‘Hearing the Mystery Plays’ is a sound installation resulting from my research into the acoustics of the performance spaces of the York Mystery Plays. This installation explores how the acoustics of the street spaces and different staging configurations might have affected the spoken and sung items of the plays.
The York Mystery Plays
The York Mystery Plays are a series of plays that narrate events of relevance to the Christian faith and were performed regularly from the late fourteenth century up to 1569 in wagons that were manhandled through the streets of York.
What is virtual acoustics?
Virtual acoustics can be described as the design of computer models, using specialised software, to study the acoustics of spaces. It allows researchers to investigate the acoustics of sites that no longer exist or those that do survive but not in their original form, maybe as a result of the passage of time. Computer models also allow the process of auralization, a computer-aided process that allows the user to hear the way sound is modified by the characteristics of a space. The user does not need to be in the space to hear its impact on sound and what is more, it is not necessary for the space to exist.
When working with virtual acoustics the first step is the creation of a computer model of the space to be analysed. The space is drawn by inputting data on its geometry and assigning materials to the surfaces. The second step is to create and position different sound sources and receivers within the modelled space. Sound sources represent actors or singers whereas receivers represent listeners, for example members of an audience. For every source-receiver combination an impulse response is generated. Impulse responses can be thought of as snapshots of the acoustics of a space, from which a deeper understanding of the behaviour of sound can be derived.
To auralize sound samples, recordings are conducted in an anechoic chamber, which is a room with no sound reflections. Once the audio material has been recorded it is necessary to convolve it (combine it) with the acoustic characteristics derived from the virtual model so as to produce an audio recording that exhibits the acoustic characteristics of our virtual space.
Virtual Acoustics and the York Mystery Plays
This project uses virtual models to study the acoustics of Stonegate, one of the performance spaces of the Mystery Plays. Stonegate was chosen due to the state of preservation of its medieval dimensions as well as the survival of timber-framed structures dating back from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Such state of preservation allowed the use of acoustic measurement techniques on site prior to the design of the virtual models, allowing the validation of the virtualisation process. Acoustic measurements are conducted by playing an excitation signal and simultaneously recording the response of the space to the signal via a microphone.
The project resulted in thirty-two virtual models that explore different possible characteristics of Stonegate in the sixteenth century, including different heights of buildings, different window types and whether the windows/shutters were open or closed. Different configurations of Stonegate were also combined with different types of wagon structures, different wagon orientations and a variety of performers’ and listeners’ positions.
The multiplicity of options highlights the fact that there are a series of unknowns in relation to the performance spaces and staging techniques of the York Mystery Plays and that we need to explore as many as possible to arrive at a better understanding on how the York Mystery Plays were ‘heard’ by medieval audiences.