How a historian stuffed Hagia Sophia’s sound right into a studio

How a historian stuffed Hagia Sophia

Turquoise carpets coated the marble flooring, with its geometric designs. White drapes hid the mosaic of the Virgin and Christ. Scaffolding obscured crosses and different Christian symbols.

How a historian stuffed Hagia Sophia's sound into a studio
Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey, on Nov. 26, 2011. Hagia Sophia’s rededication
as a Muslim place of worship, after many years as a museum, threatens to cloak its extravagantly
reverberant acoustics [Credit: Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times]

Footage broadcast all over the world final week captured a few of these putting modifications to Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral in Istanbul, which served as a mosque underneath Ottoman rule earlier than changing into a museum in 1934. On the orders of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s now as soon as once more used as a mosque.

However for a gaggle of students, scientists and musicians, Hagia Sophia’s rededication as a Muslim place of worship threatens to cloak a much less tangible treasure: its sound. Bissera Pentcheva, an artwork historian at Stanford College and an knowledgeable within the burgeoning discipline of acoustic archaeology, has spent the previous decade learning the constructing’s extravagantly reverberant acoustics to reconstruct the sonic world of Byzantine cathedral music.

Pentcheva argues that Hagia Sophia’s mystical brilliance reveals itself absolutely solely whether it is considered as a vessel for animated mild — and sound. “The void is a stage,” she mentioned in a current interview over Zoom.

How a historian stuffed Hagia Sophia's sound into a studio
The constructing was reopened for worship for the primary time in 86 years final week
[Credit: Nevzat Yildirim/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images]

Conducting analysis inside this contested monument has required a combination of diplomacy, ingenuity and know-how. Turkish authorities forbade singing inside Hagia Sophia, even when it was operated as a museum. Now that the constructing falls underneath the jurisdiction of non secular authorities, that ban will harden, and additional analysis could also be much more tough.

However Pentcheva’s current work culminated final fall within the launch of “The Misplaced Voices of Hagia Sophia,” an album that brings to life the stately thriller of Byzantine cathedral liturgy, bathed within the glittering acoustics of the area for which it was written — although it was recorded in a studio in California.

For about 20 years, it has been doable to superimpose the acoustics of a specific area onto recorded music throughout postproduction. A pioneer was Altiverb, a plug-in software program that pulls on a big library of digital areas so {that a} recorded observe could be retrofitted to appear prefer it was completed in, for instance, the Berlin Philharmonie or the King’s Chamber contained in the Nice Pyramid of Giza.

However in what has grow to be referred to as dwell digital acoustics, processors and audio system present the acoustic suggestions of a specific area in actual time, in order that musicians can regulate their efficiency as in the event that they have been actually in one other constructing.

Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor on the Heart for Laptop Analysis in Music and Acoustics at Stanford, devised a plan with Bissera that allowed her to seize very important details about the acoustic properties of Hagia Sophia with the assistance of a balloon, discreet recording gear and a cooperative safety guard.

Within the winter of 2010, Pentcheva obtained permission to enter what was then a museum at daybreak, when Istanbul was quiet. She persuaded a guard to face in a spot that may have been occupied by singers in the course of the Byzantine period and to pop a balloon. Within the meantime, she stationed herself the place a privileged member of the general public might need skilled mass. Microphones captured the explosion of sound and the following wash of reverberations.


How a historian stuffed Hagia Sophia's sound into a studio
One of many balloon pops in 2010 that helped Bissera Pentcheva seize the acoustics of Hagia Sophia
[Credit: Bissera V. Pentcheva]

Pentcheva was allowed to seize solely 4 such pops over two visits. However these bursts of sound yielded a wealth of information.

“That little balloon pop brings again all of the details about the fabric and the dimensions of the area,” Abel mentioned. “You’ll be able to consider a human voice as being made up of a complete bunch of balloon pops. Every voice drags behind it a bunch of impulse responses, like streamers behind a marriage automotive.”

The balloon noises, together with maps of the inside, allowed Abel to establish what he referred to as the acoustic fingerprint of the constructing, together with the multidirectional refraction of sound because it bounces off the dome and marble colonnades. His laptop simulation was then built-in right into a set of microphones and audio system.

Thus the members of Cappella Romana, a vocal ensemble primarily based in Portland, Oregon, specializing in Byzantine chant, recorded “The Misplaced Voices” in an area that persuasively mimicked the acoustics of Hagia Sophia — with its luscious reverberation, cross echoes and amplification of explicit frequencies.

Alexander Lingas, a musicologist and the music director of Cappella Romana, mentioned that the dwell digital acoustics have been transformative to his understanding of the group’s repertory. The lengthy reverberation time dictated slower tempos. Basses singing drones made refined pitch changes to match frequencies of most resonance.

Lingas mentioned that some items solely “made sense” contained in the simulated acoustics. One instance featured on the album is a cherubic hymn that likens the singers to angels.

“The music is designed to convey that,” Lingas mentioned. “However I keep in mind modifying this piece and considering, ‘My, that is actually unusual.’” But, he added, because the group rehearsed it with the digital acoustics, a sample of repeated undulating motifs constructed up rippling momentum till, as he described it, “the sound primarily achieved liftoff.”

Pentcheva believed that in Byzantine cathedral chant, reverberation was key to invoking the divine presence. She pointed to the exuberant quantity of melisma within the repertory, the place a single syllable is stretched over a number of notes. Within the liquid acoustics of Hagia Sophia, phrases sung on this means blur, the way in which a line drawn in ink bleeds on moist paper.

“Relatively than containing this smearing of semantics, the music itself really intensifies it,” Pentcheva mentioned. “So there’s this strategy of alienation and estrangement from the register of human language that occurs in Hagia Sophia, and is a desired purpose.”

In Greek Orthodox rites, Pentcheva argued, acoustics and chant work together in a means that “just isn’t about sound carrying info, however sound precipitating expertise. It’s a absolutely corporeal funding.”

The recording supplies a glimpse of that have. Phrases chanted in unison depart a ghostly imprint. Rhythmic shudders and beauty notes set off blurry squiggles of overlapping echoes. Chords unfurl in reverberant bloom.

The acoustic drama of Hagia Sophia would have unfolded alongside the altering mild and curling smoke of burning incense, enveloping the senses. The impact is described in a Sixth-century description of the constructing by Paul the Silentiary, an aristocrat and poet on the court docket of Justinian.

“He speaks a few human motion that brings into presence the divine response, the divine voice,” Pentcheva mentioned. “In a way that’s the reverberation of the area: After the human voice stops singing, the constructing continues.”

Creator: Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim | Supply: The New York Occasions [July 31, 2020]

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