Hear the Sound of the Hagia Sophia Recreated in Authentic Byzantine Chant

Audio technology has made many exciting advances in the past few years, one of which enables recording engineers to capture the sound of a specific space and recreate it elsewhere. Through a process called “convolution reverb,” the sound of a concert hall or club can be portable, so to speak, and a band or group of singers in a studio can be made to sound as if they were performing in Carnegie Hall, or inside a cave or grain silo.

Also being recreated are the sounds of gothic cathedrals and Byzantine churches—acoustic environments being preserved for posterity in digital recordings as their physical forms decay. This technology has given scholars the means to represent the music of the past as it sounded hundreds of years ago and as it was originally meant to be heard by its devout listeners.

Music took shape in particular landscapes and architectural environments, just as those environments evolved to enhance certain kinds of sound. Medieval Christian churches were especially suited to the hypnotic chants that characterize the sacred music of the time. As David Byrne puts it in his TED Talk on music and architecture:

In a gothic cathedral, this kind of music is perfect. It doesn’t change key, the notes are long, there’s almost no rhythm whatsoever, and the room flatters the music. It actually improves it.

There’s no doubt about that, especially in the case of the Greek Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 AD in what was then Constantinople, it was once the largest building in the world. Though it lost the title early on, it remains on incredibly impressive feat of engineering. While the structure is still very much intact, no one has been able to hear its music since 1453, when the Ottoman Empire seized the city and the massive church became a mosque. “Choral music was banned,” notes Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “and the sound of the Hagia Sophia was forgotten until now.”

Now (that is, in the past ten years or so), well over five centuries later, we can hear what early medieval audiences heard in the massive Byzantine cathedral, thanks to the work of two Stanford professors, art historian Bissera Pentcheva and Jonathan Abel, who teaches in the computer music department and studies, he says, “the analysis, synthesis and processing of sound.”

Now a museum, the Hagia Sophia allowed Pentcheva and Abel to record the sound of balloons popping in the space after-hours. “Abel used the acoustic information in the balloon pops to create a digital filter that can make anything sound like it’s inside the Hagia Sophia,” as Weekend Edition guest host Sam Hartnett explains.

Pentcheva, who focuses her work “on reanimating medieval art and architecture,” was then able to “reanimate” the sound of high Greek Orthodox chant as it would have been heard in the heart of the Byzantine Empire. “It’s actually something that is beyond humanity that the sound is trying to communicate,” she says.” That message needs a larger-than-life space for its full effect.

Hear more about how the effect was created in the Weekend Edition episode above. And in the videos further up, see the choral group Capella Romana perform Byzantine chants with the Hagia Sophia effect applied. Just last year, the ensemble released the album of chants above, Lost Voices of Hagia Sophiausing the filter. It is a collection of music as valuable to our understanding and appreciation of the art of the Byzantine Empire as a restored mosaic or reconstructed cathedral.

via Kottke

Related Content:

Mapping the Sounds of Greek Byzantine Churches: How Researchers Are Creating “Museums of Lost Sound”

The Same Song Sung in 15 Places: A Wonderful Case Study of How Landscape & Architecture Shape the Sounds of Music

David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

A YouTube Channel Completely Devoted to Medieval Sacred Music: Hear Gregorian Chant, Byzantine Chant & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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