The Sound of Music: acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota

Yasuhisa Toyota is chief acoustician and US company president of Nagata Acoustics, the celebrated Japanese giants of global concert hall sound design. IAM caught up with him on a sunny LA morning to discuss past projects, future possibilities, and the impossibility of unravelling all the mysteries of classical music performance.

(The following is an excerpt – the print version includes Yasuhisa Toyota’s discussion of how changing technologies have shaped his career and life; what he sees as the opportunities and threats to concert halls in future; why Cremona and Berlin’s Philharmonie have had such huge influences on concert hall design; and what happened when Valery Gergiev asked him to choose which of his venue designs was the best)

Yasuhisa Toyota
Yasuhisa Toyota

The list of world-famous concert halls Nagata Acoustics has helped develop over the years is fairly mind-blowing. Philharmonie de Paris, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall, Bamberg Symphony Hall, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall and Suntory Hall are just a few of the prestigious venues to his name.

‘We work across quite a broad range of different projects involving architectural acoustics, including theatres and arenas,’ says Toyota, on the phone from the company’s Los Angeles office, ‘but a lot of our work is concerned with concert halls. That’s partly because the sound in a concert hall is perhaps the single most important aspect of the building, and moreover because in a concert hall we’re dealing with natural acoustics, rather than with amplification and microphones. That means we’re dealing with a different set of variables that will affect the results, things like ceiling height and dimensions, room shake and building materials, they’re all very important when dealing with natural sound.’

These elements are all of equally great importance to a building’s architect, which is why Nagata acousticians work extremely closely with them throughout a concert hall design project. Although Nagata is ultimately responsible only for the sound of these magnificent spaces – nothing visual or structural – many of its interests and concerns on a project will be centred around the same crucial elements.

‘In a way we’re all working to achieve our own results,’ Toyota explains, ‘and ultimately the same result – we’re effectively focussing on the same concerns as the architects, but perhaps for different reasons.’

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Walt Disney Concert Hall

Toyota is a graduate of the illustrious acoustics department at the Kyushu University Institute of Design. At Nagata Acoustics, he now works alongside colleagues from a wide range of highly specialised backgrounds in fields including architecture, electronics and physics. This approach, he says, is crucial in enabling the company to design its sound projects from multiple perspectives.

‘It’s interesting, because in a way you’re designing for two worlds,’ he says. ‘There’s the real, physical world of the space itself, and then there’s the ‘other’ world of the live concert performance. Each has its own variables; in the physical space you have perhaps more material concerns about the building and its materials, and then in the concert there will be other issues entirely.’

He continues: ‘At a piano concert, for example, the exact placement of both the piano and the player could potentially have an impact on the acoustics produced. The position of the player needs to be flexible, so that they and the orchestra can experiment to find out what works best – but what works best will also depend on who the pianist is! So there will always be some ambiguities of this sort, and working around them is all part of the process of designing acoustics. I would say that acoustics sits somewhere in between those two disciplines – the science of architecture and the art of music – but it’s not really at a fixed position in between.’

The fact that acoustics holds this unique position between science and art, he adds, is what makes the nature of the work so difficult to discuss in everyday terms. Because Nagata tends to work with different architects on every new project, Toyota says that the results of finished projects (despite being minutely planned and executed from start to finish in every case) tend to defy conventional direct comparisons to one another.

‘A discussion about the specific challenges on a particular build, that compares points with another project, would be so overly complex and so in-depth that it would take many hours to get through,’ he laughs. ‘But I guess that’s what makes it so interesting to me.’
We discuss technical advances in the industry over the years, and unsurprisingly Toyota agrees that the rapid computerisation of design systems has probably been the biggest and most radical change to come about during the course of his distinguished career thus far:

‘A real turning point came around the time of Windows 95, and the spread of the internet throughout the late ‘90s,’ he recalls. ‘I don’t think it’s so much that the basic principles of acoustic design changed, it was more about the ability to get to the results we needed quickly and accurately, in order to categorise and share them. Suddenly being able to do so meant that feedback from those processes could begin to shape and inform the theories behind them.’

Still, he says, a big factor in the complexities of sound design has
to do with the inherent ‘mystery’ of musical performance, and in his opinion, all the future technology in the world won’t do much to help unravel music’s more unknowable secrets.

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