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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