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An Acoustic Museum of Byzantine Sound

Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece
Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece (photo by G. Garitan/Wikimedia)

The sonic intentions of architecture are often lost over the centuries. In 2014, a team of researchers investigated the acoustics of Byzantine churches in Thessaloniki, Greece, to retrieve some of that design through sound mapping.

On an episode released last month of the podcast Escape Velocity, created by the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, Sharon Gerstel, an art history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), explained why she became involved in this acoustic archaeology:

For me as an art historian, I was interested in the perception of sound and how that perception was informed by the setting. When you walk into these buildings, they’re cooler than the outside temperature, they smell different on the inside because they’ve had incense in them burned for centuries, so there’s the palpable change in the atmosphere. They’re dark on the inside and you see the painted figures looming from all sides of the building, looking at you.

The whole episode is embedded at the bottom of this post. Gerstel collaborated with Chris Kyriakakis, USC Immersive Audio Laboratory, as well as James Donahue, a Berklee College of Music professor and recording engineer; Amy Papalexandrou, a Stockton College architectural history professor; Konstantinos Raptis, a Thessaloniki archaeologist; and City University London musicologist Spyridon Antonopoulos. Joining this international group were, significantly for such a musical undertaking, the singers who performed the chants.

Last month at the Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance further explored their process of sound mapping Byzantine churches, in which a “chirp” is used to test different parts of the church, with the data inputted to a computer. She adds that “where it gets really interesting” is “once you have a building’s impulse response, you can apply it to a recording captured in another space and make it sound as though that recording had taken place in the original building.” Here’s a video from Kyriakakis that demonstrates the “chirp” test:

Byzantine churches in particular were constructed at a time of architectural change, with their domes and arches built to be these immersive experiences. Their acoustics were an integral part of that experience, where sound could flutter like the wings of angels.

Through this mapping, the researchers can build an archive of a building’s sound, with all its nuances, echoes, and ricochets, that could survive even if the building fell. If the chanters sang in a studio, their song could be processed to have the shape of a particular space, their voices given a different resonance just as the monks would have had in the fourth century. And this is a technique that could be applied to any historic building, whether church or arena or theater. Kyriakakis says on the podcast: “It’s the beginning of creating museums of history, visual and audible, stamps of what these places were like.”

Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece
Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece (photo by G. Garitan/Wikimedia)
Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece
Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Greece (photo by G. Garitan/Wikimedia)
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