Icons of Sound
Aesthetics and Acoustics of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

A collaboration between Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics and Department of Art & Art History

This research focuses on the interior of Hagia Sophia built by emperor Justinian in 532-537 and employs visual, textual, and musicological research, video, balloon pops, the building of architectural and acoustic models, auralizations, and the recording of Byzantine chant.

The Great Church of Constantinople, present day Istanbul, has an extraordinarily large nave spreading over 70 meters in length; it is surrounded by colonnaded aisles and galleries. Marble covers the floor and walls. Unlike basilicas and their dominant longitudinal axis, the naos of Hagia Sophia is centralized, crowned by a dome glittering in gold mosaics and rising 56 meters above the ground.

At sunrise and sunset the marble and gold visually simulate the quiver of water as light streaming through the windows animates the polished surfaces. This sensation of moving water, achieved through the visual animacy of shimmering surfaces, was simultaneously enhanced by the wet acoustics of the space. With echoes lasting slightly over 10 seconds, human breath emptied in the form of chanting was transformed into the sound of water splashing against the walls.

Hagia Sophia challenges our contemporary expectation of the intelligibility of language. We are accustomed to hear the spoken or sung word clearly in dry, non-reverberant spaces in order to decode the encoded message. By contrast, the wet acoustics of Hagia Sophia blur the intelligibility of the message, making words sound like emanation, emerging from the depth of the sea. Not surprisingly, much of the ritual in Hagia Sophia involved chanting and not recitative speech.

In Greek ‘breath’ is pneuma, but the term also denotes ‘fire’ and ‘the Holy Spirit.’ This semantic richness captures the multisensory experience of sound, scent, and sight. Pneuma manifests itself in the shimmering light of dawn and dusk and in the way the perfume of burning incense mingles with the sound reflections of breath released in singing. Sight, sound, and scent thus offer a sensual experience of conjoining human and divine: a symbiosis (syn-, ‘together,’ and bios-, ‘life’) marked by charis (grace).

Eikon (icon) in early Byzantium meant an enactment, causing the Holy Spirit to descend in matter. Spirit was present materially and sensually in the glimmer, marmarygma in Greek, in the scent of incense, and the sound of chanting. Rather than our contemporary understanding of ‘icon’ as portrait and image, Hagia Sophia presents eikon as enactment, the in-spiriting or empsychosis of pneuma in matter.

We have created a new method using balloon pops to generate the acoustic parameters of the space and build a computer model. This computational model has enabled us to auralize different pieces of recorded music and offer contemporary listeners the experience of what it will be to listen to its sound in the actual Hagia Sophia.

We have collaborated with Cappella Romana, the leading chamber choir in the US dedicated to the performance of Early Music including Byzantine, Slavonic, and Gregorian chants and recorded them on March 27, 2011 at Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford University. The program comprised three pieces from the “Sung Office” of Hagia Sophia: Romanos Melodos’s kontakion on the Nativity I; Psalm 140 for the festal Saturday vespers; and prokeimenon (gradual) for the Feast of St. Basil celebrated on January 1.

© Bissera V. Pentcheva