An Acoustic Journey Through Tirol
Friday morning, just before 9 a.m. The service at Innsbruck’s Jesuit church has finished. The square in front of the Baroque building is empty. Paul Schweinester looks over towards the heavy wooden doors. He knows the church well – his career as an opera singer began as a member of the Wilten Boys‘ Choir, which would often perform in the Jesuit church. He tells me the story of the huge church bell weighing 9,200 kilos which was donated to the church in the late 1950s to mark the 150th anniversary of the Tirolean War of Freedom. Its deep sound continues to shape the soundscape of the city today. Chatting away, we enter the church. Paul Schweinester then asks me:
Did you notice that?
As soon as we entered the church we both fell silent. Sure, churches aren’t exactly places where you scream and shout – but what is it that caused us to stop talking the moment we walked in? After all, we are the only two people in here.
Maybe it’s a sign of respect when entering a place of worship?
Yes. But it’s also got a lot to do with the acoustics. The smooth, hard surfaces reflect the sound; the high ceilings give it space to spread. Places like these make us humans feel small and large at the same time. We initially find ourselves shocked and surprised at how loud our voices are – but as we learn to use the acoustics it gives us a great sense of power.
Innsbruck’s Jesuit church offers the perfect acoustics for an opera singer.
Paul Schweinester admires the church’s huge bell weighing 9,200 kilos.
What do singers like you do to prepare for an acoustic environment like this?
The silence between the music – like the pauses between words – is just as important as the music itself. In a church like this sound echos for between four and seven seconds. That means sounds blend together. It’s important to bear that in mind when singing. As singers have to take our time. Church music, which is designed to be performed in setting such as this one, normally contains the necessary pauses and long notes. If you were to write a piece of music specifically for church acoustics it would be very instrumental – with so much echo it is almost impossible to understand words when they are sung. Pieces by composers such as Bach actually contain too much text for a church setting. At the same time we shouldn’t forget that music itself is a language in its own right – a universal language understood by everyone.
We step out into the fresh air. Innsbruck is slowly stirring. Pedestrians walk past us on their way to work or to one of the city’s cafés. Less than 100 metres from the Jesuit church is the Haus der Musik. Completed in 2018, this modernist building with its dark ceramic facade unites many of Tirol’s musical institutions under one roof and hosts music-related events throughout the year. Paul Schweinester was scheduled to perform here but had to postpone the concert at short notice due to the pandemic. During the rehearsals he was impressed by the acoustics in the main concert hall, which lies at the heart of the multi-story complex just a stone’s throw from the medieval oldtown. A huge glass front behind the stage reveals the Imperial Palace and a mighty oak tree.
Paul gazes out of the glass front in the Haus der Musik. Its main concert hall has outstanding acoustic properties.
I noticed as we were walking that you were constantly testing the acoustics – raising and lowering your voice, clapping your hands or humming a tune.
Yes, you’re right. I feel a constant urge to sing. As an opera singer that’s not necessarily a good thing – I should rest my voice between rehearsals and performances. I suppose hearing myself is for me a way of confirming to myself that I am still here. Singers like me define ourselves very much through our voices. In places like churches with strong acoustics it is hard to resist the temptation to try out the acoustics. That said, rooms like this one at the Haus der Musik actually offer a much better singing and listening experience you normally find in a church.
Why is that?
Spaces with lots of echo often result in an overpowered sound. That is hard to listen to and not pleasant to perform in. We singers have the problem that the audience can hear every breath we take – that’s too much. Here in a room like this you immediately notice how much more pleasant it is to talk to each other. The wood on the walls and ceiling keep the echo short. It’s a bit like talking in a pillow. The acoustics are really good here – but they’re not perfect.
They sound pretty good to my untrained ears. What would you improve?
A lot of planning goes into a concert hall like this. Nothing is left to chance. The acoustic planning of course takes into account the fact that music will be performed in front of an audience. If there are lots of people in a room then that changes the acoustics. Bodies emit heat and moisture and absorb vibrations. That makes the sound a little drier. Even after years of performing I am still often surprised how different a room can sound with and without an audience.
Wood on the walls and ceiling combined with the presence of a live audience contribute to a fine acoustic experience in the Haus der Musik.
What is the difference between a room with good acoustics and a room with excellent acoustics?
For me excellent acoustics means the feeling of floating on a cloud as I perform. It’s really important to me that I can hear myself well. Of course the music also has to reach the audience, but if you can’t hear yourself then you begin to strain – and that almost always has a negative impact on the quality of the singing.
You have performed on some of the world’s great stages, from Paris to Hong Kong. Would you say that concert halls in Tirol have their own particular sound?
