The singing voices ascend and descend, entwining with studied precision. The harmonies within the ancient tunes lift towards the heavens to which they are giving praise.
To fans of choral music, the new recording from the acclaimed Binchois Consort is an atmospheric treat. However, hidden within its layered melodies lies a feat of contemporary technical wizardry.
The songs from the 16th century Carver Choirbook carry a slight reverb, hinting the repertoire is not being performed in a Cathedral with hard surfaces ripe for sound to bounce off, but a delicate clarity has been achieved – suggesting a different setting.
The location is Linlithgow Palace, but not as it now stands. Using virtual reality and ground-breaking acoustic techniques, experts have recreated exactly how music would have sounded in the Palace’s now-ruined chapel more than half a millennium ago.
It is the closest people will get to musical time travelling, the researchers say.
A Scottish pleasure palace
Scholars from Edinburgh College of Art and the universities of Birmingham and Melbourne have collaborated with Historic Environment Scotland to reconstruct lost performances at the Palace – once a majestic royal residence and the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.
The project was led by Dr James Cook, a researcher at Edinburgh College of Art who has combined his passions of medieval and Renaissance music with video game technology.
The project gives people the chance to experience the music of the time, when skilled musicians performed for the royal household while surrounded by magnificent decorations and sculptures.
“Performances such as these were a multi-sensory experience. We don’t really have that sensation when we present medieval music in a concert or with a CD recording, so we thought why not use virtual reality as a way to bring back some of that sensory aspect and see how far we could push the technology,” says Dr Cook, a lecturer in Early Music.
“We saw Linlithgow Palace as an exciting venue for the project. It was a perfect challenge in the sense that today it does not look like it once did, and thus presented a wonderful opportunity to recreate the space in virtual reality. Historically it was one of the great pleasure palaces of the Kings and Queens of Scotland and an important venue for musical celebrations,” adds Dr Cook.
Laser guided melodies
Researchers used a technique called LIDAR scanning – a rotating gun mechanism that emits laser beams to take measurements of the building – to capture the Chapel Royal of Linlithgow Palace as it currently stands.
The accurate 3D model was then imported into modelling software which allowed the researchers to manipulate the model in virtual reality.
The team consulted historical and architectural records and worked with historians at Historic Environment Scotland to virtually reconstruct what the Chapel might have looked like when James IV visited for Easter celebrations around 1512, just before the baptism of his son James V.
This included adding elements to recreate the acoustics of the space, such as the roof, windows, a tiled floor and objects including an altar, throne and drapes – long-destroyed interior details which would determine how sound travelled in the space.
The researchers then pieced together what music may have been performed in the setting and created an environment to situate a full CD’s worth of material within a reconstruction of an acoustic from a particular time and place.
Music from the Carver Choirbook – one of only two large-scale collections of music to survive from pre-Reformation Scotland – was chosen for the recording.
Professional singers from the acclaimed Binchois Consort recorded the music in an anechoic chamber – a setting which has close to no natural acoustics – which was then overlaid with the reconstructed acoustic modelling of the chapel.
“The recording was made over three days in the sound proof chamber – a very intense experience for the singers as they performed from a large sound absorbing room with foam wedges. This environment creates the opposite to say recording in a Cathedral, as there is just a fraction of reverb in the chamber. That is what we needed so we could import the acoustics of the spaces we had created in virtual reality,” says Dr Cook.
Sound of the future
The virtual reality experience has been made available as a CD launched by Hyperion Records – a specialist classical music label – and entered at number two in the official specialist classical chart. Companion apps in the Google Play Store and the Apple Play Store are also available.
The recording is part of a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) using technology to bring lost performance spaces back to life. Researchers worked with Soluis Group Heritage – a company specialising in digital interpretation of historic spaces – on some technical aspects of the project.
“This technology enables us to put music back into historic spaces and offers audiences compelling visual and sonic experiences. At the same time we have developed a process which we think could present real positive benefits to the music industry. We are also looking at its potential in terms of creating live virtual music venues,” says Dr Cook.
Researchers are also working with Historic Scotland to bring the project to Linlithgow Palace. With a virtual reality experience, visitors will be able to walk through the reconstructed chapel for a full, multi-sensory, immersive experience.
“We are pleased to have worked with the University on this project and have been working closely with them to provide historical research and using laser-scanning data to create this virtual reality project which provides a unique window onto the past,” says Kit Reid, Senior Interpretation Manager at Historic Environment Scotland (HES).
“Visitors at the Palace and our other properties love to imagine how these sites used to look and picture what life was like. What makes this project so special is the emphasis on not just the visual recreation but also the recreation of the authentic soundscape which gives an immersive insight into the court life at the Palace over 500 years ago.” he added.
If walls could sing
As well boosting Edinburgh College of Art’s research endeavours, the techniques are also providing a contemporary teaching experience.
Early Music History students are engaging with the virtual reality to help them understand acoustics and performances in sacred spaces. Researchers say the techniques helps them to transport students back in time to reveal historic interiors and how these influenced how music was performed and sounded.
Researchers are also looking to build on the success of the Linlithgow Palace project by exploring opportunities within the University’s own historic spaces including St Cecilia’s Hall and Music Museum – Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall.
“A lot of this project has been about bringing the highest art of sound back into a building so it is no longer silent,” says Dr Cook. “The combination of the technology, the sound and the venue meant we could reconstruct experience that essentially wasn’t possible in reality.”
Image credit: James Cook unless stated otherwise