“The sound rolled out through the portal as if through a microphone,” Gerstel said, “as if the monks [in the painting] were singing.”
Every time the chanters performed, Gerstel said, the results were startling. The reverberating harmonies of liturgical chanting washed over them. Even when watching videos of the performances, each singer’s individual vocal part still cuts through clearly enough to be heard, almost as if a listener were to simultaneously look at a tapestry and its individual fibers.
“So when you stand in a church, you feel as if you’re penetrated by the sound and at the same time, you’re looking at the wall seeing these figures that appear to be moving,” Gerstel said. “You’re not standing there listening, you’re enveloped.”
During the testing, Gerstel and others noticed that the chanters subtly changed the tempo of the music based on the reverberation of the sound. “If they’re in a highly reverberant space they will slow down the chant so that they hear it coming around,” she said. “Rather than overlaying their voices, they wait for the voice to come back. That also is a kind of responsive singing that we’re just not attuned to.”
“The Byzantines say that the churches are heaven on Earth. It’s become such a trope to hear that that we don’t even unpack that statement,” Gerstel said. “But when you return to the idea of the angels singing, and you hear the voices coming back at you without seeing the source, you really understand that they weren’t kidding.”
From “Measuring the sound of angels singing” by Mike Fricano, UCLA, Sep. 14, 2015.