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?


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