Experiencing our heritage by recreating authentic sounds of the past

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Experiencing our heritage by recreating authentic sounds of the past

  • What would a ritual at Stonehenge have sounded like 4,000 years ago?
  • Why would different acoustics have saved more lives during the Kings Cross Underground tragedy in 1987?
  • What did Coventry Cathedral sound like before it was bombed in 1940?
  • How is acoustics research changing the way we find out about our heritage?
  • How can listening to the past improve our quality of life for the future?

These and other pioneering research projects are already changing the way we study the past. They are also helping to improve the way we live our lives in the future.

The work is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This research cluster 'Improving Heritage Experience through Acoustic Reality and Audio Research' (I Hear Too) is part of AHRC and EPSRC's Science and Heritage Programme.

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[Narrator]

What would Stonehenge have sounded like 4,000 years ago? How can we make it easier to hear public announcements in our train stations and airports? And why is it so important to look after the archive recordings we have and to make sure we capture the words and the sounds around us now for future generations? These are just some of the issues being looked at by a diverse group of researchers who’ve come together to help us make the most of sound as a vital part of our heritage and to make the best use of sound to enhance our every day lives. This recording brings together some of the key players to explain more about the work they’re involved in.

Dr Damian Murphy [DM]

My name is Dr Damian Murphy and I work in the aureal lab in the Department of Electronics at the University of York and I’m leading the Improving Heritage Experience through Acoustic Reality and Audio Research cluster, or I hear too as it is much more subsinctly called. What we’re looking at is how science and heritage work together in the area of heritage, particularly through the role of audio and acoustic research and technology. There are three areas. There’s sound and heritage experience more generally and what that is about is exploring the various different ways that we use sound as part of our experience and understanding of whatever heritage is, whether that’s an old building, a train or a sound archive and everybody has a different understanding, or a different way of using, acting or interacting with sound in that particular context. Then we’ve got some more specific aspects of the cluster. There is sound as a heritage object and that is thinking about the role of real audio recordings, about sound archiving capturing oral history and tradition and how we work with those resources to preserve them for future generations. The third part of the cluster is focusing on virtual acoustics and oralisation. I guess people have an idea of what virtual reality is about, the idea of placing yourself in an environment that you perceived to be real, but we can think of that in terms of the acoustics reality giving someone something over headphones that’s different from what they are hearing in the everyday world and convincing them that what we are presenting them with is a reality. That could be walking into a ruined cathedral or castle and hearing it as it was in the hay day of its use 500 or 5,000 years ago and really being immersed in what that space would have been like when it was used as it was intended.

[Sound of barber shop quartet singing]

[DM]

This is an example of a recording that we’ve made that involves a barber shop quartet, so a four part choral group and York Minster. The recording that you’ve heard, although it sounds like we’ve got the barber shop quartet placed in the middle of York Minster, was in fact recorded in our anechoic chamber back in our audio lab at the university. An anechoic chamber is an environment that has no acoustics so you hear no reflections from the walls, it’s a completely, what we call dry environment, so very artificial sounding, but great for making good quality recordings.

[Sound of barber shop quartet singing]

[DM]

So we recorded our barber shop in there and then we took the acoustic measurements of York Minster which we did late one night in the middle of winter when there was nobody around. That acoustic measurement is the equivalent of walking into a space and clapping your hands and if it is a big echoey space you can hear that sound die away. So we capture that hand clap, call it an acoustic finger print perhaps, and then we take the sound of the barber shop quartet and play it through the acoustic fingerprint of York Minster and that’s the result you’ve just heard. I promise you the barber shop quartet were never in the Minster at any point.

[Sound of barber shop quartet singing]

[DM]

It’s about listening and using our ears and not having to rely on our visual senses so much, because we can impart something more when we just think about listening.

