Archive for February 25th, 2020

Hagia Sophia: excavating an echo – with the pop of a balloon.

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020
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“The Byzantine Empire was married to water. Jutting out at the tip of a peninsula, ancient Constantinople was embraced by the Bosporus on one side and the Marmara Sea on the other. And at its heart, the magnificent Hagia Sophia. At once a bulwark against the sea and an apotheosis of its marvels, the basilica sparkles like the glints on the restless waters outside its walls as natural light roams the surfaces of marble and gold mosaic. ‘All of these elements are optical: the glitter, the marble …’ says Stanford art historian Bissera Pentcheva. ‘They have an auditory dimension as well. When you speak or chant in that space, your breath is extended and attenuated by surfaces of marble and gold.'”

So begins “Excavating an Echo,” my 2012 Stanford Magazine story on Stanford’s attempt to recreate the sound of the Byzantine Empire through high-tech offices of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, otherwise known as CCRMA (pronounced “Karma”).

It’s an important effort. As I explain:

Hagia Sophia (HAH-yuh soh-FEE-uh) was a massive display of imperial power and majesty for the civilization that endured as one of the most powerful economic, cultural and military forces in Europe for a thousand years. When emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev arrived in the 10th century, they wrote to their liege: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

Yet, today, much of that beauty has been lost to memory. Many of the mosaics are gone. Electric lights have replaced the hundreds of candles that once undulated with sound and breath. Incense no longer perfumes the air. And the ancient chanting that once reverberated in the domed chamber—a sound that influenced the nature of music throughout the medieval world—has been banished from the basilica, now a museum in the adamantly secular nation of Turkey.

The Hagia Sophia vaulting (Creative Commons)

NPR told an abbreviated version of the story over the weekend, with Pentcheva and the hero who did the technical work, Jonathan Abel (“I study the analysis, synthesis and processing of sound”) of CCRMA. The Turkish government was so sensitive about keeping the secular nature of the building, that it was impossible to record anyone singing anything– literally anything – there. Only one solution: bring Hagia Sophia to Stanford University. And they did it with the pop of a balloon, and special permission from the Turkish government.

NPR features the “before and after” sound, with the sound in a room with everyday acoustics, with CCRMA’s adjustments for the architecture of the Hagia Sophia. You can listen to the four-minute broadcast here.  The sound of the music, as someone a millennia ago would have heard it, is literally out of this world: “It’s actually something that is beyond humanity that the sound is trying to communicate,” says Pentcheva.

The sound of the basilica would have been unique:

The reason for this, says Abel, is that “the building is super-reflective of acoustic energy. Sound is smeared out, each note bleeding into the next, rendering speech less intelligible.” In a modern concert hall, he notes, the reverberation time is often less than two seconds. In the recreated space of Hagia Sophia, it was an astonishing 11 seconds. Hence, one note would layer upon another, the sound lingering and harmonizing with the new notes. The reverberation is so dense, Abel says, that a chant of three lines takes more than three minutes to sing.

“It calls into question the text in a sung form, how those words would be understood,” says Cappella Romana executive director Mark Powell. “It was a kind of elevated style where words were elongated so they might be understood in a large crowd. In the ancient world, with no amplification, how would a speech or sermon be delivered?”

Pentcheva wondered if the theology of the words could ever be intelligible in such a place. But, perhaps, it didn’t need to be. The reverberant acoustics transform the human voice into the “bodiless voice of sound reflections,” forcing the listener to abandon the everyday word for the great word, Logos.

For the citizens of Byzantium it was the usual miracle. They would fill the courtyard outside the basilica at night so they could pour into the building for services at dawn.

If the NPR clip has whetted your appetite for more of the sound, try the youtube clip below: