Just before the start of the Michaelmas term, I went to the Archiving the Soundscape workshop at the Wellcome Institute, London, organised by the Soundscapes in the Early Modern World project.

Day 2 began with a panel which opened with an archaeologist from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Catrina Cooper, who worked on the Virtual St Stephens Project.   An add on was created called ‘Hearing the Commons’ because the visualisations were beautiful but missed the full sensory experiences.  You can used digital technology to recapture the soundscapes.  But one of the big questions is how to create an acoustic and visual model of a space that no longer exists?

For the Voice and Vote exhibition as part of Vote 100 project they used architectural plans, because you need to know the size and shape of the space and its surface materials.  Anechoic recordings are then in a dead space with no reverberation, so that they can then be modelled through software which applies the impulse responses of the space. This means you can hear what it sounded like.  It was really interesting to think about how the women would have had to concentrated as they tried to listen to debates in the Commons from an attic space, with the sound travelling through an air vent.  Also Catriona pointed out that it brought to mind how people in the space of the Commons itself used the acoustic features of the space to make it difficult for people who were in the chamber to hear.

Jennifer Richards asked whether there were more interactive ways of presenting these sort of results, as soundscapes tend to be very passive. Catrina acknowledged that there are problems, and you can never completely recreate the past, but she argued that we can get somewhere near.

Next up wash Katherine Butler Schofield on Chasing Eurydice: Music and its Material traces in 17-18C Mughal India.  She’s been trying to work out what Hindustani classical music actually sounded like in Mughal India.  She made the point, initially, that musical instruments sound very different in the hot and dry to the cold and wet, which is something that we rarely consider!  The Mughals were a central Asian dynasty who took Delhi in 1526.  Pictures often depict a small group of friends gathering to enjoy music in an elite aristocratic situation, but the music was mainly improvised and in any case not notated, therefore it has gone. To Hindus, and Jains in particular, sound was auspicious and you could use a bell to cleanse a temple when you entered, or music to greet an infant at the moment of its birth.

She then talked about how sound was very widely used in forts, for festival such as weddings, birthday celebrations and song and dance events.  She showed manuscript images of how Agra fort was used, with awnings, rich fabrics, fireworks and lots of people, including musicians.  The dozens of musicians apparently playing at once might not have been entirely realistic, she suggested, but rather the depiction was there to give a sense of the grandeur and the level of noise taking place overall.  She showed another example of a painting in which there were many musicians performing different functions at the birth of a prince.   Her last point was that there is no way of recapturing what music really sounded like, but it is the exploration which yields interesting results.

The final paper in the panel was given by Simon Smith on Song in the Archive: the case of playhouse music.  Scholars usually work on the melodies of playhouse songs and how they were performed.  But we have no record of how they were experienced and no descriptions of how they were performed on stage.  We have songbooks for non-dramatic recreational performance, but although what we are looking for did once exist, but what survive is something a little different.  What is the dramatic function of a playhouse song, for example, and how does this affect its afterlife as something else? He suggested that song was intended to make the audience take on the inherent viewpoint of the narrator through a process of imaginative identification.

The Workshop closed with a look at some sound-related items from the Wellcome’s early modern collections.