Reverberance, Reverence, Deliverance: Echoing the Otherworld

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Suave locus voci resonat conclusus

(How sweetly the enclosed space responds to the voice)

—Horace, Satires I, iv, 76 (in Doyle, P, Echo and Reverb:

Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960; 2005)

The whispering gallery that runs along the inner periphery of the dome of Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of the medieval Bijapur sultan Muhammad Adil Shah (1626 – 56 CE) is an acoustic marvel. Multiple echoes of up to ten in number can be heard in the dome on a single clap. And a reasonably soft whisper can be heard across a distance of a hundred and thirty feet. The tourists visiting the place are mostly prone to whoop, shout, and clap with great enthusiasm, overwhelming the dome with dense sonic information. At quiet times though one can savour its rich, amplified reverberance—the timbre, colour and tone of the spoken word assumes an elevated quality, as if it were imbued by the sheen of something beyond earthly artifice.

Such sonic modulations appear to us to be of a higher order, sanctified by primordial forces. And in our own mimetic appropriations, of sermons and speeches, chants and songs, drones and dirges, we seek to texturize our words with an otherworldly aura. The use of delay effects in sound recording allows us then to ritualistically edify our anxieties and inadequacies and transpose them into reverberant solemnity.

The prosaic use of delay effects in recorded sound—echo and reverberation—has its place in modern times, but the phenomenon has for long resided in the realm of mystical experience. The Greco-Roman mythical character Echo, a nymph condemned to repeat all that she hears, is a tragic figure by all accounts. Rebuffed by Narcissus, the heartbroken Oread hides herself in woods, caves and mountain cliffs. She withers away there in loneliness, her flesh wasting away and bones turning into stone till all that is left is her voice. In this reduced, etheric spectral state, all she can do is to reply to anyone who calls out to her.

Peter Doyle explores the ‘mythic echo, echo in antiquity' in Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900 – 1960 (2005) with great detail. Echo and reverberation help in our perception of timbre, volume and colour of sound he points out, as well as in localizing sound. The absence of reverberation (echo being a type) would render perception of our surroundings as dimensionless. Hearing back one's own voice “emanating” from a cliff or chasm has for long fascinated us, Doyle says:

That which is not the self seems to talk to us with our own voice, using our own sounds. The obvious atavistic suggestion posed by the phenomenon of echo is animist: that the non-human world “talks”, that it possesses human characteristics….The phenomenon of echo is profoundly ambiguous: it suggests on the one hand an irreconcilable dualism, while simultaneously hinting at a transcendent monism, that all in fact may at base be one. Yet even in this latter lurks the suspicion of total alienation, that the “one” might be the universal prison of the narcissistic self.

As “a semiotically rich attribute”, sound and its relationship with physical space allows us to see mythic narratives in intriguing ways, Doyle argues. Echo and Narcissus' story suggests a cleavage of identity, a loss of self, and a “chance of wholeness.”

Reverberation amplifies sound, making a sound last longer through a slower decay and through “consonance”, whereby the mid-range frequencies (most of human speech) are reinforced. Doyle interestingly points out here that several architectural spaces of antiquity, the temples, ziggurats, tombs and palaces of the past were “highly reverberant spaces.” The augmented voice in these spaces, architecturally amplified, “must have held special connotations.” Similarly in modern buildings—from libraries, courts, and churches to galleries—there appear acoustic qualities that approximate the propensity of wrapping the voice with a stentorian crispness and gravitas. One can surmise he writes on, that this “aura” of reverberation was associated with the pronouncements of emperors and satraps, magistrates and governors.

Importantly, Doyle points to “an ancient nexus between the reverberant spaces and the sacred or magical.” From the Neolithic cave of Hypogeum in Malta wherein a resonating wall cavity that gives the male voice “an oracular quality”, a mythical Babylonian ziggurat room where whispers never ended, the long reverb of a highly polished room in the Ali Qapu of Isphahan, to the legend of Chinese black boxes into which imperial dictates where spoken and transported around the land, there have always been ‘enduring' connections between the sacred and what Doyle terms as ‘reverberancy'. In particular, both naturally occurring and constructed enclosed spaces have been used by initiatory cults in ritualistic practice wherein “a postulant might undergo his (symbolic) death and ecstatic rebirth as an initiate.”

