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Excavating an Echo

An art historian and an audio engineer seek to recreate a sound lost for centuries.

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By Cynthia Haven

The Byzantine Empire was married to water. Jutting out at the tip of a peninsula, ancient Constantinople was embraced by the Bosporus Sea on one side and the Marmara Sea on the other. And at its heart, the magnificent Hagia Sophia. At once a bulwark against the sea and an apotheosis of its marvels, the basilica sparkles like the glints on the restless waters outside its walls as natural light roams the surfaces of marble and gold mosaic. "All of these elements are optical: the glitter, the marble . . ." says Stanford art historian Bissera Pentcheva. "They have an auditory dimension as well. When you speak or chant in that space, your breath is extended and attenuated by surfaces of marble and gold."

Hagia Sophia (HAH-yuh soh-FEE-uh) was a massive display of imperial power and majesty for the civilization that endured as one of the most powerful economic, cultural and military forces in Europe for a thousand years. When emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev arrived in the 10th century, they wrote to their liege: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty."

Yet, today, much of that beauty has been lost to memory. Many of the mosaics are gone. Electric lights have replaced the hundreds of candles that once undulated with sound and breath. Incense no longer perfumes the air. And the ancient chanting that once reverberated in the domed chamber—a sound that influenced the nature of music throughout the medieval world—has been banished from the basilica, now a museum in the adamantly secular nation of Turkey.

"For a building that had such an important aura or presence, to lose its voice is really dramatic," Pentcheva says.

Having written two books on Byzantine culture—one on multisensory aesthetics, the other on religious iconography—Pentcheva was drawn to the interplay of the senses and the numinous in creating the heightened experience of Hagia Sophia. When she heard a recording of the "Cheroubikon" hymn, originally written for the space, she longed to know what it must have sounded like when sung in the basilica. That desire led her in 2008 to contact two people who were on the same wavelength, so to speak.

Miriam Kolar, a doctoral student at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, was studying the psychoacoustics of Chavín de Huántar in Peru. She had been making on-site measurements in the pre-Incan temple complex, hoping to recreate what she called "the aural experience of an ancient ceremonial center," and from that to fathom the psyche and the sociology of the people who experienced the sound.

One of her advisers on the project was Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor at CCRMA whose expertise includes the analysis, synthesis, manipulation and perception of sound. Pentcheva, Abel and Kolar discussed the unique architecture of Hagia Sophia and reviewed data from earlier projects that had measured and documented its acoustics. Supported by grants from the Presidential Fund for Innovation in the Humanities and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, they embarked on an unusual collaboration.

"We thought it would be interesting and cool to bring the building back to life in some sense," says Abel, MS '84, PhD '89. "We want to recreate the experience one would have had in ancient Constantinople."

But first they had to grapple with the tormented, contentious and spectacular history of this unique building. For the obvious way to answer Pentcheva's question—to simply go to Hagia Sophia and make a recording of early religious music on site—was utterly impossible.

From the time Constantine is thought to have laid the foundation in the fourth century, Hagia Sophia was always a wishbone between church and state. It was destroyed, rebuilt and left in ashes once more. In the sixth century Emperor Justinian began construction on the third and final church, within days of having massacred tens of thousands of rioters who had destroyed its predecessor.

The building that would change the history of architecture was built in a feverish five years. It became the model for churches throughout the Byzantine, Slavic and Orthodox worlds. But none could match its scale or grandeur. With 200,000 square feet of floor space, Hagia Sophia's largest dome is 182 feet high (about the height of the U.S. Capitol building), 102 feet in diameter, and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. The sanctuary alone had 40,000 pounds of silver.

It's difficult to envision today what an enormous operation the church was. It employed 600 people altogether, including about 80 priests, 150 deacons and 40 deaconesses, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers who sang with the 25 psalmists, and 75 doorkeepers. It even had its famous soloists. During the liturgical "Great Entrance," a magnificent ceremony instituted during Justinian's reign, choirs would solemnly chant "Hymn of the Cherubim" while the emperor, in full regalia, would enter from the east to meet the Byzantine Patriarch.

"We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care, as we receive the King of All, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!"

But which was the King of All? The deity represented by the clergy's cross—or the emperor using the edifice of religion to magnify imperial power? The emperor doubtless enjoyed the ambiguity.

The basilica remained a center of Christianity until 1453, when conquering Ottomans battered down its massive doors, pillaged its riches, and enslaved or slaughtered those who had taken refuge there. Aya Sofya (the Turkish spelling) became the first imperial mosque of the renamed Istanbul. Mosaics were plastered over and, in the subsequent centuries, minarets, a golden crescent and other Islamic features were added.

In 1934 the building was secularized and is now operated as a museum by a government that adheres to a strict separation of church and state. Don't try to sing a single note in the Hagia Sophia today; the guards will likely hustle you out at the first do-re-mi.

