Over the coming months, I’ll be working on a number of 360 videos of performances of spatial choral music. The first video was recorded last Sunday, May 19th in the Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin and is the second in a series of videos presented in partnership with Rode microphones who provided a Soundfield ST450 MkII Ambisonic microphone to record the piece.
Spatial music is often closely associated with the development of electroacoustic music in the twentieth century, yet the use of space as a musical parameter is in fact much older. The call and response pattern could perhaps be considered as one of the most fundamental forms of spatial music and has been found in many different cultures and musical traditions throughout history. In 16th century Europe, this antiphonal style was developed further by composers of the Venetian school like Adrian Willaert and Andrea Gabrieli, before spreading across Europe leading to works such as Orazio Benevoli’s Festal Mass for 53 individual parts, and Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium.
The latter work in particular is still regularly performed and I’ve wanted to produce a 360 video of this piece for quite some time. So I was delighted to finally have the opportunity to do so last weekend with New Dublin Voices.
Spem in Alium (which translates from Latin as “Hope in any other”) was believed to have been composed by Tallis in c. 1570, however, the exact origins of the piece are shrouded in mystery. The piece contains 40 individual parts, arranged in eight 5-voice choirs (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass), and the number 40 is symbolically important, with the first, combined entry of all 40 voices occurring at bar 40. One theory behind Tallis’ motivation for composing the piece is that it was intended to celebrate the 40th birthday of Queen Elisabeth I. However, given that Tallis was Catholic, it has also been suggested that the piece was intended as a protest for the forty generations of English Catholics slandered by the Protestant Reformation . Another explanation suggested by Thomas Legge in his preface to the score is that the composition was inspired by a performance of Alessandro Striggio’s mass for 40 voices in London in 1557 . There is some evidence that following this performance, Tallis was encouraged to compose a piece for similar forces, possibly by Henry FitzAllen, the 19th Earl of Arundel, and his music-loving son-in-law Thomas Allen, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Interestingly, a copy of the score was held in the music library of FitzAllen’s country residence, Nonsuch Palace, which also contained an octagonal banqueting hall with four first-floor balconies . If this was the site of the first performance of the piece, it is possible that the work was intended to be not only sung in the round, but perhaps also with four of the eight choirs in elevated positions on the surrounding balconies.
Spem in Alium is particularly impressive in its sophisticated use of spatial effects, including an opening rotation of material around consecutive choirs, antiphonal exchanges between various choir groupings, and the dramatic collective entry of all eight choirs at specific moments (such as at bar 40 for example). This can be seen in the large-scale form of the piece, which was graphically depicted by W. G. Whittaker in an essay on Tallis and is shown below .
This work has received renewed attention in recent years through Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet installation, in which recordings of the individual voices of Tallis’ composition are reproduced over 40 loudspeakers.
For our 360 recording, we decided to explore two different spatial layouts using elevated risers for four of the eight choirs. The first, more traditional layout places the choirs sequentially in a circle, while the second uses a spiral layout, with choirs 1-4 at North, East, South and West, and choirs 5-8 at NorthWest, NorthEast, SouthEast, and SouthWest.
We explored a number of possible venues for the recording including various choirs and cathedrals with surrounding balconies. However, these locations did not allow for much control over the acoustics and lighting, and in particular would have resulted in the positioning of the singers quite far away from the 360 camera and microphones. So instead we decided to do the recording in the Beckett Theatre in Trinity College Dublin, effectively creating a blackbox space with spot lighting of each of the choirs. The drapes surrounding the choir also significantly deadened the acoustic of the space, which helped ensure that the maximum directionality was captured in the audio recording (although we are planning on adding reverberation in post-production to create a more natural sounding acoustic environment for the final video).
Finally, we are also planning on conducting some experiments with six Degrees of Freedom (DoF) VR. 360 video typically only allows the viewer to rotate their head (3 DoF) where as true VR also allows the viewer to move around the room (6 DoF).
However, the precise way in which we record matching spatial audio to support 6 DoF is also an interesting research question. While I will be conducting a number of specific experiments to explore different microphone techniques for this purpose in the coming months, for this shoot I decided to supplement the main Soundfield Microphone with an octagonal arrangement of 8 cardioid microphones. Over the coming months I’ll write more on whether this arrangement can be utilized in a 6 DoF VR application to create a sense of audibly moving closer to individual choirs. The first priority however is the main 360 video, so stay tuned for further updates!
Many thanks to New Dublin Voices and their director Bernie Sherlock, Michael Canney and all of the crew at the Beckett Theatre, and Monica Ryan and Sebastian Csadi for their assistance over the weekend.
I would like to acknowledge the support of SoundFieldTM Microphones in providing equipment for this project.
 K. Davis, Motive and Spatialization in Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, online http://kevindavismusic.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Motive-and-Spatialization-in-Thomas-Tallis-Spem-in-Alium.pdf
 T. Tallis, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui: a Motet for 40 Voices, edited by Philip Legge, Choral Public Domain Library. http://www.cpdl.org (2004)
 W. G. Whittaker, An Adventure, In Collected Essays, 86–89. Freeport, N.Y .: Books for Libraries Press (1970).