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Rediscovering the sound of Byzantine churches

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Sharon Gerstel, art historian and archaeology professor at UCLA, is making acoustic maps of churches from the early Middle Ages.

If you ever had the chance to walk into a 4th-century basilica, you might have wondered what liturgy looked like back then. But the question of how did liturgy sound in, let’s say, the 4th century, is not asked that frequently.

That’s the question Christos Kyriakakis, the director of the University of Southern California’s Immersive Audio Lab, might have some answers for.

As Adrienne LaFrance reports in The Atlantic, the project that implies mapping, reconstructing and analyzing the acoustics of Byzantine churches began when Sharon Gerstel, an art history professor and UCLA archaeologist, realized her vast knowledge of Byzantine art still lacked something. “We always see Byzantine art images without thinking of their musical counterpart,” the researcher told LaFrance. “So many paintings of a certain period contain representations of hymns and hymnographers, but people were looking at these paintings as if they were mute.”

The research, which began in Thessaloniki, Greece, and also involved Berklee music production and sound engineering professor James Donahue, discovered (or confirmed) that Byzantine architects were indeed “tuning space.” “It wasn’t just about the architecture. They had these big jugs that were put up there to sip certain frequencies out of the air … They built diffusion, a way to break up the sound waves by putting striations in the walls. They were actively trying to tune the space.”

The project might even lead to the building of a “museum of lost sound” that would give the visitor the possibility of listening to the “acoustic maps” of these buildings. In fact, an acoustic map of the Parthenon is already on the way.

Read LaFrance’s full Article, as published in The Atlantic, here.

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