two pink towers of Holy Spirit's orthodox church in Vilnius with city in black and white in the background and title acoustics of eleven orthodox churches of vilnius written in yellow on the right side

Acoustics of eleven Orthodox Churches of Vilnius, Lithuania.

What was supposed to be released as a simple collection of stereo impulse-response files for convolution reverb plug-ins to please my readers (as I do with various sound effects), turned out into something much much bigger. Something I couldn’t even imagine a year ago once I started to implement my initial idea of recording acoustic prints (that’s how I call impulse-response files so it’s easier for non-audio people to comprehend) of all orthodox churches of Vilnius. Vilnius is a capital city of Lithuania and I happened to live here.

Result – a unique opportunity for everyone to instantly experience the differences between all eleven orthodox churches of Vilnius by levitating above the sanctuaries and hearing how all of them sound thanks to a mesmerizing songs of a professional orthodox chamber choir of Vilnius called “Svetilen” (video I’m talking about is at the bottom of this article by the way).

I’ll eventually write a super complicated technical post for all the geeks on the subject of “making of sounds of Lithuanian churches”, but today I just wanted to present my project to the world so everyone could take an emotionally audiovisual glimpse at what I’m up to here.

Vilnius – city of religious tolerance from middle ages

Since medieval times Vilnius, capital city of Lithuania has been widely known as one of the most tolerant places in the world religion wise. Yes, there were some incidents when e.g.  first catholic missionaries were killed by pagan tribes of Lithuania. Yet in year 1345 grand-grandsons of those tribal leaders allowed first christian temple to be build in the middle of deeply pagan Vilnius. It happened to be an eastern orthodox church of St. Paraskeva.

night shot of an orthodox church of Saint Paraskeva in Vilnius

Orthodox church of St. Paraskeva. The looks are from 19th century but it was the first Christian church in Vilnius in general (built in 1345).

Just few tenths of years later Vytautas a Grand Duke of Lithuania (the one who in par with his brother king of Poland in the Battle of Grunwald defeated the united army of European medieval mafia (a.k.a. Teutonic Order) who were covering themselves under name of Christianity) invited Tatar muslims and karaites from Crimean peninsula to live in Lithuania.

Long story short – in late 17th century there were communities of pagan (undercover), christian catholic, orthodox, evangelical lutheran, reformat, muslim, karaite, jewish people living relatively peaceful near one another on the territory of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Also right in that time huge amounts of Russian Old Believer refugees found shelter all around Lithuania after persecutions began in Russian empire.

Perhaps it would be not true if I told that everyone were living happily, but fact is that in such relatively small city as Vilnius was (and is) every religion had their houses of worship and a right to freely express their beliefs back in the day same as they have the same right today. This needs to be celebrated or at least imprinted somehow, thought I.

Acoustics – mesmerizing quality unreasonably overpowered by visual experience

Interesting fact is that there are hundreds of professional (and not so much) photo albums as well as all sorts of scattered videos imprinting interiors and exteriors of sanctuaries in Lithuania (and all around the world). Probably the largest part covering vast variety of catholic churches. Yet there is literally nothing on the whole web that would cover the other important aspect of how we humans have been perceiving God and holiness in those places – acoustics or reverberation to be exact.

If you think about it, it is the echoes and reverberation of your whispering in a church what makes you feel tiny, nude, VISIBLE. It is sound or acoustic qualities of the temple that also lets us perceive how large or small and how unusual to other architectural renderings a church is. And yet there is no way (behold I!) to hear how different and unique those sanctuaries are sound wise.

interior of a baroque orthodox church of Holy Spirit in Vilnius. One of the most beautifull and largest orthodox churches of Vilnius

Interior of one of the most beautiful as well as largest Orthodox churches of Vilnius – the church of The Holy Spirit. It felt quite extraordinary to be alone early in the morning in all those sanctuaries in total silence where the only source of sound was I blowing up balloons to trigger acoustic responses of those spaces.