Bouncing Sound

IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK: In an enclosed space, sound reaches the listener's ears directly and also from reflections off of the floor, ceiling and walls. The time it takes for these echoes to arrive depends on the size, layout and construction of the room. By reconstructing this pattern of echoes in a computer model, it is possible to create a virtual acoustic representation of the space.

Pop! The sound of a balloon exploding rang out in the empty basilica like a gunshot. The commonplace sound blew open the door to another world.

The first step to recreating the auditory experience of Hagia Sophia was to reconstruct the path a human voice would have traveled 1,500 years ago. But that required access. After extensive negotiations with Aya Sofya Müzesi administrators, in 2010 Pentcheva was granted permission to record inside the building—with the stipulation that she use a distinctly nonmusical sound.

Inexpensive, portable and easy to deploy, a balloon was ideally suited to the purpose. "Balloon pops are convenient for probing the acoustics of a space, as they generate relatively uniform radiation patterns and consistent 'N-wave' waveforms," says Abel.

Sound impulses propagate in all directions, interacting with obstacles along the way. Absorbed by some materials and reflected by others, they arrive at the listener in successive moments, creating overlapping waves that carry with them an imprint of the space.

Pentcheva stood beneath the great dome, two omnidirectional microphones clipped to the hair above her ears. Approximately 10 feet in front of her, a museum guard pricked the balloon while the microphones recorded the pop in stereo. "I was surprised at how loud it could be," she recalls, noting that art historians tend to want to draw the least possible amount of attention to themselves. "A pistol shot is not the ideal."

Back at Stanford, Abel processed and analyzed the recording to extract a signal—an acoustic fingerprint called the room impulse response—that gives Hagia Sophia its distinctive aura. He then constructed a computational model to apply that fingerprint to any piece of music, thereby transforming it such that the output is sonically identical to what it would have sounded like in the actual space.

Next, to recreate a choir performance, Abel would record individual singers and position them digitally within the virtual acoustic environment. In March 2011, his team recorded 13 members of Cappella Romana, a vocal group based in Portland, Ore., that specializes in early Christian music, singing three chants on the CCRMA stage. Kolar, who has been a recording engineer and concert sound designer for more than a decade, flew back from Peru to assist and advise.

The recording needed to be multitracked, with each singer recorded by a separate microphone into a separate audio track. The team fitted the singers with directional headsets designed to isolate each voice. The ensemble was also recorded with the "bouquet array" of microphones that CCRMA had developed for research in archeological acoustics.

The singers received real-time feedback through earphones, allowing each to hear himself or herself singing in the great church, and to adapt their voices to accommodate what they heard. The results were dramatic: The performers altered tempo, chanting much more slowly than they ordinarily would.

The reason for this, says Abel, is that "the building is super-reflective of acoustic energy. Sound is smeared out, each note bleeding into the next, rendering speech less intelligible." In a modern concert hall, he notes, the reverberation time is often less than two seconds. In the recreated space of Hagia Sophia, it was an astonishing 11 seconds. Hence, one note would layer upon another, the sound lingering and harmonizing with the new notes. The reverberation is so dense, Abel says, that a chant of three lines takes more than three minutes to sing.

Capella Romana

HEARING IS BELIEVING: The Cappella Romana performers were individually miked and received real-time audio feedback, allowing them to hear their voices as if they were singing in Hagia Sophia's nave. As a result, they drew out their phrasing, chanting more slowly than usual.

"It calls into question the text in a sung form, how those words would be understood," says Cappella Romana executive director Mark Powell. "It was a kind of elevated style where words were elongated so they might be understood in a large crowd. In the ancient world, with no amplification, how would a speech or sermon be delivered?"

Pentcheva wondered if the theology of the words could ever be intelligible in such a place. But, perhaps, it didn't need to be. The reverberant acoustics transform the human voice into the "bodiless voice of sound reflections," forcing the listener to abandon the everyday word for the great word, Logos.

For the citizens of Byzantium it was the usual miracle. They would fill the courtyard outside the basilica at night so they could pour into the building for services at dawn.

Deep inside the renovated Spanish Gothic fortress known as the Knoll, located on the southern edge of campus, is CCRMA's state-of-the-art "listening room." Surrounded by black walls, a heptagonal pit rimmed with bleachers sinks to a chicken wire floor. The room is designed to be anechoic—that is, to eliminate sound reflections in the room and block exterior noise. The setup also permits a fully spherical speaker arrangement, thus enabling research in virtual acoustic space.

"We're going to create a visit to the Hagia Sophia on the acoustic side," Abel says, flicking the switches on a few computers and a mixing console. A slow, stately, Asiatic wail rises, underwritten by a steady, layered, low-pitched drone in shifting keys that seems to extend into the infinite. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine you are in Byzantium. "It's something that hasn't been heard in 500 years," Abel whispers in awe as the mesmerizing sound shifts from lament to praise.

