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J. Christopher Jaffe ’49
Photo by Gary Gold

New Book Focuses on Bringing the Sound of Traditional Concert Halls to Modern Design

Renowned concert hall designer J. Christopher Jaffe ’49 discussed his new book, The Acoustics of Performance Halls: Spaces for Music from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl, in a lecture and book-signing in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies Feb. 14.

Jaffe’s book explores the techniques and technology acousticians employ to create the ambiance of traditional concert halls in modern designs. Jaffe’s own interest in performance hall design was sparked in the 1950s, during his studies for a master’s degree in theater at Columbia University.

At the time, Jaffe said, classical music concerts were an exercise in formal attire and behavior, and attendance was restricted to those with the means and education to meet the standard. A growing debate pitted the traditional audience against classical music supporters who believed that more informal concert halls would broaden the audience for the music.

“The idea was to create a more intimate and egalitarian performance space which in turn increases the audience base for classical concert music,” Jaffe said. “If we did this, if we created these more intimate accessible spaces, the audience for classical music would increase and orchestras would be more financially stable.”

The book includes a forward written by Leo Beranek, the acclaimed acoustician credited with devising a system that translated the subjective characteristics prized by conductors, musicians, and critics — such as presence, clarity, definition, “liveness,” and warmth — to mathematical acoustic measurements.

The Acoustics of Performance Halls (W.W. Norton & Company) describes the common misconceptions about what makes a successful classical concert space, and explains that sound reflections rather than geometry are the key to developing an outstanding hall.

Jaffe graduated from Rensselaer in 1949 with a degree in chemical engineering. He launched his career in concert hall design when he observed how fiberglass stage set panels reflected sound.

He experimented with the panels and eventually produced a portable shell that could be employed to produce a specific acoustic effect. He established Stagecraft Corp., designing and constructing the shells. His first major triumph came when the Cincinnati Symphony incorporated a Jaffe shell in its famed Music Hall. That led to other important commissions such as an outdoor shell for the White House lawn and a portable concert stage for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera New York City Parks Concert Tours.

Jaffe established Jaffe Acoustics in 1967 and has been a consultant in acoustics for half a century. He has designed concert halls and symphonic music pavilions for dozens of America’s top orchestral ensembles. His work includes prestigious projects such as the acoustic renovations to the Hollywood Bowl in California, the acoustic design for the Arthur and Judy Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and the renovation of the John F. Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C.

His innovative Concert Hall Shaper revolutionized acoustic design for multi-use halls, giving them the resonance and richness of the world's best concert halls. It was first employed at the Tokyo International Forum and subsequently at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and the Thelma Gaylord Theatre at the Oklahoma City Civic Center.

Jaffe has held professorships at the Juilliard School, the City University of New York, and Rensselaer, where he has developed a master’s program in architectural acoustics. He holds an honorary doctorate from Rensselaer and is a member of the Rensselaer Alumni Hall of Fame.

With a career that spanned the evolution of concert halls from the first forays into modern design to the present, Jaffe said it was his own personal experience that motivated him to write the book.

“I had spent 50 years in performance hall design. I had done all the work; I just had to write it down,” he said.

To learn more about his book, read a review at http://failuremag.com/index.php/feature/article/the_acoustics_of_performance_halls/P2/#ixzz1DJDSRbBw.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 4, March 4, 2011
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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