my rhetorical approach to rests or silences, the shaping of certain ariculations, such as sigh-figures or longer slurred groups of notes. The examples are endless. I found myself not just playing the instrument but also "playing the room," in ways I hadn't been conscious about before, and in ways that were directly transferable to the recorded medium, with much less an element of surprise than in conventional recordings.

The big challenge for me actually came later, during the mixing stage, months or even a year after the actual recordings. As we carefully worked on the final mixes in several stages, from finding the right balance between close and reverberant sound at the minute level of "letters" and "words," all the way to conveying the larger sense of "phrases" and "periods," I found myself eagerly asking for "more" and then still "more room," up to the point where I again understood why I had initially played that silence or that slur in a certain way. Thus, the virtual room had unmistakably become an essential part of my musicianship and my interpretations.

Tom Beghin, Montreal, July 2009