The Icons of Sound project will explore music, ritual, architecture, and technology.
By Jason Victor Serinus
Close to three years after Cappella Romana’s last visit to Bing Concert Hall, the extraordinary Portland-based vocal ensemble returns to delve deeper into the mysteries of Byzantine chant in Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. The ensemble’s November 4 evening will take advantage of new visual projections and a far more accurate computer-enabled simulation of the unique acoustics of an edifice that for nearly one thousand years was the largest enclosed space in the world.
The Stanford Live program will be devoted entirely to recently discovered music from the liturgy of Hagia Sophia, much of which has not been heard in centuries. According to Bissera Pentcheva, the associate professor of medieval art at Stanford whose research and vision continue to spearhead this project, the experience offers an “incredible opportunity to share research as an aesthetic act via performance.”
The exploration is a joint effort by Pentcheva; consulting professor and project co-director Jonathan Abel, researcher and lecturer Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, and others from Stanford’s cutting-edge Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA); and Michael Ramsaur, professor and director of production emeritus for the Stanford Department of Theater and Performance Studies. Ramsaur will provide what he calls “atmospheric reinforcement” via projected images and lighting.
“The focus is on the prominence of the void under the great dome,” says Pentcheva. “Hagia Sophia, which means ‘Holy Wisdom,’ confronts us with a paradox: the combination of the blurring of semantics produced by the reverberant but enveloping sound field and the dissolution of form engendered by light and glitter suggests that divine knowledge can be grasped only partially, and in obscurity.”
The concert will be followed by a free all-day symposium on Saturday, November 5. Entitled Icons of Sound: Voice, Architecture, and Imagination, the program will explore how attention to music and acoustics can change the way in which art and architectural historians think about their fields.
As heady as all this sounds, the surprisingly sensuous beauty of Byzantine chant—performed in a multidimensional, virtual acoustic world by an ensemble motivated equally by research and love—could ultimately transport us beyond thought. If all goes as planned, the audience will become immersed in an environment where the unique interplay of music, light, art, and sacred text has the potential to induce a quasi-mystical state of revelation and wonder.
Ritual, Music, and Aesthetics
According to Alexander Lingas, founding artistic director of Cappella Romana, Reader in Music at City University London, and a fellow of the University of Oxford’s European Humanities Research Centre, the program will present music for the Feast of the Exaltation (Elevation) of the Holy Cross. At the heart of the ritual, which was held every September 14, was a relic of what was believed to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
During the feast, the patriarch ascended the platform (ambo) situated in Hagia Sophia’s nave under the eastern periphery of the dome, raised the relic of the cross, and blessed the congregation in the four cardinal directions. Pentcheva believes that the moment the cross was raised under the dome was understood as symbolic of inspiriting the cross within the sphere of light. This is represented by the iconic design of a cross within the circle, which survives in the building’s sixth-century mosaics.
Pentcheva notes that the cross was connected to the concept of divine wisdom. Since the church itself was dedicated to holy wisdom, the connection between Sophia and the cross acquired deep resonance within the space.
“The Rite of the Great Church (Hagia Sophia) was a distinctive way of doing services that was very influential throughout the Christian world,” says Lingas. “It had two main components: a cycle of daily prayer, with services collectively called the Divine Office, and other services like the Divine Liturgy (the orthodox version of the mass). The Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist) has more or less survived in modern orthodox churches, but the cycle of daily prayer disappeared after the Middle Ages. There survives one major literary description by a 15th-century author. Just in the past few decades, modern liturgical scholarship has pieced together parts of text and music from widely scattered sources. We now have a pretty good idea of how those services were conducted.”
While some of the music is rather straightforward, other pieces will be rich in the melismas and intercalations characteristic of cathedral chant in Hagia Sophia. The two act as articulation points, extending a very short sentence of text from 90 to 120 seconds.
