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California Sounds: New Year's Day Music That Hasn't Been Heard in 500 Years

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A church choir has not been able to sing inside the Hagia Sophia for over 500 years. (Arild Vågen/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul is incredibly reverberant — a sound will echo around and remain audible for eleven seconds. That reverberance shaped nearly a thousand years of music written to be performed inside the cathedral. But no one has been able to listen to what it's like to hear a church choir sing inside the Hagia Sophia for over 500 years. That is, until now.

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When the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD, it was the largest building in the world, and for a thousand years it was the biggest cathedral on the planet. Countless songs were written for the acoustics of the Hagia Sophia. The architecture of this one building influenced the whole trajectory of Eastern Orthodox church music.

At the end of the 15th century, the Ottomans crushed the Byzantine Empire. They turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and in 1935 it became a museum. Church choirs are not allowed to perform inside, so it has been centuries since anyone heard the music as it was supposed to sound inside the Hagia Sophia.

But thanks to some professors at Stanford, that’s no longer the case.

About a decade ago, art history professor Bissera Pentcheva and computer music professor Jonathan Abel started a mission to map the acoustic profile of the Hagia Sophia and created a digital filter that could be applied to any sound. The feat required the latest theories of "convolution reverb," a few trips to Istanbul and at least one pack of balloons.

Finally, to replicate the music heard inside of the Hagia Sophia, they shared their filter with Cappella Romana, a Portland-based choir that specializes in Byzantine chants. Take a listen to hear how Pentcheva, Abel and Cappella Romana have brought back music that hasn't been heard exactly as it was intended for over 500 years.

For the full surround sound effect, throw on a pair of headphones before you listen!

This story comes to us from Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett of The World According to Sound podcast. They’re partnering with the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco to help us reimagine California in the rich way blind people experience it every day. The project has additional support from California Humanities.


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