A Museum of Lost Sound: What The Ancient Churches Sounded Like


Interior dome of the Hagia Sophia under renovation, Wikimedia Commons.

A wonderful and strange project at the intersection of music, history and science: audio experts are “storing” the acoustic signature of certain spaces. Both for later recreation and for learning about past spaces. In the process, they are learning a lot about how ancient churches sounded. It gives a different, tactile knowledge to our ability to imagine ourselves into the past. Be sure to see the videos and hear the music embedded in the page I linked to.

Unless you’re an audio engineer, you’ll have little reason to know what the term “convolution reverb” means. But it’s a fascinating concept nonetheless. Technicians bring high-end microphones, speakers, and recording equipment to a particularly resonant space—a grain silo, for example, or famous concert hall. They capture what are called “impulse responses,” signals that contain the acoustic characteristics of the location. The technique produces a three dimensional audio imprint—enabling us to recreate what it would sound like to sing, play the piano or guitar, or stage an entire concert in that space.

The project not only allows art historians to enter the past, but it also preserves that past far into the future, creating what LaFrance calls a “museum of lost sound.” After all, the churches themselves will eventually recede into history. “Some of these buildings may not exist later,” says Kyriakakis, “Some of these historic buildings are being destroyed.” With immersive video and audio technology, we will still be able to experience much of their grandeur long after they’re gone.

That little echo of Palmyra saddened me: “some of these buildings may not exist later”. Indeed they may not. Those who hate history are doomed to live without it. The piece in the Atlantic is actually better, but has less audio:

Even before their technical analysis began, it was clear that these ancient spaces were designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.

“You cross the threshold and your eyes immediately have to adjust,” Gerstel said. “It seems pitch black inside. The first thing you notice is images of saints, who are your size, staring at you. Gold halos against dark background, and they seem to loom. It smells of incense. You’re in this world of myrrh. The temperature is different as well. Inside, you’re in a much cooler space. Your entire body adjusts … and then to have music at the same time? That hits every sense.”

“What was truly surprising for me,” Donahue said, “was going into a space that was ancient, and to crawl around the ceiling and look at the walls and realize that they were looking at things acoustically. It wasn’t just about the architecture. They had these big jugs that were put up there to sip certain frequencies out of the air … They built diffusion, a way to break up the sound waves by putting striations in the walls. They were actively trying to tune the space.”

“They also discovered something that we call slap echo,” Donahue added, “when you have walls fairly close to one another and the frequencies go back and forth. It goes ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta. [In the ancient world,] they described it as the sound of angels’ wings.”


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