The versatile new performance venue can adjust its acoustics to sound like everything from a classroom to a big hall to "sacred space." It also has 13 screens that can either encircle the room, creating a fully digital visual field, or be put away for a more lo-fi feel.
At first glance, Octave 9, Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s new performance space at Benaroya Hall, might not look like much — it could pass as a circular, medium-size conference room at an upscale business hotel, but with a strange, gray, undulating honeycomb of feltlike material on the low ceiling.
That honeycomb hints at Octave 9’s trick: the room sounds bigger than it looks. “Let me raise the ceiling by about 65 feet,” Tim Boot, of Meyer Sound (one of the Symphony’s partners in the project), said during a preview demonstration Tuesday morning. Boot toggled on the “sacred space” setting of Octave 9’s high-tech sound system (which includes dozens of speakers and microphones) and smacked two wooden claves together. The tock echoed, seemingly from above. It sounded like we were in a cathedral.
Boot took us through other sound-system settings, from “off” (the dry, absorbent sound of an unused recording studio) through “classroom,” “small room,” “medium room,” “big hall” and, finally, “sacred space,” with the reverb and liveliness of the same claves jumping to different levels with each setting.
Snippets of music played by Seattle Symphony Orchestra musicians (two violins, a viola, a cello, a clarinet) were even more impressive. Rather than hearing the sound as if it were coming from somewhere over there, then reverberating off surfaces to get to your ears, it was enveloping — like you were collectively inside the music. “We could tune the room to keep the low ceiling but make the walls wide,” Boot said to a small group of musicians and designers after the demonstration. “It would sound like a parking garage — if you wanted that.” The simplest way to describe the power of the system, he said, was like a “space map” or “surround-sound on steroids” that can place sound more or less precisely where musicians want it to go.
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Octave 9, which had a $6.7 million budget (including funds for education and community engagement) is visually versatile as well, with 13 screens that can either encircle the room, creating a fully digital visual field, or be put away for a more lo-fi feel. (It also has windows, which can be uncovered, allowing daylight and public eyes into the space.) During the demonstration, a few screens showed off Octave 9’s visualizer, which picks up action in the room (sound in the microphones, movement captured by cameras) and responds with patterned, digital displays that look like an elaborate descendant of the iTunes visualizer.
But the immersive visual technology, by Belle and Wissell, is capable of more.
Clarinetist Derek Bermel, the Symphony’s current composer-in-residence, is working with Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas to “upload” some of her work into the system to be digitally manipulated for a future concert. “As an artist, one’s work is very specific,” he said, gesturing up to the speakers and projectors hidden in the honeycomb. “They’re creating a matrix for flexibility, so we can hone in the elements we want to present.”
But the sound is the thing. Octave 9’s sonic potential is especially exciting for a room that, Mark Reddington of LMN Architects explained, was once envisioned as a restaurant space, then became “Soundbridge,” the Symphony’s music-education room, sandwiched between a Burlington-Northern train tunnel below and the rest of Benaroya Hall above.
Nearby, Boot gestured up toward a little metal arm hanging through the gray honeycomb. “They’re putting microphones on the next Mars rover — we’ll hear Mars!” he said eagerly. “Using the same brand of microphone we use here! So, I’m excited about that.”
Octave 9 has a series of opening events, including a preview concert/fundraiser with snacks by chef Shota Nakajima and a soundtrack by KEXP DJ Evie on Friday, March 1 ($125); a grand opening on Sunday, March 3 (free; RSVPs requested); and a 24-hour, nonstop music marathon featuring work by more than 50 living composers from March 23-24 ($75-$200). See seattlesymphony.org for details.