Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium
Bissera V. Pentcheva
Pennsylvania State University Press 2017
The book is available from www.psupress.org
This website is built to expand the argument developed in the book beyond the constraints of the text into the domain of sound and video. The audio samples supplement the analysis and offer a variety of Byzantine cathedral chants. They are followed by two videos: the first brings together the recitation of segments of Paul the Silentiary’s ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia with the sound of cathedral chant auralized in the current interior of the Great Church; the second video features a segment of Cappella Romana auralized live in the acoustics of Hagia Sophia during their concert at Stanford’s Bing Hall, February 1, 2013.
Hagia Sophia, view towards the dome
Auralization identifies the process of imprinting a room’s acoustic signature (Impulse Response) on a recorded or live sound. The sonic energy exhaled in the interior interacts with the vast interior volume and reflective surfaces, resulting in an extremely long Late-field Reverberation lasting over ten seconds. Below, you can listen to a few auralizations of Byzantine cathedral chant sung by Cappella Romana and imprinted with the acoustics of the current condition of Hagia Sophia’s interior.
The film brings together the components that can produce a sensually saturated phenomenon of animation in Hagia Sophia: moving light, polymorphy, reverberant sound, and poetry focusing the imagination on the oneiric and metaphysical. These sensual stimuli are inaccessible nowadays because of the way the building is structured to be experienced as a museum; it has with limited opening hours and a ban on any performance using the human voice.
The film traces in the course of a day how natural light animates inert matter endowing it with liveliness and movement. It also integrates passages from the ekphrasis of Paul the Silentiary, which was originally performed for an elite audience in the imperial and patriarchal palaces for the re-inauguration of Hagia Sophia in 562. This poetry shows how the medieval audience was trained to perceive the fleeting appearances on the surfaces of marble and gold as manifestations of the descent of the Holy Spirit in matter, transforming the inert into an animate empsychos eikon (in-spirited icon). Finally, the soundtrack includes the Prokeimenon for January 1, which is based on Ps. 48 (49):1-4, and opens with the statement “my mouth utters Wisdom” accompanying the circular movement of the camera trained at the dome.
This excerpt from Paul the Silentiary’s poetry, used in the film, expresses the Byzantine liquescent aesthetic of polymorphy and reverberation (Paul the Silentiary, Descriptio Sanctae Sophiae, vv. 664–70.):
The peak of Prokonnesos soothingly spreading over the entire pavement,
has gladly given its back to the life-giving mistress [the Mother of God],
the radiance of the Bosporos softly ruffling
transmutes from the deepest darkness of swollen waters to the soft whiteness of radiant metal.
The ceiling encompasses gold-inlaid tesserae,
whose pouring down in glittering (marmairousa) gold-streaming rayirresistibly bounces off the faces of the faithful (tr. Bissera V. Pentcheva)
A prokeimenon, Psalm 32 (33): 22, for Sunday (Patmos, MS Gr. 221, dated to 1162–1179) sung by Cappella Romana during their concert at Stanford’s Bing Hall and auralized live with Hagia Sophia’s acoustic signature.