In Memoriam: Dr. Cyril M. Harris

We were saddened to hear of the death of Dr. Cyril M. Harris, the world-renowned acoustical consultant for Benaroya Hall, on Tuesday, January 4, 2011, at the age of 93. Dr. Harris was the scientist whose life work and passion was creating superb concert halls for the performance of classical music. In addition to Benaroya Hall, he participated in the design and construction of more than 100 halls, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis; various theaters in Lincoln Center, New York; Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City; Conrad Prebys Hall, University of California, San Diego; and Tata Hall, Mumbai, India.

When describing the qualities of a great hall, he said: "It should have warmth. There should be tonal balance; no part of the frequency range should be emphasized at the expense of another. The hall should have as great a feeling of intimacy and a sense of contact with the performers as is possible in an auditorium seating over two and a half thousand people. Clarity of tone is important, too; it helps when the hall provides a blending of the sound of various instruments, yet permits them to retain their individual identities."

Mark Reddington, architect of Benaroya Hall, worked with Cyril for over 25 years, starting in 1986 on Benaroya. Mark recalls: “He had a deep empirical knowledge of music hall design and a passionate commitment to the relationship between architecture and acoustics, and a very personal and direct, hands-on way of working. The process of working with him required a very close relationship, which was both challenging and extremely rewarding. He was wildly curious, spending summers traveling to unexpected places like the North Pole or Siberia, or studying eclectic subjects like ancient Greek history at Cambridge, England. He loved chocolate and oysters.”

He was a tireless perfectionist, and believed that every single component in a hall would affect the sound of the hall. Zart Dombourian-Eby, the musician representative on the Benaroya Hall building committee, recalls the hours spent with Cyril. “We pored over everything from carpeting for the Grand Lobby to the huge rubber bumpers under the building that isolate the hall from vibrations from the outside.” Cyril viewed everything from the standpoint of how these things would impact the listening experience. “When we deliberated on the upholstery for the seats in the auditorium, we had to think about how they ‘sounded’ before we even considered how they looked!”

We made Cyril an Honorary Member of the Seattle Symphony, the only person to ever receive such recognition, in honor of his work in making our home the acoustical jewel that it is. Thanks, Cyril!

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