Churches and cathedrals were built with such acoustic imperatives in mind, Doyle further argues; they were designed to bring “an echo of God into the realm of earthly existence.” Large congregations were an important consideration and the most prominent acoustic feature of basilicas of the Constantine period, he writes, is the “extremely long duration of sound reverberation inside them.” The pioneering British architectural theorist Hope Bangenal and physicist Alexander Wood have demonstrated, Doyle indicates, that these cathedrals and basilicas of those times “are indeed sophisticated resonating machines, producing reverberation of up to twelve seconds duration.” Many of these cathedrals are said to possess “a sympathetic note”, whereby certain frequencies find more favour—mostly A or A Flat. Church acoustics aided slow, clearly intoned speech through sermons and chants (see Plainsong). The music traditions that developed through such ritualistic practice are directly linked to acoustic considerations of the architectural design to the extent, the two theorists have argued, that the church itself is in effect a musical instrument (see my essay on binaural beats and 'found instruments').

The acoustic “animating” of the building interior provides a kind of theatrical effect that enables the cathedral to represent simultaneously both heaven (God's home) and the “world (human's home). The long reverberations of the church building echo the workings of political power, spiritual authority, human sociality, and individual transcendence all at once, while the appearance of the “fourth voice” hints at the lingering presence of a residual paganism.


I had first visited Kavi Alexander on the campus of UC Santa Barbara this time fourteen years ago. The owner of the iconic award-winning record label Waterlily Acoustics, Alexander's specialist music production practice was in stark contrast to industry norms. Eschewing multiple microphones and post-production of sound, he has over the last thirty years made recordings using custom made microphones in a crossed-pair stereo formation known as the Bluemlein technique. His endeavour has been to accurately reproduce the tonal and spatial attributes of the performance and importantly, place musicians in spaces that he considers are consistent with their musical legacy. Several of his recordings have been made in a church in Santa Barbara, including the Grammy Award winning collaboration between Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt—A Meeting by the River. In a long conversation at that time, he spoke of ‘authentic acoustic space'. The acoustic attributes of the space in which instruments are recorded must enrich their tonal qualities and make the musicians happy to perform in an acoustically ‘live' space as opposed to a ‘dead' studio: “To bring them into a recording studio is like death, like taking them into a mortuary. Place, time, attitude, all of this is very important. All the ancient traditions talk about this—everything has a proper time and space.”

Speaking to him a few days ago, I brought up these present concerns: of echo, reverberation, performance space and the links to what we perceive to be ‘beyond'. Acoustic spaces accumulate a certain patina, a psychic aural sense over time, Alexander says to me. When he brought a blind Vietnamese player into the church for a recording session, the musician immediately clasped his hands together—it was the quality of sound, of a footstep, the rustling of clothes, the spoken word, of indeed mere breath, that revealed the character of the space. It was, to the musician, a sacred space. And it is this very sacredness that is inextricably linked to how we listen and register echo and reverberation—the timbre, the tonal quality of speech and other sounds, is a function of the physical attributes. These very physical attributes invoke a profoundly ambiguous yet promiscuous entanglement with the mystical: we know but we do not know. And then we imagine.

It is perhaps these ambiguities that paradoxically (or not) provide a sense of clear-minded certitude to Alexander. The musician or performer is a shaman he says—he takes control of us, holds us prisoner to his will, and in the right circumstances his spell is cast not just on the listeners in his captivity, but on the surroundings, on nature itself. Alexander's practice, and sense of being I daresay, is entwined with the spiritual moorings of music.


David Toop writes of the linkages between cave paintings and echoes early on in his generously erudite, exploratory and meditative book, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. A fragment from a 1992 New Scientist article is reproduced here, wherein it is mentioned that the American scientist Stephen Waller has argued that there is a correspondence between the animals painted on cave walls and the nature of the sound in the cave. These “soundtracks of antiquity” have become a concern for the area of studies known as Archeoacoustics and it has been argued that the echoes in the caves act like “soundtracks” to the paintings, simulating the rumble of the herd or the roar of a lion. As is described here, stalactites and stalagmites found in Paleolithic era caves termed lithophones by some archeologists have been found to be musical in character—when struck, bell, drum and gong like notes are heard. “Ringing Rocks” on the shores of Lake Onega in Russia are being studied by Russian and Finish researchers and fascinatingly, the lake surface amplifies the sound produced when the rocks are struck. This sound is carried several kilometres around.

Amidst several elegant discussions, Toop brings up John Cage very interestingly. He points out that Cage's prepared piano methods had precedents in the distorted sounds of the flute, percussion, and strings of India and Africa. Pointing in particular to mirlitons, Toop writes that the vibrating membranes transformed “the ordinary human voice into something strange and supernatural” thereby materializing the spirit world. In his use of such objects Cage was in a sense, Toop argues, “subjecting the identifiable materials of art to a process which transported them to a sacred domain.” It is this sacramental investiture that is of core interest here; the acoustic qualities (and the techniques or artefacts used) that distinguish human artifice from forces that lie beyond its reach are invoked time and again. This distinction within the sonic realm, more abstract and mysterious than what can be seen or not seen, is again one that pervades our dreams and the liminal states of suspension and pre-death. In banal engagements with the world at large we are often stricken by flashes of this sense—something sounds beyond us or there is a sound that is beyond us. There appears at times to be a Voice of God.

