Surround Sound Goes Old School

By , Columnist

Did you know that surround sound dates back as far as the sixteenth century? It's true, but of course, it was done a bit differently back then. You couldn't just go down to Best Buy and get yourself a home theater system. No, if you wanted a fully three-dimensional musical experience back before electricity was available, your best bet was to go to church. Preferably with 40 of your closest friends.

Old churches, with their high ceilings and stone surfaces, are natural reverb chambers. Composers, particularly during the Renaissance, made the most of this by dividing musicians into two or more groups, sometimes separating them in space. The slight time delay that results from the spatial separation enhances the psychedelic sound effect (though it makes it pretty darn difficult for everyone to stay together!).


The English Choral group I Fagiolini (their name is Italian for "The Beans," and, well, it's complicated) have combined the old and new surround sound technologies in their recently released recording of Italian composer Alessandro Striggio's Mass in 40 Parts. That's right - 40, not the usual four or eight that you typically get in choral music. We're talking five choirs of eight parts each, all singing at the same time. Classical music nerds might be more familiar with another 40-voice work, Spem in Alium by English composer Thomas Tallis. Well, it turns out Tallis was influenced by Striggio, and wrote his piece to prove that Striggio wasn't the only one who could rock a ginormous choir.

Why go to such extremes? Well, in addition to the simple fact that it sounds frickin' cool, music like this served religious and political functions (and in Europe during the Renaissance, the two were closely linked). A music history professor I studied with in college opined that polychoral music was intended to transform the listener into "a mass of quivering, believing jelly." This is your brain on polyphony!

The music was also designed to celebrate and impress political leaders. Striggio composed his massive Mass for his patron, Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, and delivered it to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, as part of a campaign to persuade Maximilian to make Cosimo an archduke. This work and others like it were performed on important state occasions in lavish productions; a performance of Striggio's motet Ecce Beatam Lucem, also in 40 parts, featured "masked and costumed singers and instrumentalists descending on cloud machines to portray the celestial vision of the text."

All of this makes me wonder what the modern-day diplomatic equivalent would be? What if aspiring cabinet members or Supreme Court justices sent musicians to campaign on their behalf? It certainly would make congressional hearings more entertaining!

Here's a video with excerpts from I Fagiolini's new recording, as the group's director, Robert Hollingworth, discusses the music and the process of rehearsing and performing it:

And if you want to see what the score to a piece like this looks like, you can look and listen here.

I keep wondering what those cloud machines mentioned above would look like, and how they worked. I Fagiolini's album notes mention that "neither stereo nor surround-sound reproduction conveys height well," but that listeners who want to approximate the vertical effects could "try lying on their sides." So much for the superiority of modern technology!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at…

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