[Sound of church choir singing]

[DM]

The example you have just heard here is Coventry Cathedral, the original St Michaels Cathedral which was damaged in the war so it is now just a shell with just its outer buildings and the spire. We were asked a few years ago, as part of a project that was working with visually impaired youngsters, to put an audio tour together that recreated the sound of Coventry Cathedral as it would have been about five hundred years ago. Of course, whereas if you were working with a real space, like for instance York Minster or another similar space, it doesn’t have to be a cathedral it could be something much smaller like a concert hall, it exists and if it exists then you can go in there and you can take your measurements. If the space doesn’t exist anymore as it was originally used, then you need to tackle the problem in a different way so with the sound of Coventry Cathedral we actually built a computer model and with the computer model, which kind of looks like a graphical version of what it would have looked like five or six hundred years ago, and then we could actually calculate how sound moves in and around in that space and we could do the same measurement process that we would do if it existed in the real world. We get the same acoustic finger print and a small choir singing plain chant, in this example, as they would about 500 years ago in Coventry Cathedral, as it would have been heard back then.

[Sound of church choir singing]

Louise K Wilson [LW]

My name is Louise K Wilson. I’m an artist and a doctorial student at the University of Derby. I’m based in Huddersfield and my involvement was really through knowing Damian Murphy. I came across his work through a Radio 4 programme. I think it was about three years ago and I was fascinated by his work in reconstructive acoustics, so he’s always been in the back of my mind with his particular research and I’ve been fascinated by this notion of being able to use technology to somehow listen to the past. We have been talking about a project that we’re currently undertaking in Scotland, at the Falkland Estate in Fife, for which we have been wonderfully lucky in getting Damien involved to come and do some acoustic mapping and measuring for us, which will then lead on to the production of a series of large scale temporary sound works on the estate.

[Sound of horses hooves on cobbles, horns etc on a hunt]

[LW]

We made a piece in April last year for Falkland Palace which was made specifically for a one night event called The Sound of the Deer, which was a celebration or a marking of the history of the estate as a royal hunting park. We made a piece which is essentially a sound track for this very cinematic 17th century Dutch tapestry in the Tapestry Gallery. So we created an eight channel sound track and we sourced all the sounds within the Kingdom of Fife – we went to zoos, we went to menageries, we went to farms, archery centres and falconry centres.

[Sound of Sheena Wellington singing]

[LW]

We got a wonderful old AV presentation 60’s of the sort of rushing season sounds and horns and so on and we also worked with a well known Scottish folk singer called Sheena Wellington and she sang an old hunting song which we were then able to patch in into this piece and make this very layered piece which was very spatial as you walk the length of the tapestry, which I think is about 30 metres. At dusk people were given a torch as they first came in so they could then pick out little details within this tapestry, whilst behind them was this very mursive piece. Essentially they were mixing it themselves, they could walk to and fro, backwards and forwards, hear little snatches and go back to things and make connections. What was very nice was that a lot people that had known the tapestry very well, were finding details that they had never noticed before, that the sound was alerting them to visual elements within the tapestry.

[Sound of horses hooves on cobbles, horns etc on a hunt]

Richard Ranft [RR]

My name is Richard Ranft and I am head of the sound archive at the British Library. We are based in London and we are the department of sound if you like for the British Library. The British Library obviously has a world class collection of books, manuscripts maps and so on. The sound archive really does for sound what the rest of the library does for printed published books and unpublished manuscripts. We have something like three and a half million sound recordings from the invention of sound recordings in the late 19th century to the latest chart hits.

[Sound of old recording from archives]

[RR]

Sound is an extremely powerful medium for conveying a sense of space and a sense of time. So with a sound recording if it’s properly put across to a listener you can actually transport that person to another continent, or another place in time, within a few moments of listening to a sound recording. We have a very large collection of authenticated sounds, so one thing we’re interested in the cluster is how our materials can be used as authentic sounds from the past. I think it’s very important that people recognise that it is an important part of our culture, the sound world we live in, and it is important we document that now for the benefit of future generations. So sound can really convey the essence of a place. It’s a time based medium and it also kind of evokes extremely strong memories.

