The Importance of Venues to Music – Part 2: Mayan Mesoamerica

A mild controversy this time; but don’t worry, this is confined to the world of acoustic archaeology and won’t be inflicting itself on the front page of the Guardian any time soon.

Said controversy surrounds the step-pyramid at the Mayan site of Chichen Itza, known either as the Temple of Kukulkan or El Castillo. As its name suggests it is thought to be a temple to the Mayan deity Kukulkan, meaning ‘feathered serpent’ in Yucatec Maya, and thought to be analogous to Quetzalcoatl of the Aztec pantheon. It’s pretty impressive as structures go, measuring 30 meters in height with 364 steps (91 steps on each side) leading up to the temple of Kukulkan at the top. El Castillo is reckoned to have had wider cosmological significance to the Mayans, as the 365 steps (including the temple itself) correspond to the 365 days of the Mayan Haab calendar and for two weeks surrounding the spring and autumn equinoxes the rising sun casts a shadow on the sides of the pyramids that aligns with serpent head statues at the bottom of the pyramid.

El castillo snake shadow.jpeg
Shadow cast on El Castillo during an Equinox. Note the snake’s head at the bottom of the staircase.

The debate (or at least, the one of many that I’m choosing to focus on) surrounds the acoustic phenomena that have been reported, namely the fact that a hand clap at the base of the pyramid reflects back in such a way that it seems to mimic the song of the Resplendent Quetzal. The steps form an acoustic filter and cause the sound waves that make up the hand clap to interfere with each other and create a pitch glide effect. More of the sites at Chichen Itza, such as the Great Ball Court demonstrate similar acoustic phenomena and the ability of the Mayan builders to exploit the properties of their architecture for specific ends has been compared by some to the ancient Greek builders of the theatre of Epiduarus, and its ability to suppress low frequency echo and leave vocal frequencies undisturbed.

There are more than a few issues however. Much of the pyramid has been restored, crucially the two staircases where the echoes are the strongest. As well as this, further observation has revealed multiple different observable echo effects, observers sitting at the bottom of the staircases have heard the echoes of footsteps further up as falling rain. Crucially unlike Epiduarus, where the purpose of the building can be fairly easily determined, which sound(s) the temple was specifically designed to produce are less obvious. The highly unusual nature of the echoes means that the behaviour of drums or other instruments played at the bottom of the pyramid are hard to predict and, frankly, as likely to have been the focus of the design as hand claps.

Personally, I find it easy to believe that the temple of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza was deliberately designed to exploit the acoustic effects of the design. It seems odd to me that the theatre of Epiduarus can be so unambiguously declared to have been designed with a specific acoustic effect in mind, namely the filtering of low frequencies to maintain the clarity of human speech, in the 4th century BC and yet there is still doubt surrounding how deliberate the acoustic phenomena at Chichen Itza, built over 1000 years later, are. Of course, the challenge is that there are so many unknowns about Mayan cosmology and the role of music in their religious ceremonies that it may prove impossible to ever determine exactly what the intent behind Chichen Itza’s acoustic design is.

Not much of a controversy in the end, was it?


Simulating Space – Part 1: Analogue

As long as music has been recorded, musicians and producers have been trying to put the space back into recordings, and in this series of posts I will discuss how music makers have tried to recreate the reverberant properties of a space and how we are now able to model the acoustic properties of spaces which sadly no longer exist.

Rough diagram demonstrating how reverberation is made up of acoustic reflections

First things first though, I should talk about how reverberation works in a space. Sound waves travel through a space and are reflected back to the listener’s ears. The first few times this happens the individual echoes are distinct but subsequently they begin to blend together, with different frequencies reinforcing and cancelling out each other to create the timbre of the reverb.

Idealised diagram showing the decay of reverberation over time. I promise this will get more interesting in the future

The first attempts, in the age of the gramophone were in many ways the simplest and most obvious: Build a very very reflective room, put a speaker at one end and a microphone at the other and record the sound you got. It’s not hard to see how this wasn’t a great solution, the sound quality is capped by the poor fidelity of speakers at the time and all the recordings treated this way will tend to sound like they were all performed in the same bathroom.

