Hear the Hagia Sophia’s Awe-Inspiring Acoustics Get Recreated with Computer Simulations, and Let Yourself Get Transported Back to the Middle Ages

The tech­nol­o­gy used to pro­duce, record, and process music has become ever more sophis­ti­cat­ed and awe-inspir­ing, espe­cial­ly in the capa­bil­i­ty of soft­ware to emu­late real instru­ments and acoustic envi­ron­ments. Dig­i­tal emu­la­tion, or “mod­el­ing,” as it’s called, doesn’t sim­ply mim­ic the sounds of gui­tar ampli­fiers, pianos, or syn­the­siz­ers. At its best, it repro­duces the feel of an aur­al expe­ri­ence, its tex­tures and son­ic dimen­sions, while also adding a seem­ing­ly infi­nite degree of flex­i­bil­i­ty.

When it comes to a tech­nol­o­gy called “con­vo­lu­tion reverb,” we can vir­tu­al­ly feel the air pres­sure of sound in a phys­i­cal space, such that “lis­ten­ing in may be viewed as much as a spa­tial expe­ri­ence as it is a tem­po­ral one.” So notes Stanford’s Icons of Sound, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between the University’s Cen­ter for Com­put­er Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and the Depart­ment of Art & Art His­to­ry. The researchers in this joint project have com­bined resources to cre­ate a per­for­mance of Byzan­tine chant from the 6th cen­tu­ry CE, sim­u­lat­ed to sound like it takes place inside a prime acoustic envi­ron­ment designed for this very music, the Hagia Sophia in Istan­bul.

Built by the emper­or Jus­tin­ian between 532 and 537, when the city was Con­stan­tino­ple, the mas­sive church (lat­er mosque and now state-run muse­um) “has an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large nave spread­ing over 70 meters in length; it is sur­round­ed by colon­nad­ed aisles and gal­leries. Mar­ble cov­ers the floor and walls.” Its cen­ter is “crowned by a dome glit­ter­ing in gold mosaics and ris­ing 56 meters above the ground.” The effect of the build­ing’s heavy, reflec­tive sur­faces and its archi­tec­tur­al enor­mi­ty “chal­lenges our con­tem­po­rary expec­ta­tion of the intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty of lan­guage.”

We are accus­tomed to hear the spo­ken or sung word clear­ly in dry, non-rever­ber­ant spaces in order to decode the encod­ed mes­sage. By con­trast, the wet acoustics of Hagia Sophia blur the intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty of the mes­sage, mak­ing words sound like ema­na­tion, emerg­ing from the depth of the sea. 

The Icons of Sound team has recon­struct­ed the under­wa­ter acoustics of the Hagia Sophia using con­vo­lu­tion reverb tech­niques and what are called “impulse responses”—recordings of the rever­ber­a­tions in par­tic­u­lar spaces, which are then loaded into soft­ware to dig­i­tal­ly sim­u­late the same psy­choa­coustics, a process known as “aural­iza­tion.” CCRMA describes an impulse response as an “imprint of the space,” which is then applied to sounds record­ed in oth­er envi­ron­ments. Typ­i­cal­ly, the process is used in stu­dio music pro­duc­tion, but Icons of Sound brought it to live per­for­mance at Stanford’s Bing Con­cert Hall last year, and made the group Cap­pel­la Romana sound like their voic­es had trans­port­ed from the Holy Roman Empire.

“To recre­ate the unique sound,” writes Kat Eschn­er at Smith­son­ian, “per­form­ers sang while lis­ten­ing to the sim­u­lat­ed acoustics of Hagia Sophia through ear­phones. Their singing was then put through the same acoustic sim­u­la­tor and played dur­ing the live per­for­mance through speak­ers in the con­cert hall.” As you can hear in these clips, the result is immer­sive and pro­found. One can only imag­ine what it must have been like live. To com­plete the effect, the pro­duc­tion used “atmos­pher­ic rein­force­ment,” notes Stan­ford Live, “via pro­ject­ed images and light­ing.” The audi­ence was “immersed in an envi­ron­ment where the unique inter­play of music, light, art, and sacred text has the poten­tial to induce a qua­si-mys­ti­cal state of rev­e­la­tion and won­der.”

The only sounds the researchers were able to record in the actu­al space of the ancient church were four pop­ping bal­loons. By lay­er­ing the rever­ber­a­tions cap­tured in these record­ings, and com­pen­sat­ing for the dif­fer­ent decay times inside the Bing, they were able to approx­i­mate the acoustic prop­er­ties of the build­ing. You can hear sev­er­al more audio sam­ples record­ed in dif­fer­ent places at this site. In the video above, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of medieval art Bis­sera Pentche­va explains how and why the Hagia Sophia shapes sound and light the way it does. While purists might pre­fer to see a per­for­mance in the actu­al space, one must admit, the abil­i­ty to vir­tu­al­ly deliv­er a ver­sion of it to poten­tial­ly any con­cert hall in the world is pret­ty cool.

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne: How Archi­tec­ture Helped Music Evolve

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

What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Lis­ten to a Recon­struc­tion That’s ‘100% Accu­rate’

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

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