Doc: The Cathedral and the Box

ABC Radio National logofor Australian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio National/Earshot…
broadcast date: August 22, 2017

The Cathedral and the Box

How does architecture inspire composers?

One of the most amazing buildings of medieval Europe was the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. From its early construction it was hailed as a new kind of architecture. But an unexpected by-product of that innovation was the discovery of new acoustical possibilities. Two medieval composers named Leonin and Perotin revamped gregiorian chant, revolutionizing sacred music. They became known as the “School of Notre-Dame” and their ethereal music is breathtakingly beautiful.

Flash forward to the 20th century, and a building that was even less likely to influence music: a scientific testing facility. An ‘anechoic chamber’ is an insulated room within a room. No sound gets in, no sound gets out. The chambers are located far underground to avoid the vibrations of daily life. These rooms are used for highly sensitive experiments, often for the military.

In 1951, John Cage heard about the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, and got permission to visit. In his typical laconic style, he tells the story:

In that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low.

Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, “Describe them.” I did.

He said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”

As an experimental composer, Cage was inspired to create his most famous piece, “Four minutes and thirty three seconds.” …of silence. As a pianist, Guy Livingston has played this about a hundred times. He’s been booed and laughed at, and (sometimes) listened to.

This episode of Earshot is about music and architecture, about the amazing musical undercurrents that unite Notre-Dame and the anechoic chamber, about musical meditation and inner peace, about ‘the cathedral and the box’.



Katarina Livljanic – Medieval music expert

Russell Stapleton – Sound engineer

Brian Spence – Owns a medieval books shop in Paris

Marco Pujol – Singer

Eelco Grimm – Sound Engineer

Sean Street – Poet

John Cage – Composer



Guy Livingston, producer and host

Russell Stapleton, sound designer

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