In 1935 Laurens Hammond, at the same time as inventing the first reliable electro-mechanical organ, developed a device to try and give a sense of ambience to the living rooms and small churches his new invention found itself in. In this method an electrical signal hits a transducer that sends actual sound down a series of springs and into a second transducer to turn the sound back into an electrical signal. This signal is then mixed back into the original sound to create the complete effect. A similar technique uses a bloody great sheet of metal to produce the reverberation effect and is known as Plate Reverb. Crucially, neither of these techniques need a dedicated room for their ambience and so tended to be more popular in newly built studios.

The commercial development of magnetic tape in the late 1940’s; as well as just being generally transformative of the recording of music and enabling everything from overdubbing, editing, sampling, retaking bad performances and backmasking to hide the satanic messages that are in all the best pop music; using the same method to permanently record music to play back sounds just a few hundred milliseconds after it was recorded to produce a discrete echo sound before erasing the tape sound in preparation for new sound to be recorded on to the same tape. Listen to any early Elvis song and you can hear the quick “slap-back” echo developed at Sun Records. Later devices would use multiple playback heads to attain a more reverb-like effect. A combination of these techniques, tape providing the pre-delay and spring or plate providing the later reflections formed the first simulations of room sounds.

Simplified diagram of tape recorder. The pale blue circle is a permanent magnet that erases the sound stored on the tape

So that would be the end of it, right? Of course not, of course it’s more complicated than that. Because it turns out that reverberation is also frequency dependent as well, with higher frequencies tending to tail off faster than the low-midrange frequencies. Except when they don’t, because the materials of the spaces are dense and highly reflective. There is no way to build an electro-mechanical delay line where you are able to tailor the frequency response without a separate delay line for each frequency band. Not only that, but every one of these electro-mechanical methods have their own frequency responses that must be taken into account when playing the sound back. The mathematics that govern how sound waves interact are hugely complicated and it would take a specially designed machine to calculate everything needed to approach the actual sound of a place.

Fortunately in 1943 a chap called Tommy Flowers designed a machine that was very good at doing hugely complicated maths and over the next 40 years engineers managed to make it smaller than a bus. Now producers were able to digitally emulate all of the above techniques for producing ambience as well as beginning to model the response of spaces to various sounds.

NB: Further backing up David Byrne’s characterisation of recorded music as its own space that shapes sounds artists have taken these methods and used them as interesting sounds in their own right. Entire genres from dub to surf rock to ambient electronica have been built around these techniques. Some people have even made an entire career out of these artificial echoes.

Further listening:

Mystery Train – Elvis Presley. One of the first examples of magnetic tape to produce an artificial echo.

Miserlou – Dick Dale. I could have chosen almost any surf rock song to show the sound of spring reverb. Not many of them are also a middle eastern folk song though.

The Supernatural  – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Would you believe this wasn’t recorded in a really big room? Probably. Still, it’s a good example of the sound of a plate reverb.

The Importance of Venues to Music – Part 1: Opera

It is impossible to untangle the importance of location from a piece of music. It’s subtle, and it can be deceptive, but it is always there. Just to prove it, we can perform a brief thought experiment: Imagine an early music ensemble playing unamplified in your favourite night club. The sounds wouldn’t carry throughout the space and it is likely to sound very dry and flat with little reverberation to fill out the sound. Then imagine a EDM producer playing a set in a cathedral, with the melody lines and the rhythms becoming mushy and indistinct in the echoing space, and you can start to see that nowhere is the musical blank canvas that it first appears. The term “good acoustics” becomes meaningless, the acoustics of a place can only be suitable to what’s being performed. Not that that’ll stop people, especially me, from discussing how good the acoustics of a place are.

Before I continue I would like to mention a lecture given by David Byrne that effectively summarises everything I’m saying here and even discusses how even more abstract notions of venues such as personal music devices, radio and even the inside of a car have shaped the music written for these spaces. However, considering said lecture is a quarter of an hour long it’s worth me summarising and elaborating on some of the examples he gives.

