Hagia Sophia Sings Again


| 9/19/2012 10:22:45 AM


Tags: Music, Architecture, Technology,

hagia sophia 

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was one of the most influential and architecturally significant houses of worship in the medieval world. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, the building has been a religious and political flashpoint ever since, starting as a Christian church, becoming a Muslim mosque, and now existing as a secular museum.

With its contentious past in mind, it’s no surprise that the current custodians have banned worship in the building; most unfortunately, the form of worship it was designed to amplify: singing. But those walls can talk and technology has given us a way to listen, as Cynthia Haven reports in Stanford (September/October 2012).

Since 1934, the building has tantalized lovers of ancient music, like Stanford art history assistant professor Bissera Pentcheva, who have longed to hear what it sounded like to sing in the sacred space. “For a building that had such an important aura or presence, to lose its voice is really dramatic,” said Pentcheva. Fortunately, she didn’t need to look too far to find two people who could give Hagia Sophia its voice again.

At Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Pentcheva met consulting professor Jonathan Abel, who had previously worked with doctoral student Miriam Kolar on recreating the aural experience of a ceremonial Incan structure with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the sociology of the ancient worshipers. Abel’s expertise includes analyzing, synthesizing and manipulating sound, so the duo was the dream team Pentcheva needed to answer her pressing question. 



The trick for Kolar and Abel was to devise a way to record and synthesize the acoustic signatures of Hagia Sophia without actually having to sing in the building. The solution couldn’t have been simpler: “Balloon pops are convenient for probing the acoustics of a space, as they generate relatively uniform radiation patterns and consistent ‘N-wave’ waveforms,” said Abel. In other words, the balloon pop mimics the way a human voice would bounce off the magnificent 182-foot-high dome and 40 arched windows.

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Stephen Long
9/27/2012 2:17:48 AM

But how do you get this acoustic fingerprint as a "drop in" to mix with?


David Dutko
9/20/2012 12:33:45 PM

Just to be correct, there is no 'Eastern Rite' of Christianity, rather the Hagia Sophia was the heart of the Church of Constantinople, one of the five sees of the ancient Pentarchy (Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Constantinople) and after the Great Schism in the Church it became the heart of Orthodox Christianity from which the 'Eastern Rite' of the Church of Rome came following a series of Unions beween part of the Orthodox churches with Rome following the fall of Constantinople in 1453;


Robert Morin
9/19/2012 10:01:57 PM

The birthplace of the Eastern Rite of Christianity, and this is how it was treated after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. However, that was interesting history about the fact that singing with the acoustics was the way to worship, and to hear each other between the congregation and the priest and/or deacon. Just shows how the Eastern Church was born, and how those traditions still continue today.