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

Unless you’re an audio engi­neer, you’ll have lit­tle rea­son to know what the term “con­vo­lu­tion reverb” means. But it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing con­cept nonethe­less. Tech­ni­cians bring high-end micro­phones, speak­ers, and record­ing equip­ment to a par­tic­u­lar­ly res­o­nant space—a grain silo, for exam­ple, or famous con­cert hall. They cap­ture what are called “impulse respons­es,” sig­nals that con­tain the acoustic char­ac­ter­is­tics of the loca­tion. The tech­nique pro­duces a three dimen­sion­al audio imprint—enabling us to recre­ate what it would sound like to sing, play the piano or gui­tar, or stage an entire con­cert in that space. As Adri­enne LaFrance writes in The Atlantic, “you can apply [impulse respons­es] to a record­ing cap­tured in anoth­er space and make it sound as though that record­ing had tak­en place in the orig­i­nal build­ing.”

This kind of map­ping, writes Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic, allows researchers to “build an archive of a building’s sound, with all its nuances, echoes, and ric­o­chets, that could sur­vive even if the build­ing fell.” And that is pre­cise­ly what researchers have been doing since 2014 in ancient Greek Byzan­tine church­es. The project began when Sharon Ger­s­tel, Pro­fes­sor of Byzan­tine Art His­to­ry and Arche­ol­o­gy at UCLA, and Chris Kyr­i­akakis, direc­tor of the Immer­sive Audio Lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, met to dis­cuss their mutu­al inter­est in cap­tur­ing the sound of these spaces.

(Hear them both explain the gen­e­sis of the project in the CBC inter­view above.) The two researchers trav­eled to Thes­sa­loni­ki, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Kyr­i­akakis’ home­town, and began, as Ger­s­tel puts it, to “mea­sure the church­es.” LaFrance’s Atlantic arti­cle gives us a detailed descrip­tion of the mea­sure­ment process, which involves play­ing and record­ing a tone that sweeps through the audi­ble fre­quen­cy spec­trum. You’ll hear it in the video at the top of the post as a “chirp”—bouncing off the var­i­ous archi­tec­tur­al sur­faces as the voic­es of singers would have hun­dreds of years ago.

In that video and in the audio record­ing above, chanters in a stu­dio had the audio char­ac­ter­is­tics of these church­es applied to their voic­es, recre­at­ing the sounds that filled the spaces in the ear­ly Chris­t­ian cen­turies. As anoth­er mem­ber of the team, James Don­ahue—Pro­fes­sor of Music Pro­duc­tion and Engi­neer­ing at Berklee Col­lege of Music—discovered, the church­es had been acousti­cal­ly designed to pro­duce spe­cif­ic sound effects. “It wasn’t just about the archi­tec­ture,” says Don­ahue, “they had these big jugs that were put up there to sip cer­tain fre­quen­cies out of the air… They built dif­fu­sion, a way to break up the sound waves… They were active­ly try­ing to tune the space.” In addi­tion, the builders “dis­cov­ered some­thing that we call slap echo. [In the ancient world], they described it as the sound of angels’ wings.”

The project not only allows art his­to­ri­ans to enter the past, but it also pre­serves that past far into the future, cre­at­ing what LaFrance calls a “muse­um of lost sound.” After all, the church­es them­selves will even­tu­al­ly recede into his­to­ry. “Some of these build­ings may not exist lat­er,” says Kyr­i­akakis, “Some of these his­toric build­ings are being destroyed.” With immer­sive video and audio tech­nol­o­gy, we will still be able to expe­ri­ence much of their grandeur long after they’re gone.

via the CBC/Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: From Ancient Greece to Roco­co (A Free Online Course)

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

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Comments (6)
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  • Jen says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing! I think the ancient archi­tects knew what they were doing as well.

  • Sheenagh Roberts says:

    This is thrilling stuff!

  • Emanuel says:

    Chants sound­ed so flaw­less­ly in that church. The true val­ue of byzan­tine chants.

  • Virgil T. Morant says:

    This is a fas­ci­nat­ing post and well worth the read and the watch and the lis­ten. For­give me for being nit­picky, but I am dis­ap­point­ed that nowhere here, how­ev­er, do we find the word Ortho­dox. Byzan­tine is a fair enough his­tor­i­cal term (although it does have some pejo­ra­tive roots), but this is after all the hymnody of the Ortho­dox Church we are talk­ing about. Some men­tion of that would have been nice.

  • sandria cook says:

    the space that i lis­tened in was trans­formed. no more dirty socks and scat­tered papers. it became infi­nite and a place of sub­lime order.
    thank you
    hope those record­ings will be avail­able some­time for us coomon folk.

  • Fr Patrick B O'Grady says:

    We do this every Sun­day in our holy parish church, St Peter the apos­tle ortho­dox church in pomona, ca.
    you all are wel­come to sam­ple it. come by… we don’t bite.

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