May 16, 2014

An earthquake live at the symphony

Posted by Austin Elliott

Earthquakes have been orchestrated in some of the most important musical works of the past two centuries (take for example the close of the first part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or the 5th movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony); now in some musical works the orchestras have been quaked. On March 29, 2014, the L.A. Philharmonic was performing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé at Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, when a 5.1 earthquake jostled the city from the suburb of La Habra.


The interruption was limited to a startled audience, as the visiting legendary conductor Charles Dutoit shepherded the orchestra through the shaking without a flinch. LA Times reviewer Richard Ginell has a descriptive and very positive review of the performance: Review: At Disney Hall, L.A. Phil elegance amid an earthquake.

This unique disturbance will be broadcast for all to witness Sunday, 18 May 2014, at 7pm Pacific Daylight Time (UTC minus 7h) on my absolute favorite radio station ever, L.A.’s KUSC. You can catch it on the radio then; of course if you’re farther afield than Southern California, you can use any number of online services to access a live stream of KUSC’s broadcast, including iTunes streaming internet radio, the NPR app, the KUSC app, or directly from the KUSC website. Pick your favorite. If you miss it this Sunday night, the recording will be available on KUSC’s website for an additional week.

If you don’t have the patience (I scoff at you) to sit through an hour of magnificent music, I’ll give you the cheats right here. The earthquake hits 6 minutes into the performance–right up front!–though I don’t know what time that translates to in the radio program. It was 9:09 pm in the concert hall. If that’s still too much gorgeous classical music for you, or if you can’t catch the performance broadcast in that window, here’s the ultimate cheat: The LAPhil has made the earthquake snippet of the performance available on YouTube. I’ve reluctantly included a link to it below, I suppose for posterity, and after that I continue by breaking down what you hear in the recording.

SPOILER ALERT: maybe you just want to wait and let it surprise you live! Don’t watch this! Tune into KUSC!


At 35 km (22 miles) from the epicenter, the P- and S-wave arrivals are clearly separated by about 6 seconds–the rumbling P waves make the audience gradually murmur as the concert hall vibrates, then the lurching S waves elicit gasps of surprise and fear. Allegedly audience members started to leave, but the orchestra? Played right through. The show went on during a behind-the-scenes building inspection that ultimately gave the all-clear.

Disney Concert Hall interior view, from

Disney Concert Hall interior view, from

I can imagine being fairly alarmed in an earthquake in this setting. Though the inside of Frank Gehry’s concert hall is full of luscious soothing curves of light wood, there’s an angry beast of an organ exploding from the wall in front of you. I imagine all the suspended components (here’s an awesome diagram of the Disney Hall organ: PDF), coupled with world-class acoustics, made the auditorium a pretty fearsome place to witness the shaking. Just watching the organ’s swell shutters open and close during the dramatic dynamics of Mars was terrifying enough for me.

If you like this “4D Experience” sort of thing, there are a handful of other recordings of live performances being interrupted by quakes.

[Updated, May 18, 2014 6:34 UTC]: An astute reader pointed out a marvelous catalog of earthquake sounds, including a few interrupting music performances, that were collected in a 1974 publication of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America and digitized more recently. Below are contemporary YouTube videos of such incidents.

Striking on a Friday night shortly after 9pm, the La Habra quake probably produced a lot of such interruptions. Here’s one, from a Brea High School musical performance (skip to 1:25 if high school musicals aren’t your thing):

The 2007 Alum Rock earthquake shook a choir in the Bay Area:

An organ recital in New Zealand was interrupted by a big quake in 2012, captured in an audio recording here:
Earthquake captured on organ recording

Finally there’s a clip from Japan, where reaction to a fairly long earthquake is characteristically blasé. They’re jaded.

Any others I’m missing? Anyone had personal experiences of an earthquake out at some performance venue?