The steps leading up to the church are the same, the hardware on the doors as well. The font still greets you as soon as you walk through the vestibule. The turret that takes you up to the loft is as claustrophobic as ever. And it's still a hat trick, trying to fit 60 voices and instrumentalists into a gallery that was designed for half that number.
But look a little closer this week, and you'll find that everything has now changed. The differences are from stem to stern – and these are apt terms, because the navis, what is known as the nave of the church, is actually a nautical term. And the changes I'm about to describe have taken place within this topsy-turvy vessel we call the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
The carpeting is now gone. In its place is a sort of faux-slate material, a luscious, warm, stone-like treatment that unifies the colors of the sanctuary, the wood tones of the pews, and the darker trim of the entire church. And this one factor, the absence of padded material on the floor, has created an entirely new canvas for the musicians in the Basilica.
Normally I include a picture with my post, but today, you'll just have to imagine this – not in your mind's eye, but in your mind's ear instead. For this is not in the realm of a pictorial. It is in the realm of the aural.
There is always another voice that is part of an assembly: it is the voice of the building itself. And that voice can either build up or stifle, depending on a myriad of factors: flooring, ceiling, hard surfaces, carpeting, even the very shape of the building. They all combine to either help or defeat the efforts of a participating assembly and its choir.
Now, with the absence of the carpeting, about two seconds of reverberation time have been added to the church. To some, that might not seem like a big deal. But it can be a huge difference, and it affects everything: diction, percussion, even small changes in how fast the pieces can actually be done. No doubt, there are modifications to our own work that will have to be made. But with our first mass back in the Basilica last week, I think this is an acoustic home that we'll adapt to, measure by measure and week by week.
Years ago, GIA Publications had an ad campaign (complete with bright red buttons): "Carpet bedrooms, not churches!" they cried. It was an apt battle cry back then, and the rules of acoustics haven't changed.
So let the song sing! And let us roll up our sleeves and get used to the new dynamic!
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