Can large groups of people hear a musical performance without electronic amplification? In the 21st century, where music follows us everywhere—elevator, airport lounge, restaurant, stadiums—it’s a question that hardly needs to be considered. And yet, at one point, it did. The answer, of course, is to create music in an acoustic environment that amplifies naturally—hard surfaces to reflect the sound and a huge volume of air to keep those reflections going as long as possible.
Step in to any large hall and clap your hands. Then listen. You should be able to hear its echo. Do the same in a massive gothic church made of stone and the sound of just one clap can hang in the air, suspended, for nearly ten seconds. The effect is other-worldly. Space itself seems to be its own instrument.
Several hundred years ago a grand cathedral was the environment where people most often experienced music, and composers worked their art to suit the space. Extra-long echoes not only made music louder so that small groups of performers could be heard out to the furthest distances, but they also became a powerful creative tool.
If a single sound can remain audible for up to ten seconds, then, like a juggler who keeps many balls in the air at once, a musician can send note after note into these great spaces where they layer and mix. Suspended, they linger deliciously in the ear of the listener—the aural equivalent of the aftertaste of a fine wine.
Yesterday I experienced that “bouquet” as a performer in Early Music New York’s 40th Anniversary concert at the grand cathedral church of St. John the Divine. A short video clip doesn’t do it justice, of course, but you can hear a bit of that acoustic delight. Enjoy the final few minutes of Bach’s “Air” from his Orchestral Suite No. 3.