Sound and Silence in the Ecology of the Cathedral

Project Details


This project - an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers at the University and Bristol Cathedral - will look at the specific sound ecology within the cathedral building – and of the adjacent open urban space of College Green – and to investigate how people seek out and access certain types of sound, and what they think and feel about the sound that they experience.

Weekly attendance has increased in cathedrals in recent years in the context of a decline elsewhere. There may be many reasons for this, including one factor often asserted, but rarely demonstrated – the regular availability of a special experience of sound. The choral liturgy performed in cathedrals, including Bristol, appears to be one very appealing aspect of the ‘offer’ that they can make. Choral Evensong at Bristol happens six times weekly, with the full cathedral choir, with boys’ voices only and with adult voices only. Attendance is healthy, with the Quire often full. Additional attendees choose to attend by sitting in the nave. We would like to investigate what it is about the sonic experience of cathedral music that appeals to the attendees at services – both regular and more occasional attendees – and to more casual visitors. We would seek to compare reactions to different types of service, such as Evensong, Sung Eucharist and said Morning and Evening Prayer. We would aim to collect statistical and demographic data about attendance and would seek to interview people about their experiences. Through the cathedral’s existing programme of events for children, and through additional events connected with this project, we will specifically engage with children also. The collection of data relating to children’s experiences is vital to the project, for two reasons: children and families are a core visitor group for the cathedral and one for whom they would particularly like to improve their ‘offer’; also, a demographically wide range of statistical information will improve the development of ‘Pathways to Impact’ in future funding applications.

Besides sound, there is an additional, complementary sonic experience available to visitors to the Cathedral – the experience of silence. As a pendant to our investigations into people’s experience of the sound of worship, we will also consider the experience of silence. A cathedral is one of very few places within a city where a person can find silence. Many people come into the cathedral seeking no interaction with anyone else and often sit quietly, drinking in the silence. Silence is not a negative, and not the absence of sound. Anyone who has ever been moved by the sound of people keeping silent together on Remembrance Sunday knows that silence has a powerful presence. There are different qualities of silence, and different spaces offer up different varieties of silence. To achieve the most potent and quietest silence in the cathedral, a visitor could seek out a number of smaller, less immediately accessible spaces. But many people seem to seek the collective, and contingent, silence to be found in the largest, most public space in the cathedral, that of the nave. Again, we would seek to collect data based on observation: Where do people sit within the building? Where do they walk? Where do they stop? We would also seek to engage visitors, as they leave the building, or by making textual information available to which they could respond later, about their experiences of the sound ecology of the building when it rests quietly, in between its effusions of liturgical song.

This is a focussed strand within a linked set of enquiries being undertaken at Bristol Cathedral into the ways in which the cathedral can serve its community and help citizens and visitors, of all faiths and none, to use the cathedral and to Live Well. A separately-planned and pre-existing draft Heritage Lottery Fund bid is seeking to consider ways in which the cathedral – as a space and as a community of people – can better engage with the people of Bristol, and cater better to what people feel that they need in order to enhance their own lived experience. The investigations here will examine one important and underexplored area of the resources that Bristol Cathedral has to offer: its sound ecology, and its readily available sources of organised sound – liturgical song, organ and other instrumental music, as well as concerts and recitals – and its own, inherent sound, the sound of a huge building just being there. It is hoped that investigating what people get (or hope to get) from their experiences of the cathedral, accompanied by sound or by silence, the cathedral will be able better to understand what it is able to offer to its citizens and visitors, and what else it might seek to offer.

Effective start/end date1/03/1731/07/17


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