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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  • 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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