Distance in time and space separates us from the eleventh-century monastery and ritual of Ste. Foy at Conques. Yet, the music composed for this space and time survives in two manuscripts, exquisitely crafted by expert musicians who sang for many hours a day as part of their worship practice. The reanimation of this liturgy, music that has lain dormant for 1000 years, is the focus on the new EnChanted Images interdisciplinary research at Stanford.
The music is documented in Aquitanian neumes, the first notation system to represent music as tiny dots placed higher or lower on the folio according to pitch. In the first half of the eleventh century, monastic scribes began to standardize the heighting of the neumes along invisible lines, increasing consistency and legibility. Prior to the introduction of this technique, the heighting was not accurately transmitted, which was fine for singers at the time because they used music notation primarily as a tool for memory recall of melodies already familiar to them. Yet, now that the memory of the music has been eroded by time, it would not be possible to accurately reconstruct them without the assistance of these developments in notation. This places the liturgy of Ste Foy among the earliest examples of medieval music whose melodies can be resurrected and performed anew.
As a team we pool our knowledge of Latin language and poetry, medieval music theory, vocal performance, and reverb to transcribe the music into modern notation, hone our interpretation of the material, and uncover its deeper nuances by recording in its native acoustic environment. Laura Steenberge directs the transcription, the preparation of the scores, the auralizations, and the recordings. Argenta Walther is the vocalist. Bissera Pentcheva translates the Latin poetry, and in 2019 collected acoustic data from Conques by recording the popping of balloons inside its resonant architecture. Using his method developed for the Hagia Sophia project Icons of Sound, Jonathan Abel extracts the acoustic signature of Conques from the balloon pops, creating impulse responses, which can then be imprinted on pre-recorded and live sound.
By recording with live auralization, we are able to narrate the Passio of the patron saint at Conques. Walther hears herself singing in real-time as though she is at the medieval church, and as a result can adjust to the acoustics of that distant space and attend to interpretive features of the music such as pacing and phrasing. She sings through a lavalier microphone taped to her forehead in order to minimize the impact of the room acoustics of the “recording studio,” which in this case is an RV trailer. Steenberge engineers and edits the sessions, imprinting Walther’s voice with the acoustic signature that was prepared by Abel. With this digital technology, audiences are able hear again the once-silenced voice of Ste Foy at the monastery.
We have accomplished most of this work in the restriction of Covid-19 lockdown. Technology has helped us bridge the gap not only in terms of the distance between America and Conques, but also among members of the team who are dispersed in different locations. We stand at the crossroads of the written and the performed, and through the creative use of digital technology, hope to narrow the distance between past and present.