We’ve got lots of recordings from all over the planet quite frankly and people can come in and they can listen to the sound of a rainforest, or a desert at night and it may be a place that they visited ten, twenty years ago and they are immediately transported back there and in some ways it can be much more powerful than an image, even a moving image.

[Sound of old recording from archives]

Rupert Till [RT]

I’m Rupert Till. I’m based at the University of Huddersfield where I am a lecturer in music technology. My research is in the acoustics and music of prehistory. I’m interested in archaeoacoustics which is using a study of the acoustics and sound of a site to learn more about it. And I’m particularly working on the acoustics of Stonehenge, this great iconic monument. One of the ways we approach things was to use a digital model, so we used a piece of software called Odeon which allows us to take a visual model, a VR computer model, and drop it into a piece of software that is designed for architects to design concert halls so they can find out what a concert hall might sound like. And we used it in this case to find out what Stonehenge might have sounded like 4,000 years ago. So if I play this sound example you will hear the sound of someone clapping placed in the centre of Stonehenge 4,000 years ago and using the software to simulate what it would have sounded like, to add artificially, the acoustics of the sound.

[Sound of Clapping]

[RT]

So what you can hear in that is two claps [claps] and actually you should just be hearing clap, clap, clap, very simple straight claps, but you hear lots of echoes because Stonehenge was full of echoes – the sound bounced off of different walls, different stone, different places – and then we discovered that in America in a place called Maryhill there is a full sized concrete reconstruction of Stonehenge. And it was accurate enough to give us an understanding of roughly what the acoustics would be like, the basic acoustic principles and effects of the space. One of the things we discovered when we were there is if you play some very specific frequencies, low frequencies below the normal range of human hearing, you get some very interesting sounds. We’d found some evidence in some of the writings of Thomas Hardy to say that there was this low frequency booming, its mentioned in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and we found an interview in a newspaper article. So we made some very low frequencies and we found particular frequencies that made the whole place ring as though you were rubbing your finger over a very large wine glass, or blowing over the top of a bottle so you got this kind of low resonance sound, its called a mode of resonance, a model response at low frequencies and its so low that it equates to a very fast rhythm – about 150 beats per minute so a very fast percussive rhythm. So we played this rhythm into the space and that made the place ring and this is the effect of a drum beat going boom, boom, a very simple drum beat, but as you walk through the space the acoustics are so powerful and it rings so much that you hear something that sounds like a bass synthesiser going whooommmm, getting louder and quieter and changing sound because of the resonance of the space.

[Sound of drum beating]

[RT]

Now, if someone in the space had done some drumming or percussive noises at that speed, then you would quite possibly of excited that resonance and heard this weird base sound. It can give us an understanding of perhaps what it felt like to be in this space or what might have occurred in the space.

[Sound of drumming]

[RT]

And also because we are going back to a time where there was no writing, where the visual was not more powerful than sound and in fact because history would be passed on verbally by speaking, hearing things would have been perhaps more important or as important at least, than the visual. Whereas nowadays with television and everything else, we are very dominated by visual things. The study of sound in prehistory and in history is quite new, there’s quite a lot to discover just looking at sound on its own and it’s going to contribute to our overall understanding of this heritage monument. And sound can generally do that, it can add an extra dimension.

[Sound of Choir singing]

Sebastian Jouan [SJ]

My name is Sebastian Jouan. I work for Arab Acoustics and as such I am an acoustic designer. I have been working for many years on different types of projects, mainly performing arts related and education related. By education, I mean the design of new schools or university buildings.

What we are trying to do is to demonstrate the importance of sound at every level. When we design a concert hall we want to show to our client the concert hall with sound, somewhere not far from, or even better if we can, the Musikverein in Vienna or the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. We do the same for the importance of intelligibility of a public building, like an airport or station. You can save lives with that.