Toops reflections on Sun Ra are equally fascinating. Conventional labels seem inadequate to describe Sun Ra's enterprise given his eclecticism and iconoclasm, but perhaps a jazz composer would be a safe broad description. Toop earlier brings up the composer and theorist Claire Polin in discussing minimalism. “The weariness of the human spirit” Polin writes, instills a desire for “an enfolding quietude from the pressures of a frenetic, discordant world.” It is a world that has too many things in it (according to Carl Andre) Polin says, and there is an urgent need for “some blankness, some tabula rasa.”

We can speculate that Sun Ra was in some sense working upon his private tabula rasa, creating in many ways, a unique world of his own. A significant part of this world was sonic in a highly imaginative way . And as Toop writes,

Every record was an Apocrypha, a vibrant cosmic map of unknown regions, lush solarized rainforests, cold domains of infinite darkness, astral storms, paradisical pleasure cones, scenes of ritual procession, solemn ceremony and wild celebration. Space was the place. Noise and silence clashed in the void: the instruments of darkness squalling, rumbling, throbbing—split note oboe and piccolo, rolling tympani, spiral cymbals bells dragon drums thunder drums warped in echo, trembling heterodyning of massed flutes, electronic celestial footsteps of angels dancing on bass marimbas, humming-bird cello, the howler monkey belching roar of baritone saxophones and bass clarinets, outer space explored in extruded plastic…


Our early fascination for echo and reverberation can be seen as sonic experiments of pre-history. The conceptual idea of primordial Om (or Aum) or Omkara in Vedic traditions is relevant in this regard. Described in several ways, it is regarded as the most sacred sound—linked to the creation of the universe, the sound of deep meditation, of a transcendental collective consciousness. It is regarded as a cosmic vibration of pure energy, and the materialized sound of the infinite derived from its ‘unstruck', inaudible form, termed as anahata. It is also pranava, that which pervades all creation, and taking the sonic form of a roar or reverberation.

Chanting traditions across humanity are densely linked to echo and reverberation. In recorded sound, the use of electronic and digital effects, whether they be on the human voice or on instruments, is all pervasive. This is a vast area of discussion and there are many things I have left out – from the acoustics of Greek theatre to sound for stage productions, early echo chambers, underwater acoustics, to psychoacoustics and anechoic chambers. I have also not discussed the idea of fables, prophecies, and retelling of epic stories as echoes over time. As Good Friday approaches, the story of crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ told and retold in hundreds of tongues in multiples ways across lands can be understood as echoes. The retelling of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his clansmen at the battle of Karbala can also be viewed similarly, as can several other laments of our past. And victories. Echoes are perhaps then sonic doubles, projections of our own selves. These are of course, literary spins. The common link between all of this is how in our experiential realm we invariably colour our history, our stories, and indeed our lives, with sensorial gloss. And in doing so, we elevate ourselves through plagency in order to “inflate the diminutive human body to a scale which can cope with the vastness of its surroundings (both physical and spiritual)”, as Toop writes. This vastness in turn he says, “whether natural, architectural or digital, inevitably suggests mystery, sadness or loneliness.”

A few days ago I attended a site-specific sound and light performance staged at the main hall in KR Cama Oriental Institute in South Bombay. A crowd of around fifty people sat in silence as a luxuriant canopy of sound shrouded the senses in a sly chiaroscuro. Over continuous drones, multiple textures, atonal sweeps, ‘phase-off' pads, organic/digital effects and a range of other sonic material filled the largish hall with a fertile, embryonic cover. The artists nimbly walked around setting off discrete sounds into the ears of audience members, and some of these peripatetic sounds made their way to the soundscape. Arguably, such stagings are hardly new to sonic art, but what seemed rewarding was the rich fidelity of the sound itself. The trick then was to transcend reflexive attempts to localize sounds and construct a spatial map but instead to submit to a transcendent aggregate. To find sonic unity outside of geometry. Much like the chill-out rooms that Toop brings up in discussing John Cage wherein, “multiple signals feed into one embalming composite”, the live, reverberant quality of the composite sound and the diverse discrete elements suggested a journey to a unified abstract space of unknown dimensions.

I will end here with the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pacal's words that Toop quotes:

The silence of infinite spaces fills me with terror.