Something that I’ve been paying a good deal of attention to in the last year is the Icons of Sound project at Stanford University. Art historian Bissera Pentcheva has been involved in piecing together a working model of the aesthetic environment of Hagia Sophia, and the work has involved a recreation of the Great Church’s acoustics. Strategically placed (to say nothing of carefully negotiated with the Turkish government) balloon pops in the cathedral provided an audio sample sufficient to generate a computer model of the building’s resonance and decay, and they called in the big guns, Cappella Romana, to record some things that would demonstrate the model’s efficacy. An initial proof of concept of the project was published in the form of the stunning video found on this page.
The project has proceeded from there, and this weekend is a huge development — Cappella Romana doing a weekend residency at Stanford and presenting two concerts in the university’s new state-of-the-art Bing Hall. These concerts will involve setting up a sound system that uses the computer model of Hagia Sophia’s acoustic; the ensemble and the audience will, in theory, experience the music as though it were being sung in the Great Church itself.
I really wish I could be there, no question about it; if you live anywhere near Stanford, tickets are still available for Saturday evening’s performance. More information is at the Cappella Romana blog, and there’s also a fascinating article about the project in Stanford Live Magazine.
Since the ideal acoustic environment for churches, particularly Orthodox churches, is a topic about which I find myself constantly trying to evangelize to others, I would like to note the following excerpt from the magazine article:
“We learned that spaces have their own particular sound, created by the reverberation and patterns of the reflections that interact with the performer,” says [Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics in Stanford’s Music Department]. “Singers vary tempo and even subtly vary pitch to hit resonances of the building. There’s an interaction that happens in the field of the space, to the point where it’s difficult to separate the acoustics of the space from the performance of the music. When you perform a piece of music that was written for a particular acoustic in that very same space, it conveys something unique to the listener.”
CR’s Artistic Director, Alexander Lingas, follows up on this a bit later in the piece:
“As singers,” says Lingas, “we’re used to making adjustments for specific acoustics. We can feel and hear the resonances where harmonics lock in between each other, which affects tempo and tuning. So we’re very interested in seeing how it will work when we unite all the parts together in Bing Hall.”
If you’re somebody who is going to be at one of these concerts, I’d love to hear about your experience.
CORRECTION, 8:04pm — I am told that Saturday’s concert is in Memorial Church, not Bing. Thank you for letting me know!