Soundforms gives voice to music in the outdoor world

Building the Soundforms roof system - Launch night

An unassuming evening in March at a darkening truck-yard on the banks of the Thames in East London saw a most unlikely gathering. More than two hundred people from the world of entertainment included leading promoters, top sound engineers from the BBC, many luminous figures from the world of classical music, and a certain Chris Cronin from Total Solutions Group (TSG) amongst them. They were there to witness the launch of Soundforms. Almost defying description, Soundforms is a structure that manages to combine a pleasing minimalist aesthetic with a refined acoustic projection: in short it is the outdoor stage that the orchestral fraternity has craved since extra mural activity became the watchword of concert hall summers.

Soundforms has its origins in the imagination of architect Jason Flanagan of BFLS, a concept that happily collided with the desires of Mark Stephenson, (a conductor who had cut his teeth with the Philharmonia Orchestra) for a proper outdoor stage. “We were originally introduced by a Trustee of Sadler’s Wells Theatre where Jason had designed a new front of house bar area, ” said Stephenson. “Jason had the notion to provide musicians with an on stage acoustic environment for open- air performances more akin to a concert hall platform . Together we conspired to surround that acoustic shell with an iconographic structure, we drew some of our inspiration from both the Sydney Opera House aesthetically and the Hollywood Bowl acoustically.”

Stephenson secured the necessary investment funding for the development, design and build programme and recruited IMG Artists to help research the potential global market, whilst Flanagan engaged Ian Knowles at Arup Acoustics to refine the acoustic design, and Olly Watts from temporary structure specialists ES Global to define the practical considerations that would make Soundforms a fast and efficient structure to construct. “It had to compete in terms of time and manpower requirements,” acknowledged Stephenson. “It could have the best acoustic in the world, but if it took three weeks to put up we were dead in the water; such is the psychology of the staging rental market.”

With the key skills in place it only remained to find someone to build it, which is when Cronin and TSG became involved. “It was one of those life changing moments,” said Stephenson, “I discovered immediately that Chris shared the same passion for music I had, even if we worked in different fields. When he saw the model he was very decisive and engaged immediately with the project.”

“That desire for an iconographic form presented me with just the kind of engineering challenge I really enjoy,” explained Cronin. “In essence the acoustic shell resembles and operates much like a throat or voice chamber. An extremely long cantilevered acoustic peak juts far forward from the stage lip, and being derived from a classic band shell design there is barely a straight line in the whole thing.” Cronin’s experience in creating innovative staging structures is almost unrivalled, he developed a light-weight high-strength solution fairly rapidly; had the calculations approved by his long time collaborator the structural engineer Malcolm Richards, and he then worked with Architen Landrell and Tensys who came up with an inflatable tensile skin to flatter the sweeping curves of Flanagan’s original design. “The final piece in the puzzle was to have the internal acoustic reflector panels made,” concluded Cronin. “Darren Wring at Fineline had the machinery to precisely cut and sculpt the 3D timber panels; more importantly he has the experience to contend with integrating such unconventional objects into a TSG structure.”

A thing of beauty to behold, the plaudits from the musicians who played upon it that chilly night in March say it all, “The Soundforms performance shell took me quite by surprise!” is a typical example from Iain Ballamy who performed solo Saxophone that evening (Ballamy is a renowned ECM Label Artist & BBC Jazz Legend) “From a players perspective I enjoyed it’s acoustically comfortable performing environment and clear sonic focus from which I could sense the quality of sound emanating from the stage as I played. I expect to see the shell become a regular sound and sight at music events in the near future”. TSG’s Cronin was full of expectancy, “the Soundforms structure is of its time; a fusion of art and engineering that will bring a smile to the face of many a concert goer.”