Sound in sacred spaces

A book on acoustics in sacred spaces.

A book on acoustics in sacred spaces.

I just discovered a fascinating book, called Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The acoustic mysteries of holy places by Susan Elizabeth Hale, with a foreward by Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect. It is available on Amazon. She described her experience at Salisbury Cathedral: “When the organ reached its crescendo, it seemed it was going to erupt through the roof like a musical volcano. As the last note faded, for a moment the man sitting next to me and I locked eyes. Tears were streaming down both of our faces.”

I have written before on the difference that good acoustics make on both listener and performer — this really came home to me recently when I attended the Organ Historical Society convention in Western Massachusetts. Some buildings were absolutely “deader than a doornail,” a phenomenon Carl Crosier used to call “a pillow factory,” and it made music sound dreary and dull.

Yet in a reverberant building, like the one where Joey Fala played his brilliant recital, the music just came alive and was electrifying. And do you remember the sound of the women’s chant at Carl Crosier’s funeral at the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa? That glorious sound just kept bouncing off all the walls in that very reverberant building. (You can playback the recording made of the service here.)

Today I finished my sixth service in the space of one week at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and I must say that the reverberant cathedral acoustics make music-making so easy. I used to say that “I could get away with murder” on that organ in that building, because the ambiant acoustics don’t require you to be so careful about legato (connecting the notes) and articulation. Singing just soars in the Cathedral and organ playing becomes a piece of cake, because it all just blends together. What a difference from playing the tracker organ in the intimate acoustics at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu! My late colleague, John McCreary, used to say about the Beckerath organ, “You just blow on the keys, and they play!” Yikes!

The Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral has fantastic acoustics for singing.

The Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral has fantastic acoustics for singing.

Yesterday, I played another funeral at St. Andrew’s, but what no one told me beforehand, was that the small congregation was going to do the service at the back of the church! That means that all the action took place approximately 150 feet away, while I was stuck in the front of the nave at the organ console. It meant that there was a noticeable delay in what I heard from the congregational singing compared to what I was playing on the organ gallery in the front. Spoken words were nearly impossible to decipher from that distance, and I couldn’t tell when the offertory and communion were finished. Luckily I was a pretty good guesser — because I think everything went fine.

But think of what organists in huge European cathedrals must have done before the invention of closed circuit TVs, electric signal lights, etc. In many cathedrals, the organ console is located not only very far, far away from the altar, but also high up — the organist has to climb many stairs to the organ gallery, sometimes about four or five stories high!

Tonight, as I did last Sunday night, I played Evensong, using the antiphonal organ in the back of the cathedral. I bet there is no other musical instrument like that in which the performer is so far away from the sound (e.g. the pipework), that there is such a delay in what you hear versus what you are playing. When I played the hymns, I feel like I was almost one beat ahead of what I could hear of the organ and the congregational singing.

Fun, eh?

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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One Response to Sound in sacred spaces

  1. John Alexander says:

    When it comes to the delay you mentioned, I don’t know how you organists do it! As a pianist, I’m so spoiled with the instant gratification it provides.

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