I would’t say so, no. The acoustic demands placed on concert halls are the same around the world. At the same time each location has its own individual personality. You would think that by now someone would have come up with a formula for the perfect acoustic experience that could be replicated over and again around the world, but that is not the case. Each new concert hall has to be planned from scratch.
Why do you think such a universal formula has not yet been developed?
First and foremost because buildings are about more than just acoustics. A concert hall also serves a representative purpose and embodies the town or city in which it is located. The main hall here in Innsbruck is a good example. From a purely acoustic point of view it would have been better to do without the large glass front, but it is an expression of the openness which the Haus der Musik embodies. As a singer it is nice to have these different elements. It gives us the chance to adapt a work to the place where we are performing. At the end of my concert I wanted to include a scene in which a couple plants a tree together. The majestic oak in the background gives such a scene a special meaning.
Tirol has its own unique sound. That applies to its churches and concert halls – but also to its nature, mountains and valleys. Paul and I travel up to the Bergisel ski jumping stadium. The skiers have finished training for the day. Just a few groups of visitors sit high above us in the steep stands which form a bowl around the landing area. Paul Schweinester likes the arena-like design of the stadium. I can tell that from an acoustic point of view it represents a fascinating challenge. He clicks his fingers, sings a merry ditty and calls up to the visitors „Can you here my up there?“. The group, a good 50 metres away, reply cheerfully that they can hear him loud and clear.
Paul enjoys singing in open-air arenas such as the Bergisel ski stadium.
What are the acoustics like in an open-air arena like this?
Very interesting. It’s like singing in a giant bowl. The sound disappears upwards. The echo is short, but there is enough amplification to be heard throughout the stadium. Places like this are also very democratic – most of the seats are more or less the same distance from the stage. It is an idea which goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.
What would be a good song for this kind of setting?
Something like Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot. Maybe even a something a litltle poppy like a classic Austrian „Schlager“ song. Definitely something with big emotions.
Does the size of the audience have an impact on the way you sing?
Yes, there is definitely an impact. I think there are interesting parallels between ski jumping and singing. In both disciplines we want to fly as high and as far as possible. You have to be mentally strong. Ski jumpers practise their take-off hundreds of times; singers practise their high notes over and over again. When it comes to the performance you rarely manage to get it just the way you did in training, but sometimes the moment is just right and the audience carries you to heights you have never reached before. Imagine 30,000 people cheering, clapping, breathing – that is an acoustic landscape that you can feel deep inside your body. It’s enough to make you fly.
Paul wants to fly high with his voice like the ski jumpers competing at Bergisel.
The final stop on our journey takes us out of the city and up into the mountains. Paul spends a lot of time here, particularly when recovering from a performance – an experience he compares with professional sport. We take the last funicular up to the „Hoadl-Haus“ at the top of the Axamer Lizum ski resort. In the distance stand the mighty „Kalkkögel“ mountains with their craggy grey peaks similar to those in the Dolomites, 2,800 metres above sea level. Paul comes here to switch off, to enjoy the silence. But what is it like to sing in an environment like this?
Do you ever partake in a little yodelling?
Every now and then I will have a go, but it’s not exactly what you would call proper yodelling. Expert yodellers are able to switch incredibly quickly between their chest voice and their head voice – that is really difficult and not something we are trained to do as opera singers.
Paul finds inspiration, calm and energy in the mountains. He especially likes spending time here before and after his performances.
The Kalkkögel are some of the most iconic mountains in Tirol with their craggy, Dolomite-like appearance. What makes them a special place for you?
Here I can feel a connection to my roots, here I find inspiration.
Singing outdoors in nature is a special experience. The surroundings are constantly changing with the light. You can also use the landscape as a backdrop. For example I once sang a Dorfplatzlied, a traditional song designed to be performed on a village square, in an actual village square. The atmosphere was totally different to what I was used to inside a concert hall. At the same time it is a challenging experience to sing outdoors. You have to work harder. If there are no mountains – unlike up here – then you have to generate your own feedback using speakers. That is what makes the Kalkkögel so special for me. They are like a huge natural amphitheatre.
Do you always sing when you are up in the mountains?
Yes, more or less. I also like singing while hiking in the forest. The acoustics in mountain forests are actually better than you would think. The trees provide an irregular echo pattern, but that also makes it more interesting. It doesn’t take long for the inner ear to get used to this sound. In recent months I have spent more time outdoors than usual – all my concerts have also been outdoors. My vocal chords have suffered a little, but singing outside has been a great reminder of how much fun it can be to sing in nature and use the surroundings as a natural echo chamber.
Paul sings not only for audiences around the world but also for his home mountains in Tirol.