[Sound of train station tannoy system]

[SJ]

The King’s Cross disaster almost 20 years ago happened because people didn’t know which gate to go to. So the importance of good design and intelligibility of a public address voice system is crucial and also being able to demonstrate that to a client. Telling them look you have to do this because otherwise if you don’t, ie put absorption in the space, you are going to have too much reverberation, therefore you’re going to have too much noise in there when the train comes in and the public address won’t be intelligible – so that’s the purpose of aurealisation, to demonstrate design.

[Sound of Stream Train]

Joe Savage [JS]

My name is Joe Savage. My role here is Display Content Manager which means I lead the temporary exhibitions and the displays within the National Railway Museum. The cluster is looking at how acoustics work within a museum setting or heritage setting. This is hugely important for us at the National Railway Museum because, of course, railways are such a sensory experience for anyone travelling, anyone remembering journeys they have been on. That is something that doesn’t really come across at the moment at the National Railway museum, but it is something that we are very much planning to bring into the experience for the visitor.

[Sound of Stream train leaving the station]

[JS]

We’re currently planning a major redevelopment of our great hall. This is a vast space that is currently filled with ore inspiringly big objects. However, at the moment there isn’t a coherent story that links those objects together in a narrative about how railways have impacted on our world, our lives and our culture. We feel that by the introduction of sound and the introduction of light we can create a journey for the visitor that takes them through that sensory experience and we really hope that the cluster will be able to start looking at different applications of sound that we can put into our displays.

Sarah May

My name is Sarah May. I work as an Archaeologist in the Research Department at English Heritage. I’m interested in getting involved in the cluster and happy about the cluster because I have a lot of interest and a lot of questions about sound in the past, but I don’t have any technical expertise in how we might study sound. So while I’ve been able to explore some of these ideas from an archaeology theory point of view and indeed do some experimentation, I’m very excited to have people who can actually steer me in the right direction on the theoretical perspectives within acoustics and also the technical aspects of modelling. My biggest project that I’ve been involved with is experimentation work at Silbury Hill. We were doing a much larger conservation and archaeology excavation project up the hill and we did some community participation and modelling work on the acoustics of the site. There were some suggestions that the site was used for ritual and one of the obvious key elements of any ritual is the sounds associated with it. Whether that be drumming, singing or chanting, there is always going to be some kind of sound associated with any ritual. We wanted to get at what kinds of sounds could be heard at different places and what that might mean for what kinds of rituals could have taken place.

We did two different strands on this project. The first was modelling prospective where we used noise mapping software designed for environmental impact assessment, just to get a sense of how far sound would carry from the top of the hill, and we found that it carried much further than we might of expected, largely in a southerly direction and that this is just to do with the nature of the hill and the surrounding landscape. When we went out and did a community participation exercise, we had performers on the top of the hill, community members in landscape, we found that actually it was even further than the modelling had suggested and also that there were interesting features like how well we knew the performers mattered to how well you could hear it and also how well the performers knew they could be heard, changed the way their performance was. Other things like the element of surprise, people could be heard before they were seen, the element therefore of announcement involved, so there were lots of different kinds of experiences that we found through the community participation work, that we couldn’t have picked up with the modelling.

[DM]

Success for the cluster is about bringing together new collaborations and new projects. I think the work that we have done so far has already brought people together. We’re passionate about what we do and we can see that passion shared in other people that we have been meeting as part of the cluster. Our job more widely is to disseminate that to people outside of the world of sound and acoustics and audio heritage, so that they can become enthused and realise it is important. The real success for the cluster is going to be moving beyond what is initially quite a short project, to really build those collaborations and build those flagship and iconic projects, that really convince people that sound and the use of acoustics is a fundamental part of heritage and also looking forward into the future as well.

[Narrator]

The research cluster is part of the Science and Heritage Programme which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.