Sunday, January 15, 2017

Icons of Sound: Cappella Romana in a virtual Hagia Sophia - Prokeimenon

From a performance at Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall. February 1, 2013.

Sunday Prokeimenon in Mode 1. MS Patmos 221 (ca. 1162-1179)

Program note:

Dry versus Wet Sound and the Experiment with Live Auralization in Bing Hall

Cappella Romana, Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and the Art & Art History Department

Tonight we will experiment with digital technology in the second half of Cappella
Romana's concert in order to transform the Bing Hall into the reverberant soundscape
of Hagia Sophia (532-537), which defined the medieval spiritual experience and man's embeddedness in the world.

We live in a culture that values dry, direct, and efficient sound. This aesthetic
predisposition emerged during the Machine Age (1900-1933) and it transformed our
relationship to sound. Before, speech or chanting reverberating in resonant ancient stone interiors made individual words unclear. The electroacoustic signal, stripped of ambient noise, and piped into dry and inert rooms, by contrast, allowed individual words to be heard with clarity and directness.

Modern acoustics started with the building of Boston's Symphony Hall (1900). In
the process the physicist Wallace Sabine discovered a formula for predicting the
reverberation of a space. This is the length of time a sound produced in an interior
continues to reflect off surfaces until it gradually decays into inaudibility. Sabine's
formula established a relation between materials and interior volume. This discovery
ushered in the development of acoustics as science and the engineering of new synthetic building materials. Both advances allowed the reverberation of any interior to be manipulated and adjusted for the particular function of a space. As the aesthetics of the modern dry and efficient sound permeated the city, it shaped the expectation of concert hall acoustics from an average reverberation time of 4 seconds to a drop to ca. 2 seconds. In treating reverberation as noise, modern technology severed the relationship between sound and space.

By contrast, in the pre-modern world the acoustics of the space was the direct product
of the natural materials. The marble interior of Hagia Sophia was 70 meters long, while in height it reached 56 meters at the apex of the great dome. The vast chamber and its reflective surfaces of marble and gold resulted in unprecedented acoustics of over ten seconds reverberation time. As a museum Hagia Sophia today has lost its voice, no performances could take place in it. Using new digital technology developed at CCRMA, the second portion of Cappella Romana's concert at Bing aims to recreate sound of what singing in Hagia Sophia must have been like. Each singer caries a microphone that records the sound transforming it into a digital signal, which is then imprinted with the reverberant response of Hagia Sophia. What you hear as a wet sound is the product of a digitally produced signal transmitted through loudspeakers placed strategically to create an enveloping soundfield. This digital signal may shock you with the way it relativizes speech, transforming its content into a chiaroscuro of indistinct but immersive sound. For the Byzantines, this sonic experience was associated with the water: the waves of the sea.

Jonathan Abel, consulting professor at CCRMA
Bissera Pentcheva, associate professor at the Art & Art History Department
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