This article was written for the website Our Own Words. There are so many great articles on that site, you should check it out.
I sit on the ground, digging a trench, laying white river rock as I slowly build a labyrinth in my back yard. My brother trees rise up, stately, circled around me. They guard, they approve my work, as they reach towards the sky. We are listening to Capella Romana’s The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia. The trees remind me of the marble pillars of what was once the largest building in the world.
The Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, and there is ten centuries of music that is no longer sung there since the Ottoman Empire banned choral music in the mosque that it became. That music has never been heard inside the building since.
I listen to the music on my roof, closer to the encircling tree tops. I lay back, let the dying sunset allow the canopy of stars to emerge. The canopy of the Hagia Sophia is a clear span of 250ft across, 180ft high. The sky, with this music, is perhaps the best I can do.
With these voices lifted to the sky, knowing I will most likely never see the actual building, the music allows me to understand the vast room, and why composers yearned to write music for this incredible space.
I remember being ankle deep in clutter, in the confines of a hoarder’s house as her son and I worked to clear it, room by room, so it could be sold. How the subject came up, I cannot remember. It was, perhaps, the most unlikely place to bring up that he had once been a cantor for a synagogue. He could remember some verses, and though his voice was out of practice he sang.
Everything changed. That room was blessed by the song, and for very long a moment, even that space was touched by something beyond humanity.
Now I wonder about buildings I’ve read about. I remember from one fantasy novel the two main characters descending into the room with a cistern. I imagine a drop of water resounding in that space. I know that in my own work I have not really had the building be part of how or why the music is impactful, as if the music does not reverberate in its walls, that it is part of why or how the music tries to communicate. The music is its own thing, as if it separate from the space where it is created.
When I remember the sound of blessing in that hoarder room, and listen to these “lost voices” digitally enhanced so I could hear it as it once might have been heard: It reminds me of what magic in my worlds often is. Both natural, within our reach, and yet with such unseen power except by the very fact we are moved, we are changed, we are transformed. Quite honestly, I do not know that I’ve ever been able to explain it till I listened to those voices raised in song.
Two people created the digital filter to make this music possible, so we can once again imagine ourselves walking beneath the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia even if we are only surrounded by trees in a hand made labyrinth, or on the roof canopied only by stars that feel, for once, inadequate. As a writer, I am inspired. I have a depth of gratitude to the two scholars of Stanford University: Bissera Pentcheva, a professor of history, and Jonathan Abel in the computer music department.
It came about because Bissera Pentcheva popped a balloon in the Hagia Sophia—with permission, and after hours—and recorded the sound. In the article by Sam Harnett for NPR is quite astonishing to hear that normal balloon pop compared to the one she recorded. With those recordings, Jonathan Abel was able to create. And normal choral music became transformed.
I think of Ilturir in my book The Bone Reader, and wonder what I missed, what I did not offer the readers—forgive me, I did not know that perhaps I could even attempt to convey this thought. I want to re-read books, now, to wonder about the sounds within the architecture. How does the White City sound? The rooms, the palaces? Or, perhaps, even the dragon lairs on Pern?
Of buildings that you’ve read about in some of your favorite novels: have you ever contemplated how they sound? What might be sung there? The breathing of meditation there? It is an interesting thought as I work on some settings in a couple of drafts, and imagine new sounds and spaces. I certainly would love to hear your favorite building in a novel! Please share, for if it’s not already on my shelves, perhaps it should be! I can always use new books.
In case you are wondering: Yes, I am building a labyrinth in my back yard. It is why I intern at a local farm/nursery to learn about plants, and to earn plants that will eventually surround it.