The 5th Man

December 1, 2013

I’m currently reading How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s a strange hybrid: a combination of autobiography and economics primer. In the opening chapter Byrne discusses the idea that the acoustic space available to a composer is what ultimately determines the format of the piece of music he/she writes. As he explains, the rock club with its close and dry acoustic makes amplification a commodity. Conversely, the great concert hall allows for symphonic writing with extreme dynamic range. The cathedrals of Europe in the medieval period are what created long-form modular choral music that changes harmonies on an augmented scale.

We in New York Polyphony find ourselves most content singing in that last acoustic I mentioned: reverberant, tall, and frequently over a century old. Our motto could be “the wetter the better.” (Perhaps I’ll get us started saying that.)

Since before I joined the group, we’ve referred to the acoustic space we perform in as “the 5th man”. There are the four of us, and then there is the room that we play in. The fifth man can be large, spacious, luxurious, tight, quiet, air-tight, dead, or—even worse—like a sock drawer. It’s our job as musicians to adapt to each space and make our performance work well. Geoff, who determines our programs, does a great job of “scouting” acoustics online in advance. He’ll ask colleagues who have performed in places about their experience there. He’ll also look at photos of a space and make an educated guess about what we might expect.

When we arrive at a venue, frequently we’ll adjust tempi: slower in a wetter acoustic, and faster in a dry space. We might increase our diction or sing with more staccato in a wetter acoustic, particularly if we have passages with lots of text or with fast moving melismatic passages. There have also been a few instances when we’ve substituted pieces in or out in extreme situations where a given piece just didn’t work for us in the environment.

Personally, I find benefits to both ends of the spectrum. There have been times when I’ve been under the weather, and a wet acoustic has helped to mask what I perceive to be sub-par vocal production. On the other side of the coin, a dry acoustic can help us as a group develop our ensemble and increase our listening skills.

This week we’ve got 4 concerts: Aliso Viejo, CA; Dallas, TX; Lufkin, TX; and Joplin, MO. I’m hoping for some “Goldilocks” acoustics: not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, not too reverberant, not too dry… just right.

May we always have a perfect 5th man.