The orchestra pit of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The wooden platform above the musicians forms part of the stage

The design by Richard Wagner of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus demonstrates this relationship. The expanded orchestra pit enables an expanded range of instruments as well as an expanded dynamic range (by which I mean: Wagner could be louder). Unlike earlier Italian opera houses with emphasis placed on nobility in boxes and stalls surrounding the stage, the Festspielhaus enables each member of the audience to have pretty much the same listening experience as everyone else. The Festspielhaus is also small relative to rival opera houses, meaning singers on stage are no longer forced to compete with the orchestra to project to the audience. The seating arrangement based on the ancient greek theatron also takes advantage of how sympathetic this design is to the projection of the human voice to enable a singer to be perfectly intelligible over an orchestra even to the back row.

Seating at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Note the resemblance to a Greek Amphitheatre

This is what must be remembered about the Festspielhaus: Wagner wanted to push the boundaries of the music he wrote, so he commissioned a new space to enable it to be performed. He expanded the orchestra pit to accommodate more bass instruments and to increase the volume the orchestra could reach. It was deliberately smaller than would be expected so that the performers on stage could be heard more clearly during the quiet moments and to emphasise the tome of their voices. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is integral to the performance of a Wagnerian opera.

This is just the start. As time goes on I will discuss further case studies and examples of the close link between music and space, talking about everything from Punk to the Palaeolithic (And a bit in between).

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works

Garai, M., Ito, K., D’Orazio, D., De Cesaris, S. and Morandi, D. (2015) The acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus


Venues, Regeneration and Identity

Something approximately current this time, I’m sorry about the lack of recent updates but university’s been getting in the way slightly.

The recent opening of the Victoria Gate shopping centre shopping centre has prompted fresh concerns over the future of artists who make their living there. This is certainly not a unique phenomenon to Leeds, indeed it’s a story that’s being repeated up and down the country (Not to mention elsewhere around the world). Everywhere you look, gentrification is the word on people’s lips.

The cycle usually goes something like this: Up and coming artists/writers/musicians/students, etc. move to areas in a city  where rents are cheap and there is plentiful space available to paint/write/rehearse/drink, etc. and to develop ideas and concepts. If they are reasonably successful, they begin to attract interest and footfall and they begin to give the area a reputation for creativity and excitement. This draws more people to live there, attracts investment and retailers keen to take advantage of this atmosphere, pushing rents ever higher. The council may even step in and attempt to develop the area. The increasing rents drive all of the people who worked to give the area its reputation away and the cycle begins anew.

Artist’s impression of Tottenham Court Road Underground Station development, Soho

This is a scene being played out everywhere from Shoreditch to Manchester’s Northern Quarter to Soho to Mabgate and the Victoria Gate in Leeds. The amount that’s being written on gentrification is amazing and far more eloquent writers than I have written volumes on it. What I want to talk about here is how music as a badge of identity factors into this.

Because venues often find themselves to be at the front line in arguments surrounding gentrification. In January 2014 the Night and Day Cafe in Manchester was given a noise abatement notice that risked the removal of the venue’s license to play live music. The petition created to prevent that attracted over 74,000 signatures and even drew the attention of Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Guy Garvey of Elbow. The strength of feeling even resulted in the resident whose complaint was linked to the abatement notice receiving death threats. In a similar vein, the threats of closure of Tin Pan Alley venues in London due to the Crossrail development have inspired petitions and interventions from musicians to attempt to prevent it.

So how does this happen? As I have already discussed on this blog, venues are tied to personal identity through the music they’ve hosted. Between this, the increasing threats to music venues from council noise abatement notices and the tensions felt about gentrification and it’s easy to see how feelings become strained. In this light the signing of petitions to try and halt development are as much declarations of identity and solidarity with the musical heritage of a place as they are calls for political action.

A bit of a stretch? Possibly. Please let me know you thoughts on anything I’ve discussed here in the comments below and I will be happy to discuss them.