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Tribulaciones de un ingeniero de sonido en los teatros de Cuba

When I was little, my mother took me to the García Lorca theater for the first time, where I attended the premiere of the ballet Carmen. After that came other outings, especially concerts, walks that undoubtedly left in me an innate love for music and concert halls. In thirty years of career as a sound engineer I have worked in more than five hundred theaters around the world, but today I will speak particularly of my tribulations in the theaters of Cuba.

I consider it important to note that, since the nineteenth century, our small island had many great theater halls, some of which have survived with more or less luck over time and the processes of renovation. From my modest point of view I think it is necessary to launch a call to act consistently with these treasures of art and architecture that arise in our cities, which welcome artists and spectators with open doors.

When I finished my engineering studies I was assigned to an institution that had disappeared, paradoxically, months ago: the Performing Arts Company. In order not to leave me unemployed, they first proposed to participate in the project of what would be the Heredia Theater, in Santiago de Cuba. But since I was in a premature phase, they ended up locating me in the National Theater of Cuba. A year of professional activity in that colossus - in which, to my amazement, they named me Head of sound - allowed me to enter the real life of a concert hall.

Over the years I was getting to know other theaters in the country such as the wonderful Sauto, which has an unrivaled acoustics and hopefully one day will have optimal conditions for better use and enjoyment.

At the beginning of this century I worked with Amaury Pérez in a concert at the Eddy Suñol Theater in Holguín, of which I was impressed by its enormous degree of deterioration. Fortunately for the Holguin culture, years later it was restored, which filled me with rejoicing. But on returning what would not be my surprise when I realized that the new loudspeakers in the room had been installed in a way that directed the entire sound emission area only towards the first rows of the stalls. And the rest of the audience ... imagine what was sounding ...! These are lamentable details that undermine any other artistic or technical effort.

Ciego de Ávila has the beautiful Teatro Principal, a room of exceptional acoustics and beauty. The complement, however, four gigantic and noisy air conditioning consoles located inside the room. So the audience enjoys the pleasant and deafening sound of the machines without knowing what the show is about. If the air goes out, the audience can listen to what happens on the stage, but it begins to sweat the seas.

For its part, the Heredia Theater adorns with its magnificence the architectural complex of the plaza santiaguera. My few work experiences in this room have been very rewarding, discounting the last, which took place during a tour of the National Symphony Orchestra and the singer Augusto Enríquez. Unfortunately, there was a baseball game between Industriales and Santiago at the same time, and the Heredia was desolate.

Excellent are the theaters La Caridad de Santa Clara and Tomás Terry de Cienfuegos. However, as in the Covarrubias room, the García Lorca and the Martí Theater, the audio control booth is located behind glass on a third balcony where the sound barely reaches. It is not uncommon for technicians, who must go down the stairs and cross the theater to the stage more than once to solve a problem, forget what they were going.

One of the jewels just mentioned, the Martí Theater, was reopened a few years ago after decades of neglect. The Marti shows off its beauty with an elegant room and its chandelier, which rises to hide its protagonism once the show begins. Although it is drier than expected, the acoustics that resulted after the restoration is very pleasant, even though it depends inexorably on the amplification system. Almost a year after its opening I worked at the Martí Theater for the first time, and that same day I dared to insinuate to the workers there something that I detected and that apparently had not been noticed so far: the sound system should be stereo , but it sounded monophonic, something unfortunate for a room in that category. Months later I went back for another job and listened with pleasure that the system already sounded stereo, thanks to the performance of the theater sound engineers. But there was still another problem and not resolved during the rehabilitation of the room: that the noise of the surrounding traffic ceases to be a co-star of the shows offered at the luxurious venue.

More recently the re-opening of the García Lorca Hall of the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, host of important concerts such as the International Jazz Day 2017, or that of the Canadian musician Rufus Wainwright, for which the organizers were obliged to rent an audio system superior to the one originally installed in the room. On the other hand, if you ever need to go to the bathroom of this wonderful room during the show, please, I suggest you be cautious. That is, if he does not want the sound of his steps to divert the attention of the spectators towards his movements.  

I love the concert hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts, so intimate, always welcoming renowned artists, endowed with a magic and acoustics so nice that they make each concert an unforgettable experience. For years it had a discreet but excellent amplification system, which to my amazement was recently replaced by a more modern one. A few months ago I helped to fine-tune the room after installing the new equipment, and the impression I received was quite favorable. Nonetheless, I am eager to sound a new concert to make sure the change was worth it.

In 1999, after twenty-five years of the disaster that destroyed and closed it for a quarter of a century, the Amadeo Roldán Auditorium Theater was reopened. I participated in the installation work, in addition to directing his sound department for almost ten years. At that time, its two rooms boasted an acoustics related to many of the musical genres that were played in them: symphonic music in Amadeo Roldán, with 1.8 seconds of reverb; Chamber music and jazz at Caturla, with 1.0 second of reverb.

Important figures of the world of music adorned the stage of Amadeo during its ephemeral second existence. Something that many ignore, among other things, is that the theater workers had to clandestinely install the outlets on the stage. Someone had told us that there could be no electricity on the scene because it was considered unnecessary. We imagine Chucho Valdés, Ernán López-Nussa or Ivan Lins playing in that room without being able to use an electric bass or a synthesizer, and one dawn I summoned some accomplices to fix the world, or at least the small part that we played.

We also had a very expensive 78 rpm record player, made by order to Vestax, a firm specialized in its manufacture. In it we could have played 78 rpm old discs, but these were no longer abundant in Cuba and we could never release it.  

I remember that several serious projects were developed for the design and installation of the amplification system of the Amadeo Roldán Theater. But finally, by orders of some superior -my memory fails, I forget the names-, a cluster of monophonic speakers of the EAW brand was installed, that although it is a recognized quality equipment, when hanging it in the center of the bridge of lights looked like a simple and tiny "baflecito". It took us a whole night to install it and hoist it, and the next day, the one whose name I do not remember put the cry in the sky claiming that it was black and contrasted with the mass of white walls around it. So it had to be removed. Faced with such "high-altitude color blindness" -he apparently never noticed his color while he was downstairs, on the floor-, we had no choice but to ignore them, turn around and leave everything like that.

Some years ago the heavy "baflecito" was hung calmly. One fine day, the bridge of lights gave way to the load, it got stuck halfway and was there in full view of the public. Some time later, and for the second time in its history, the Amadeo Roldán was closed. The reason was a danger of collapse. Even today, every time I pass by the corner of Calzada and D, my heart is oppressed, thinking if the showy one will ever be erected again auditorium for the enjoyment of all of us who love their concerts, regardless of whether or not they have power points on stage. I wonder, by the way, where the controversial "baflecito" will have gone.

Alfonso Peña Cuban sound engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the Cuban music industry. Your texts and some examples of your professional contributions can be found on his blog More posts

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