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Looks Like Heaven, Sounds Like Hell

February 11, 2009

On Christmas day 2007, I wrote a blog entry about Oakland's then-unfinished Catholic Cathedral, The Cathedral of Christ the Light. At the end of the post, I mentioned that I was particularly interested to find out about the church's acoustic, hoping that it might serve as an excellent venue for concerts following its official opening in September 2008.

Sadly the acoustic seems to be the one thing that the people responsible for developing this otherwise glorious new building seem to have messed up. I cannot fault Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings and Merrill's airy, wood-and-glass-framed architecture. Entering the vast, womb-like space makes you feel like you're walking on clouds.

But the sound produced in the church is a horrible mush. On the several occasions that I've heard vocal and instrumental music performed at the Cathedral, I've felt like my ears were stuffed full of cotton wool. Song lyrics were unintelligible and bass and percussion instruments consistently overwhelmed higher pitch-producing instruments. At first I thought maybe it was my hearing that was off. But people who've joined me at the church for events have agreed that there's something badly wrong with the acoustic

How could the people behind such a gorgeous edifice allow such a thing to happen? If any buildings beyond dedicated concert halls deserve high quality sound, it's places of worship.

I recently brought up this issue with one of the architects (a friend of mine) who worked with Hartman on the project. It turns out that my ears weren't deceiving me. The reason behind the problem comes as no surprise: The project ended up costing too much money and some tough decisions had to be made about where to put the dwindling reserves of cash. Apparently more pressing concerns overrode original plans to perfect the Cathedral's acoustic.

I suppose the church's custodians thought that people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between clear-ringing bells and mud-thick goulash. They were wrong and it's a terrible pity. I asked my architect friend if it might be possible to "retrofit" the church for acoustics at a later date once more money could be raised. My question received a negative response. I guess that explains why the church's website doesn't list any information about upcoming concerts.

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