• Research

An audio-immersive stroll at the foot of Notre-Dame

At the heart of France's cultural heritage, Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral is inhabited by a rich and vibrant sonic identity. From May 6, 2024, you'll be able to discover it through the "Notre-Dame Whispers" audio-immersive experience.

The project is led by Brian F.G. Katz, Director of Acoustics Research at the Institut Jean le Rond d'Alembert, as part of the PHEND project, and developed by the Talkartive cultural mediation agency. The initiative enables the curious listener to hear the unique sound history of this emblematic monument. 

Can you tell us about the PHEND (the Past Has Ears at Notre-Dame) project and how it fits in with your research?

Brian Katz : The PHEND project, which runs until the cathedral reopens in March 2025, is an initiative we launched after the Notre-Dame fire. Funded by the French National Research Agency, it aims to preserve the monument's acoustic heritage. It was developed in parallel with another European project, PHE, which ended in December 2023, and whose aim was to study how to document, preserve and present this type of intangible heritage via several European sites that have been damaged or lost, such as a Roman theater in Sicily or the former House of Commons in England.

What disciplines were involved in this multi-faceted project?

B. K. : This project is a truly interdisciplinary collaboration. We worked with acousticians from the Institut Jean le rond d'Alembert, musicologists and historians from the l’Institut de recherche en musicologie, Iremus, and art historians from the Centre André Chastel, as well as with the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris. We also worked with a team from the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme de Lyon specializing in soundscape archaeology, and several companies.

This diversity of expertise has enabled us to approach the question of acoustic heritage from different angles: sociological, musicological, architectural, acoustic, and also in terms of mediation with the general public.

Can you tell us about the "Notre-Dame Whispers" experience?

B. K. : "Notre-Dame Whispers" is an audio-immersive experience we've developed to enable visitors to discover the history of Notre-Dame through its own sonic narrative, as if the cathedral itself were narrating its past.

This experience is an integral part of a series of mediation experiments developed as part of the PHEND projects to enhance the cathedral's acoustic heritage. These initiatives reflect the project's commitment to making research discoveries accessible to the public.

During  the confinement in 2020, we launched an online radio program broadcasting a concert recorded at Notre-Dame, simulating several listening points via our digital twin, a digital model of Notre-Dame's acoustics. We then produced a four-episode series of radio dramas entitled "À la recherche de Notre-Dame" (In Search of Notre-Dame), which took the point of view of Victor Hugo, visited by a muse embodying the young Notre-Dame de Paris. Each episode took listeners through moments in the cathedral's history, documented by scientific findings from the PHEND project.

In what way does it represent the culmination or concrete application of research work?

B. K. : "Notre-Dame Whispers" was born of the desire to explore a more museographic and, above all, immersive approach to cultural mediation. This experience allows visitors to walk around Notre-Dame while listening, at various strategic locations, to music and stories about specific aspects of the cathedral's life. This experience is enriched by contributions from musicologists, architects, historians and others, who tell the story of the monument, offering a holistic understanding of its evolution through the ages. The spectator is taken on a 900-year journey through 18 sound pieces born of our research.

What are the future prospects for the PHEND project?

B. K. : Thanks to our previous research, we have acquired measurements and documentation of the cathedral before the fire that are unique in the world. Thanks to our multi-disciplinary work with musicologists, architects and historians, these data enable us to reconstruct the acoustics of this site throughout its history.

At the end of November, we aim to produce a musical documentary on the evolution of music at Notre-Dame over the centuries. This one-hour concert will feature several musical pieces from the 12th to the 20th century, highlighting the cathedral's acoustics as they have evolved over time, in line with architectural and aesthetic changes, etc.

The "Notre-Dame Whispers" audio-immersive experience will be downloadable free of charge on smartphones from May 6, 2024, the week of its launch on the forecourt of Notre-Dame de Paris.