Perfect Pitch

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's the unveiling of your firm's grandest project yet, the one that will cement — or ruin — your international reputation. And you hope and pray no one notices your work. For acoustics designers like Yasuhisa Toyota, success arrives when an audience is rapt in the music, oblivious to the complicated physics it takes to project a Beethoven symphony with warmth and clarity. Toyota is the director of Nagata Acoustics, a tiny Tokyo company that has just completed a plum assignment: collaborating with architect Frank Gehry on the long-awaited $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened to critical praise in Los Angeles in October.

One of about 20 companies that compete globally for high-profile acoustical consulting projects like the Disney Hall, Nagata Acoustics, a Japanese firm, was an unusual choice for such a signature American arts venue. The private company, which has 14 employees and $2.5 million a year in revenue, was founded 32 years ago by Minoru Nagata, a sound engineer for Japan's main public broadcaster, NHK. In postwar Japan, "classical music was still very foreign," says Nagata, now 78 and semi-retired, though still an adviser to the company. So was acoustic science. "We had only Western texts and trial and error to go by." But as the nation began furiously building new civic spaces, Japanese acousticians developed into some of the world's best.

Toyota, Nagata's protege and the company's public face abroad, joined the firm after graduating from the Kyushu Institute of Design in Fukuoka in 1977. His work on Japan's premier music venue, Tokyo's Suntory Hall, completed in 1986, drew favorable comparisons with the world's great concert halls. Suntory's sound and the unusually warm rapport that Toyota shared with Gehry after they met persuaded the Disney team to award Nagata the $1.4 million contract.

Acoustics is a notoriously inexact science. Acoustical flops of the 1960s, like New York City's Lincoln Center and Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, took some of the luster off the profession. Lincoln Center, Nagata says, "was an example of what happens when you leave acoustics up to academics. It's like going to a dietitian to cook you a great meal. Nutritionally, it may be perfect, but it'll probably lack something." For an engineering job, acoustical consulting requires exceptionally delicate people skills: designers must juggle the vision of the architect, the quirks of the orchestra and the whims of philanthropists and city officials.

The Disney Hall was born of a $50 million gift given in 1987 by Walt Disney's widow Lillian. The radically curvy building opened six years late and at more than twice its original $110 million price tag because disagreements over Gehry's unorthodox design, coupled with California's economic woes (the mid-1990s version), slowed construction.

The key challenge the project presented to Toyota was working with the flowing arcs of Gehry's 2,265-seat hall. The vineyard-style ceiling, which ripples in waves above the audience, asks much more of an acoustician than the classic shoebox-style design of a traditional concert hall. And Gehry's building includes tricky details, like seating that creates nooks and crannies where sound is lost, plus a hidden stage behind the main one.

The acoustics are so complex that they beggar description. "I'm sorry," says Toyota, scratching his scraggly beard. "It's quite difficult to explain"--and to implement. It's so hard, in fact, that Toyota's company designed software specifically for the project. The software reconstructed the hall on a computer, and another Nagata program mapped the sound in 3-D, plotting its direction and deflections off walls, pillars and other surfaces. No existing acoustical software programs could handle Gehry's complex design. "The moment when we discovered the program really worked was when we heard the first session with the orchestra after completion," Toyota says.

Along the way, Toyota enjoyed a friendly collaboration with Gehry. Architects and acoustics designers often butt heads, yet Gehry and Toyota took on another project together, a performing-arts center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., that opened last summer. At the Disney Hall, "Frank was very much concerned with the acoustics and function, not only the image," Toyota says. "I cannot tell who decided the final shape or angle of the walls. We did it together."

Since the Disney Hall's glittering debut, with such stars as cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing, Toyota has moved on to other projects. Having lived in Los Angeles for the past two years, he is following the music to concert halls in Finland, Denmark and China, looking for his next high note.