“The long melismas stretch the semantic chain and make the entry into the meaning of what is being sung rather difficult,” says Pentcheva. “They took intercalations to extremes by chopping words in the middle of syllables with nonsense syllables interspersed. A word like ‘alleluia’ became ‘a-ha-ou- a-ha-ou-a-le-he-ou-e-nge-na-ne-ne-ne-luia-nga.’ Probably this was a purposeful act, done to achieve mystery by using the reverberant and enveloping sonority to transcend semantics.”
“Everyone is surprised at how gripping and captivating this music is,” Pentcheva continues. “I’ve compared Cappella Romana’s performance with YouTube clips of the received tradition on multiple occasions, and I’m always moved more by their work.”
Rather than rely on monumental human figures, the interior’s mosaics employed geometric and vegetal designs that relied upon the abstract interplay of light to transform music and ritual into something that went beyond it. As Pentcheva stressed repeatedly during multiple conversations, the visual and sonic phenomena are connected. Aesthetics were used to help congregants imagine what the divine is and make the metaphysical sentient within the space.
Beyond the Big Pop
CCRMA’s computer simulation for Cappella Romana’s 2013 Bing performance of Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine chant was based on stereo recordings of four balloon pops, which is all that Pentcheva was allowed to record in Hagia Sophia using two omnidirectional microphones positioned above her ears. Those recordings were analyzed by Abel, whose team constructed a mathematical model of the former church’s remarkable 10- to 13-second sonic decay.
Even with the aid of architectural drawings and photographs, Pentcheva’s original stereo recordings made in Hagia Sophia could supply only a rudimentary feel for the spatial character of the structure’s sound field. For Cappella Romana’s 2013 performance, Abel gave each vocalist an extended, somewhat diffuse cloud of reverberation and reflections—the performers were not (and will not be for the November 4 event) amplified per se—in which each occupied a slightly different region of space. The men with the low voices, who provided the drone, were given larger overlapping regions of reverb to ensure that they underpinned everything, and soloists were a bit more focused.
Three years later, the CCRMA team is taking advantage of recordings of far-more-precise, extended sine wave sweeps and multiple balloon pops that were captured in different locations using large, full-range speakers; subwoofers; and a polyhedron microphone array. With these new recordings, Abel has been able to analyze the interaction of the edifice’s side to side, front to back, and up and down reflections. His new simulation model will take into account both this new knowledge and the potentially problematic 2.5-second reverberation decay of Bing.
“In Hagia Sophia, listening is as much about being enveloped by the reverberation as by the content of what you are experiencing,” explains Abel. “Some of the edifice’s unique sound results from the interaction of the dome and the colonnade. The columns scatter the sound, resulting in diffuse reflections that produce a very pleasant and, to me, musically uplifting sound. You get reflections from the sides as well as from the dome, and your attention is drawn upward.”
Enter Lopez-Lezcano, who built the concert’s CCRMA-sourced multichannel loudspeaker array as well as the software necessary to calibrate it. Using a six-core computer system with 64GB RAM, his team promises more speakers that are better calibrated for a flat response and a more accurate simulation of Hagia Sophia’s space. To allow for Bing’s acoustics, the simulated reverberation will increase as the hall’s dies off.
In true CCRMA/karmic fashion, CCRMA’s array of speakers has been dubbed the GRAIL (Giant Radial Array for Immersive Listening). “We were using it for many years in concert before my student, Alison Rush, came up with the name, and it stuck,” says Lopez-Lezcano. “And this is a holistic system, so it’s the Holi GRAIL.”
In short, a virtual community of dedicated scholars, scientists, musicologists, musicians, and artists has joined together to re-create the transcendent experience of listening to spiritual music within a church that became a mosque that became a state-run museum. Consider it a Back to the Future Be-In for the Postmillennial Digital Age.
Jason Victor Serinus is an arts and audio writer whose work appears in the Seattle Times, Stereophile, Opera Now, and San Francisco Classical Voice. He whistled Woodstock’s Puccini aria in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts television special