Acoustics at the Intersection of Architecture and Music: The Caveau Phonocamptique of Noyon Cathedral
Andrew Tallon is Associate Professor of Art and Architecture at Vassar College. He received a Ph.D. in Art History from Columbia University with distinction, M.A. in Art History from the University of Paris-Sorbonne, and B.A. in Music with highest honors from Princeton University. His second book (in progress) is entitled The Structure of Gothic. His first, Notre-Dame de Paris, was coauthored in French with Dany Sandron (2013); an English edition is under contract with the Penn State University Press. His recent research has been funded by the Samuel Kress and Andrew Mellon Foundations, and is featured in the PBS | Nova production, Building the Great Cathedrals, the Arte documentary Les cathédrales dévoilées, and at National Geographic as part of the Innovators series.
Acoustic vases are simple earthenware pots placed, with mouths open, in the walls and vaults of post-classical churches. Their installation was inspired by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s first century BC treatise on architecture, De architectura libri decem, in which he discusses the placement of bronze vases in amphitheaters whose intended function was to strengthen the voices of the performers. The acoustic vase is the only direct proof that pre-modern musicians, architects and their patrons were actively engaged in the manipulation of the acoustical environment.
The most unusual—yet largely unknown—installation of acoustic vases in Western Europe is found in the Cathedral of Noyon, the so-called caveau phonocamptique, a chamber installed beneath the pavement of the crossing. The caveau, which probably dates from the sixteenth century, seems to have been intended as a monumental amplifier. The vocal production of a cleric or group of singers situated at a lectern directly beneath the crossing would have entered the chamber through an aperture in the floor, have been reinforced by the array of vases, then returned to the space by the same route.
Paradoxically, the effect of an acoustic vase can only be one of absorption, according to the principle of conservation of energy. Yet a vase, when sung directly into, appears to “sing back” to its beholder. This effect, and the importance of Vitruvius as the foremost authority on ancient architecture known to European builders and patrons, must ultimately account for this unique—and improbable—installation at Noyon.