Page 19 - Summer 2018
P. 19

 Gabrielle E. O’Brien
Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences University of Washington 1715 NE Columbia Road Portage Bay Building Box 357988 Seattle, Washington 98195-7988 USA
The New Age of Sound:
How Bell Telephone Laboratories and Leopold Stokowski Modernized Music
A decade-long collaboration between Bell Telephone Laboratories and the conductor Leopold Stokowski laid the foundations for a vibrant future of artistry through sound recording.
On April 10, 1940, The New York Times ran the headline “Sound Waves ‘Rock’ Carnegie Hall...Tones Near Limit That the Human Ear Can Endure.” “The loudest musical sounds ever created crashed and echoed through venerable Carnegie Hall last night as a specially invited audience listened, spellbound, and at times not a little terrified,” read the paper (Anonymous, 1940, p. 25).
The evening before, the psychoacoustician and the Acoustical Society’s first presi- dent Harvey Fletcher stood at a control panel in Carnegie Hall while recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing under the direction of his long-time collabora- tor, the avant-garde conductor Leopold Stokowski, were piped into the auditorium. They were demonstrating “enhanced” music, in which the dynamic range of the recordings had been drastically expanded during production for a dramatic effect that could literally bowl over an unprepared listener. At Stokowski’s command, the sound level shifted across a range of nearly 100 dB; at its loudest, the wall of sound emanating from three loudspeakers positioned on the stage was comparable to the output of 2,000 musicians. “When he wanted a stupefying volume of tone, that in Carnegie Hall seemed to shake the building, he got it instantly,” reported the Times.
But the demonstration was not merely a show of power. Although the music was played through three enormous loudspeakers sheathed in a curtain of fabric, the performance sounded as if it were really happening on stage, with the bass coming from one side and the violins from another. This remarkable auditory illusion ste- reophonic sound was the careful work of Fletcher and his team of engineers from Bell Telephone Laboratories.
How this collaboration between Fletcher, a pioneer of psychoacoustics, and one of the century’s greatest conductors came to be is no less fascinating than the sonic experiments they presented to an awed public. It is a story of big personalities and bigger ambitions, of grand plans for telephony and sound recording, and noth- ing less than the future of music itself. It begins with a brash young organist who wouldn’t stay behind his instrument.
Bringing Up a Conductor
The son of a cabinet maker, Leopold Stokowski (Figure 1) was born in 1882 in inner-city London. At 13, he was admitted to the Royal College of Music, and at 16, he was elected to the Royal College of Organists (Chasins, 1979). By his midtwenties, Stokowski grew tired of his role as an organist and sought a coveted conductor position. Despite having absolutely no experience at the helm of an or-
©2018 Acoustical Society of America. All rights reserved. volume 14, issue 2 | Summer 2018 | Acoustics Today | 17

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