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The Virtual Hagia Sophia

Stanford scientists and Cappella Romana recreate Byzantine chant as it would have sounded there

Here is something astonishing and beautiful, sent to me by our reader James C., who has a gift for finding these things. Here’s the story from Smithsonian. Excerpts:

Twice in the past few years, Stanford scholars and scientists have worked to digitally recreate the experience of being in Hagia Sophia when it was a medieval church. Collaborating with choral group Cappella Romana, they digitally recreated the former holy building’s acoustics, and performed medieval church music in the university’s Bing Concert Hall as if it was Hagia Sophia. Their efforts are part of a multi-year collaboration between departments at Stanford that asks the question: can modern technology help us go back in time?

The “Icons of Sound” project focuses on the interior of Hagia Sophia, using recordings of balloon pops taken in the space and other audio and visual research to figure out the building’s acoustics by extrapolating from those noises. The scientists used that data to recreate the experience of being there—an experience that has been in some ways timeless for the almost 1,500 years the building has stood. But much has changed for the Hagia Sophia in that time.


To recreate the unique sound, performers sang while listening to the simulated acoustics of Hagia Sophia through earphones. Their singing was then put through the same acoustic simulator and played during the live performance through speakers in the concert hall, as they also sang, making the performance sound like it was taking place in Istanbul at Hagia Sophia.

“Hagia Sophia’s unique acoustics dramatically impacts not just the sound, but the performance itself,” writes the sound company that miked the singers. “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.”

Read the whole thing, and watch the short film embedded in it. It is hard to describe the effect. You just have to hear it for yourself. Here are some video recordings featuring the audio from that performance. Last night, I heard them with a pair of good headphones. If you have a pair, put them on to listen to this chant. It’s one of the most ethereal, transporting things I’ve ever heard:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKLkJJ3ftIw]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHpOiX2sO-s]

More here, including another short video clip. If anybody knows of a full recording of this performance, please let us know where it can be obtained.

James C. is in Istanbul now, making a pilgrimage to the Hagia Sophia itself. I had the blessing of being there in 2006. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life. The sense of tragedy over the fate of the great cathedral is unlike anything I’ve ever felt.



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