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An investigation by composer and installation artist


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Day and Human Light in the Chapel. Photo copyright (c) 1999 Jeff TalmanIn 1996 I moved to Prague and while there toured a number of European countries. Cathedrals, basilicas, museums, castles were obvious tourist magnets. But I also looked to the smaller spaces, and I found myself returning to many. Something drew me to the spaces beyond their visual splendor: the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague, the Duomo in Florence, the Notre Dame cathedrals in Paris and Chartres, Westminster Abbey in London, even the tiny Basilica of Christ of the Caves in Athens.

At first my awareness was purely intuitive, of this I'm certain. But as I went from place to place I became stunned to realize that the sounds of each, their room tones, were all very different. As I noticed this I began to consciously search the spaces for silence - for that which registered their nearly imperceptible sonic differences. The silences were variant, imposing and majestic in themselves, and obviously never separable from the spaces.

On returning to the States it occurred to me that I knew of no-one doing any musical work that actually involved bringing a space's intrinsic sound to the forefront as the actual program material of composition. I searched through my stack of DATs to find pure room tone, incidentally recorded during the course of a concert in a suitable space. I came upon my two songs for solo soprano, Dreamers, which were recorded in 1987 in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University in New York City. In that recording I found 1.1 second of pure room tone that had no shuffling, coughing or other audience or performer noises.

At first listen, amplified and through headphones, it sounded much like what one would expect - a sort of white noise only with various frequency weightings. But with this I finally realized what I was hearing in all of those silences. Each of those magnificent buildings is 'tuned' to a harmonic spectrum. This is a naturally occurring process. The size, shape and materials of a particular space dictate which frequency bandwidths will best operate in the space. Certain frequencies, the standing waves, will 'fit' a room and be resonantly in tune with that space, while other frequencies which do not 'fit' will be truncated and reduced significantly in volume.

I performed a spectral analysis of the room tone from St. Paul's Chapel and discovered that the space resonates to a harmonic series based on a fundamental tone of F at 87 cycles per second. The tunings are nothing like our well-tempered, just, mean tone or other temperings. They are wilder, less precise and in the case of St. Paul's Chapel containing a subsidiary D-flat tuning that competed somewhat with the F tuning. Still, my initial intuitive realizations were proven: I was hearing differently tuned, complex, highly resonant chords built on the harmonic series in the sound of spaces. (As an aside, an interesting project might be to try to correlate the tunings of organs in European cathedrals and the music written specifically for each space with the spectral tunings of the particular space. My hunch is that past masters knew which keys resonated the best in their spaces and they took advantage of it.)

Stained glass, up in the dome, and dome detail, Saint Paul's Chapel. 
Photo copyright (c) 1999 Jeff Talman

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Copyright © Jeff Talman, November 21st 1999



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