Canvas, wood and winds
August 11, 2010
Quiet passages in a Brahms symphony compete with the distractions of droning airplanes, barking dogs and whispers from the lawn audience. Even so, few would relinquish the outside connection that Aspen Music Festival amphitheaters afford, finding a nagging cough in Harris Hall to be more objectionable.
Aspen’s ambient afternoon acoustics seem to add to, rather than distract from, the music. Festival concerts have always featured that desirable connection with natural surroundings, but concertgoers of yore contended with a cacophony of nature’s nastiness, both auditory and visual.
The first structure, best described as a circus tent covering a concrete bowl, was held aloft by four tall telephone poles. The structure was as different from traditional indoor performance halls as possible, just a shade short of a completely outdoor facility. Snug seating and closeness to the stage contributed to its popularity and some contended later that it was acoustically superior to the Bayer structure that replaced it. Designed by Eero Saarinen, an early acoustical expert, it featured a hollow wood stage that was kinder to string instruments, especially cellos, than Bayer’s concrete stage. The accordion back wall and ceiling were closer to the orchestra than Bayer’s visually pleasing, yet towering, sound reflector. The weak link in the Saarinen structure was its canvas tent.
The tent was held aloft like a circus tent, making it easier to erect and to dismantle. Four tall poles supported the top. Two rings of shorter poles, spread around the circumference, lifted the canvas above the ground at the edges. Ropes tied to metal stakes that were driven into the ground anchored the canvas. As the ropes were tightly drawn, the whole structure remained fluid, swaying in the wind. When breezes entered the tent, they could lift the supporting poles, even the four heavy telephone poles, off the ground. The poles created thunderous collisions, louder than a Wagner crescendo, when they dropped back to earth. Although the bottom ends of the poles were attached to leashes to prevent them from walking out of position, the momentary lift-off was a frightening sight in a gusty wind.
The most telling reaction came from local Fred Glidden, author of western novels under the pen name Luke Short, “I always wondered whether I should bring a knife to the concerts in case I had to cut my way out of the canvas if it collapsed.” Less violent wind produced background sounds that sometimes complemented the music, but more often competed with it.
Rocky Mountain storms sabotaged many performances. Thunder, lightning and rain could easily disrupt an orchestra. Chamber music artists were completely drowned out, sometimes almost literally. A downpour on the canvas of the Saarinen tent, no matter how tightly it was connected, found many holes to drain through. Water poured onto musicians and audience alike. Glidden asked, “I wonder why the festival didn’t consult fishermen. Everyone knows that it rains every afternoon between four and six!”
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In spite of contending with the elements and distractions to the music, Aspen’s audiences came to appreciate the advantages of a music “tent.” The translucent top and open sides of the Benedict tent would not loosely contain our ongoing passion for a touch of nature in our music had not decades of festival fans preferred that combination over the still and stuffy air of a staid concert hall.