He is preparing for the upcoming virtual Hagia Sophia performance with Cappella Romana to take place at the Bing Concert Hall in February. As soon as the new concert hall is ready, Abel and the CCRMA team will take acoustic measurements and prepare to hang 24 loudspeakers that will transport the audience from California to Constantinople.

As the culmination of four years' work approaches, the researchers reflect on what it has meant to them, what they have learned.

"I'm looking at the world a little differently now," says Abel. "My perspective changed from something very mathematical, very physical, conceiving of waves propagating through space. But what is it that you are actually hearing? The space is telling you all these things about itself as you're listening. It's opened a world onto culture and history. It gave me an awareness of what architecture can do for humans."

According to Pentcheva, the acoustical wonder makes one "physically aware of your body as a conduit to the world," creating "the effect of being lost on the surface of something immense, and experiencing your own minuteness as a human being."

"Based on what we perceive," she muses, "we believe invisible things."


Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Quarterly Conversation and others.

Comments (7)


  • Mr. Kenneth Christopher Anthony

    I wonder why the Greek Orthodox Church was not contacted with regard to this project.  There are several Byzantine Chanting Choirs available that have maintained the Church's musical tradition throughout the centuries.  I'm confident that these chanters would feel honored in participating in this project.  This way, the exact hymns that were sung in the Byzantine Empire could be chanted today.  Perhaps this could be a follow-up project.  Other "Western" choirs would not be able to do the music justice as the Byzantine music scale and musical notation is different from our modern musical notation.

    Posted by Mr. Kenneth Christopher Anthony on Sep 18, 2012 6:25 PM

  • Ms. Karen Letendre

    This is fascinating!  Having been to the Hagia Sophia a couple of times (once leading a Stanford Travel/Study trip), it is truly a heart-stopping space to encounter.  I never clued into the acoustics, however, as I was so dazzled by the space itself.  This is truly a labor of love for those who have so painstakingly re-created the experience.   I will look forward to hopefully going to the concert at Stanford and re-live what it must have been like in Byzantium.  

    Posted by Ms. Karen Letendre on Sep 19, 2012 10:30 AM

  • Mr. Wesley Clark

    Wonderful article.  We visited Hagia Sophia last year and were awe struck by its size, its history and its beauty.  The idea of an acoustic footprint is new to me.  Thank you for helping me learn something new.

    Posted by Mr. Wesley Clark on Sep 19, 2012 11:55 AM

  • The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth A. Klein

    Stunning that a place once upheld as the heart of worship for a region, even an empire, can be silenced.  Though hymns, even songs, have long been forbidden, this lovely story wrenched my heart.  How I wish that I could have been one of many allowed to offer praises in this places which was crafted for exultation.

    Posted by The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth A. Klein on Sep 19, 2012 2:58 PM

  • Ms. Katherine Evangeline Young

    The choral group Capella Romana specializes not just in early Christian music but more specifically in the music of the Orthodox Church.  I am Greek Orthodox myself.  The founder and artistic director, Alexander Lingas, is himself a fully qualified Psaltis in the church who has studied with Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware and noted Greek chanter Lycourgos Angelopoulos.  He is also a musicologist and Byzantine music scholar teaching at both Oxford and City University of London in England.  He started this choir in Portland, OR because that is his hometown, as well as it is mine.  Many of the singers, especially the men, are themselves cantors in their own home parishes.  One of them, who often functions as a soloist as well, happens to be the current holder of the Protopsaltis position for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco.  The Executive Director of Capella is also an Orthodox chanter.  This group is known internationally as a respected performer of early Christian music, in the multiple languages of the Orthodox Church, e.g. Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Arabic, etc.  They also sing the music of contemporary Orthodox Litugical composers in English as well as other languages, including the works of the 20th Century Greek-American composers from California.  The Greek Orthodox Church is very much aware of this special and unique group.  For more on them, check out their website at www.capellaromana.org.  

    Posted by Ms. Katherine Evangeline Young on Sep 19, 2012 3:59 PM

  • Raul Field-Escandon, P.E.

    Excellent article. I visited Hagia Sophia last year and was so impressed that I used it for my ensuing Xmass cards as a symbol of unity of cultures, and human achievement (even by today's standards). I look forward to attending the concert at Stanford. Please provide more detailed information as it becomes available.
    Raul F. Escandon, PE, Class of '72

    Posted by Raul Field-Escandon, P.E. on Sep 20, 2012 11:52 AM

  • Mr. Mark B. Golden

    Very interesting. However, "Bosporus Sea"? Shouldn't that be strait?

    Posted by Mr. Mark B. Golden on Sep 24, 2012 10:51 AM

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