Beatific sound effects reverberating within the deep domed halls – this in a nutshell defines the rapturous acoustics of the Hagia Sophia, the crowning architectural achievement of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine). The ambit of enthralling sound was recreated (twice) by a group of Stanford scholars and scientists, in collaboration with choral group Cappella Romana. The resultant Icons of Sound project is based on some ingenious methods, like recording of balloon pops inside the actual Hagia Sophia interior space, complemented by a bevy other visual and audio measures that have aided in deducing the possible historical acoustics of the famed domed structure. The compiled data was then used to digitally recreate the ambiance, accompanied by medieval church music that was performed inside the university’s Bing Concert Hall (which replicated the Eastern Roman basilica).
In essence, the recreation harks back to the period 1,000-years ago when Hagia Sophia proudly stood as the cultural bastion of the Eastern Roman Empire, propelled by its Greek Orthodox faith. Now from the historical context, Hagia Sophia (or ‘Holy Wisdom’) was constructed as a church between 532 and 537 AD, with its patron being none other than Justinian I (also known as Saint Justinian the Great), the emperor who briefly restored the borders of the Roman realm along its western sections. However in 1453 AD, Constantinople was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the basilica was promptly converted into a mosque. And it was only in 1935, after a wave of secularization, that Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum – though there have been recent calls by some Turkish nationalists to revert it to a mosque.
As for the architectural scope, Hagia Sophia boasts an astronomical 12 million cu ft of volume, with an impressive floor area of 65,000 sq ft, which is more than an American football field. To that end, the medieval basilica held the record for world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until overtaken by Seville Cathedral in 1520 AD. Interestingly enough, mirroring its changing religious significance over the course of 1,500-years, the architecture was also altered by the Turks, with addition of minarets and even structural supports that would have protected the building from earthquakes.
Coming back to the Icons of Sound project, beyond religious and architectural upheavals, there is a deep mystic side to the grandiosely designed Hagia Sophia. According to Bissera Pentcheva, the associate professor of medieval art at Stanford, who heads the recreation endeavor –
The focus is on the prominence of the void under the great dome. 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.
As for the actual scope of the recreation, the performers of the medieval church music (we hear in the videos) were aided by the simulated acoustics of Hagia Sophia that were fed to them via earphones. The composition was then run through the very same acoustic simulator, and finally played during the live performance inside the hall through loudspeakers, accompanied by the actual singing. According the audio experts, this ‘double’ ambit allowed for partial replication of the original Hagia Sophia ambiance (and sequence) at Istanbul. The representative of the sound company (that miked the singers) made it clear –
Hagia Sophia’s unique acoustics dramatically impacts not just the sound, but the performance itself. Vocalists slow their tempo to work with the nearly 11-second-long reverberation time, while isokratima (the drone chanters) subtly vary their pitch to find building resonances. As a result, to create a virtual performance, the performers must hear the space in real time.