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Hear a 16th-Century Concert Recreated by a ‘Musical Time Machine’

Researchers modeled the acoustics of Linlithgow Palace in Scotland to transport listeners back to a 1512 performance

The team used LiDAR scanning and computer modeling to recreate the acoustics of Linlithgow Palace's chapel. (University of Edinburgh)
smithsonianmag.com

Researchers using cutting-edge virtual reality and acoustic modeling have built a “musical time machine” that replicates the sound of choral music performed more than 500 years ago in the now-ruined chapel of Scotland’s Linlithgow Palace.

As Gary Flockhart reports for the Edinburgh Evening News, scholars used LiDAR scanning to capture the chapel as it stands now. They then drew on historical and architectural records to virtually restore the building’s roof, window, tiled floor, altar and other objects to how they would have appeared in 1512, when James IV visited for Easter celebrations. The Edinburgh College of Art, the universities of Birmingham and Melbourne, and Historic Environment Scotland (HES) collaborated on the project.

“Some of the aspects we know are absolutely correct, and some are intelligent guesswork,” James Cook, an early music scholar at Edinburgh College of Art, tells the Guardian’s Libby Brooks. “But what that enables you to do is build a reconstruction using the LiDAR scan as the basis, and then use historical techniques to work out what [the chapel] might look like inside.”

Cook adds, “You need to know how oak absorbs sound and how it scatters sound, or what an alabaster sculpture with this degree of curvature would do.”

Linlithgow Palace, located near Edinburgh in West Lothian, was the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. James I of Scotland ordered its construction in 1424, and over the next century or so, it served as a pleasure palace for the Stuart dynasty. After James VI of Scotland (also known as James I of England) moved the royal court to London in 1603, however, the palace fell into decline. Though a 1746 fire largely destroyed the building, its ruins continue to attract visitors today.

To determine what music might have been played at the 1512 Easter concert in the chapel, the researchers consulted the Carver Choirbook, a pre-Reformation collection of Scottish music, reports Heather Graham for the National.

Singers from the Binchois Consort recorded the music in an anechoic chamber—a space free of any acoustic elements that sound could bounce against. The team then overlaid the chamber with the acoustic model of the chapel, creating a virtual recording that reflects how the music might have sounded when performed in the room centuries ago.

“A lot of this project has been about reconstructing fragments,” Cook tells the Guardian. “The building, but also the repertoire and some of the music. What we want to do is offer something that essentially wasn’t possible in reality.”

The recording, titled Music for the King of Scots, is now available for download via Hyperion Records. Per Hyperion, the album includes what is believed to be one of Scotland’s oldest surviving Mass cycles.

Next, the team plans to bring the project to the palace, creating a multisensory virtual reality experience that allows visitors to walk through the reconstructed chapel.

“Visitors at the Palace and our other properties love to imagine how these sites used to look and picture what life was like,” says Kit Reid, senior interpretation manager for HES, in a statement. “What makes this project so special is the emphasis on not just the visual recreation but also the recreation of the authentic soundscape which gives an immersive insight into the court life at the Palace over 500 years ago.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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