When one visits an archaeological ruin, one has to use one’s imagination to “fill in the gaps”, as it were. With 3-D computer graphics, it is possible to recreate at least virtually, some architectural spaces, by extrapolating data collated from historical records, any surviving old paintings or sketches, or if one is lucky, even photographs.

Using such information, for example it should be possible to recreate a virtual three-dimensional model of the church of Nossa Senhora da Graça, the Augustinian monastery in Old Goa, even though it is now a ruin. Enough data can be gathered from the ruin’s dimensions, old photographs of the façade from the early twentieth century by Souza and Paul, and some of its known similarities to the church of Santana de Talaulim, which fortunately still stands. It would be wonderful if an “artist’s impression” could be created of it, so that visitors could “enter” it virtually, and be awed by the main altar, the side chapels, gaze up at the vault and “see” it as if one were travelling back in time.

But what would the Graça have sounded like? It is impossible to know for sure. Each building has a unique “acoustic signature”, based on variables such as its dimensions, construction materials used, internal reflection on side walls, artefacts such as furniture, statues, columns, pulpit, etc, even the use of tapestries, carpets, upholstery.

Sound recording technology is relatively recent, little over a century and a half, so actual acoustic archival evidence cannot date further back than this. But current technology can ensure that we can make an accurate “acoustic fingerprint” of an existing architectural space, which will survive regardless of whether the building then succumbs to the ravages of time, as the magnificent Graça sadly did.

An interesting project is underway, initiated by Sharon Gerstel, art history and archaeology professor at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles). While examining paintings from the Byzantine era, it struck her that “we always look at paintings without thinking of sonic accompaniments….as if they were mute.” She got increasingly interested in what the archaeological buildings she was studying must have sounded like. A friend pointed her in the direction of a 2011 New York Times article discussing the work of Chris Kyriakakis, professor of audio signal processing and psychoacoustics and director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at the USC (University of Southern California).

The article described among other things how Kyriakakis and team had recorded a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Boston’s Symphony Hall (regarded the world over as an “acoustically perfect sound space” on account of its shoe-box shape and other features) and used the data so that any space could sound like that “perfect” space by tweaking the digital data and by strategic placement of speakers in relation to the listener.

Gerstel read the article and a phone call later, had convinced Kyriakakis to collaborate with her to “go and measure” the Byzantine churches in Greece.

So in June 2014, the largest study of Byzantine church acoustics was conducted by a team of art historians, musicologists, archaeologists, architects and acoustic engineers. The goal was “to investigate whether the radical shift in the architectural shape of Byzantine churches was motivated by acoustics, and to investigate how developments in Byzantine chant were linked to performance spaces, architectural design, and church decoration.”

Museums of Lost Sound

In the investigation process of each space, a digital sound impulse was generated that not only spanned but crossed the human auditory spectrum on either side, and these were picked up by strategically placed microphones all over the building. After making a “sound sweep” of this data, performers were brought in to sing in these spaces. The singers were then taken to sing in an acoustically dry studio space, and their sound could be reproduced as if they were actually singing in the ancient church being studied, using the gathered data. That building had been acoustically fingerprinted for posterity.

Did acoustics play a role in dictating how Byzantine churches were built? This question is worth asking regarding other spaces as well. Much has already been written about church architecture in Goa, about their history, and the nomenclature of their style and period. Could some changes in their design over time have been motivated at least in part by acoustical considerations? It would be interesting to look into this.

The Byzantine study aims to create a virtual “museum of sound” that will outlast the buildings. Regardless of what happens to them, we will know what they sounded like, and it will be possible to reproduce the sound in their spaces as if the buildings were still standing.

It would be well worth creating a similar database for our own religious and secular buildings of acoustic importance in India. With the ravages of “progress” and “development”, old shrines are being replaced by new ones, or torn down altogether. We could try to preserve our own “museum of sound” before it is too late.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)