Hearing the Past in Byzantium and North Dakota

It was a happy coincidence that I read Sharon Gerstel and co.’s recent article in Hesperia on the acoustics of two well-known churches in Thessaloniki on the same week that I’ve arranged for a little concert in Corwin Hall at the University of North Dakota as part of my Wesley College Documentation Project.

I’ve been lucky enough to chat a bit with Amy Papalexandrou about ideas very similar to those Gerstel and her crew sought to document at the Acheiropoietos church and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki. The goal of the project was to determine whether the architecture of these buildings functioned to promote (or more likely co-create) certain soundscapes in these buildings throughout their long histories. The evidence is suggestive, if a largely inconclusive. The buildings themselves have changed since the Byzantine period and their acoustic character is likely significantly different than it was in the past. Painted plaster wall instead of marble revetting, the removal of parapet screens between columns, and the absence of fabric wall coverings, rugs, and other damping in the buildings promoted different conditions that transformed the sound of these churches. As significantly, human bodies absorb sound and large congregations on feast days, for example, would have transformed the signature of the building as well. 

None of this is to diminish the significance of the acoustic research into these spaces. After all, most architectural and art historians can look beyond later modifications of these spaces to understand and “see” the original structures and their visual impacts. My own work, for example, considered the role that the columnar screens between the aisles and the central nave played on the visual experience of a processional liturgy. The impact of sound on both the experience and the shape of the liturgy in long-lived buildings would have almost certainly been as significant as the visual experience of the Christian rite. 

Later today, we’ll be recording the acoustic properties of the turn-of-the-century Wesley College recital room in Corwin Hall on the campus of the University of North Dakota. Rather than trying for a kind of rigorously empirical recording that seeks in frequency response and other quantitative measures to document the sonic signature of a room, we are attempting to capture the essence of the space through performance. We are fortunate to have a willing collaborator in Mike Wittgraf, from UND’s music department, who is an accomplished musician as well as a specialist in electronically mediated music that takes advantage of multiple speakers, microphones, and other acoustic devices to create new sounds.

We’re doing this with the full understanding that this room has been modified in rather significant ways. The most significant modifications occurred in the late 1970s where the north wall of the room was moved forward some 8 feet and drop ceilings were installed around the edge of the room to hide ductwork. The windows have been partly filled in with more efficient aluminum windows and the room lacks damping drapery or other window treatments that almost certainly would have featured in the original building.  

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All the same, the room clearly possess some of its former acoustic properties. The high vaulted ceiling, for example, creates what Mike Wittgraf called a distinctive “ring” to the room. Performing in the space today, however, will tell part of the story of the building’s history. While we don’t have original recordings from the space (at least that we know of), our recording in the building will offer a perspective from which a savvy ear or just a curious mind might imagine what the room sounded like in its original configuration just as an experience or imaginative eye can see through various renovations to the space and visualize its original form.

Finally, I’d like to imagine that this is part of an archaeology of care. Corwin Hall is scheduled for demolition this spring and the space surely witness more than its share of nervous and exuberant performances over its first 50 years of life as a recital hall (from 1909 to 1965 or so). Wesley College originally served as the music department for UND and Mike Wittgraf’s parting concert – featuring Wesleyan hymns appropriate for a funeral – serves as fitting send off for the room and the building.

Tune in to my Facebook page at around noon today to catch a broadcast of the concert. We’ll also release the various recordings with some explanation in the future.  

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