Yes, there are several IR libraries with impulse-response files covering largest and most mainstream cathedrals of the world, yet those are only understood by audio professionals hence useful only to them.

But audio professionals care least about the emotional or sacred side of those sounds. And this is what I really want to emphasize with my work and make it resonate inside and among people despite their beliefs.

The choir – imperative attribute for reaching emotional and spiritual levels

As mesmerizing as those acoustic prints are on their own, only closely related source can really breath life into something that technical. Fortunately I managed to work out a plan and found the glue (or THAT source), that took my IR project to the next level and infused spirituality into (lets face it) quite technical and “dry” subject.

An orthodox chamber choir of Vilnius called “Svetilen” not only performed two songs in Slavonic Liturgical language, but with their passionate and sincere performance made us hear the differences between those churches for real in a very human and aurally familiar way. The way in which pious people were perceiving God’s presence centuries ago. These songs if performed with needed level of professionalism and passion still make us get goosebumps and tears in our eyes like they did it long before we were here.

Why is my project unique?

I did not invent impulse-responses and convolution process. This thing is used in film post-production for some time now. I obviously did not invent shooting churches with a drone either. But. Although these two things exist next to each other, I’m the first who came up with an idea to provide people with an experience involving both visual as well as aural authenticity of objects under question (not to mention the singing).

So not only you will be able to familiarize yourself with all eleven eastern orthodox churches of Vilnius (I promise you – much more churches of all religious communities will follow later), at the same time you’ll be hearing authentic acoustics (or reverberation) of a particular temple seen on screen while a choir will perform two songs in Slavonic Liturgical language to evoke the unique voices of those sacred spaces.

Thanks to me and my head you’ll be immersed into all eleven orthodox churches of Vilnius aurally, visually and hopefully emotionally too. This is where the uniqueness comes from.

Why record ORTHODOX churches of Vilnius first?

A natural question would be why would I record acoustic prints of eastern orthodox churches of Vilnius, if majority of Lithuanian population is in fact catholic. Well we have about 800 catholic churches in our small country and about 25 of those are located in Vilnius. In contrast there are only eastern orthodox churches and it is a much more manageable count to present as an opener for this quite monstrously large project.

There also were some bureaucratic difficulties to get a free pass on entering christian churches in the center of our capital city and orthodox priests were extremely nice and helpful. Since I was doing everything using my own time, money and energy, obviously, I went the easier way.

man's hand holding a large key ready to unlock a brown wooden door of one of eleven orthodox churches of Vilnius

I mentioned that orthodox priests were extremely helpful. They also sometimes trusted me to lock the churches by myself as well. Probably their trust kept me going trough moments where one fail followed after another. And believe me there were lots of fails.

Aerial shots of unusual pattern to enhance aural experience

Once the dry studio recording of the choir was mixed with a series of reverberation impulse responses and the emotional impact was already very strong – to bring it to a full experience I came up with an idea to shoot all eleven orthodox churches of Vilnius from above and my colleague, owner of mylimasvilnius.lt (a blog, dedicated to mysteries of Vilnius) suggested to make it even more interesting and symbolic by orbiting around the churches in a clock’ish manner and leaving the sky and all the usual “beauty shots” out. Instead to concentrate on the building itself. This way the contrast between everything moving around and the church being there in the center gave the visuals an interesting and symbolic quality.

Same flight pattern of the drone gives a clear visual cue of all houses of worship and helps to cross reference their disparities to aural differences and make the latter more obvious.

It is also interesting to experience the surroundings of all those orthodox churches of Vilnius as well as see the actual life being led around these temples, some of my viewers said.

aerial shot of orthodox chuch of Our Lady of The Sign in Vilnius with a river, trees and streets in the surrounding areas

Orthodox church of “Our Lady of the Sign” in Vilnius. It was my intention to exclude skies as well as horizon views and make the eye concentrate on the church itself in all the aerial shots. Although this decision is unpopular from creative perspective, it provides sort of meditative background to the whole experience.

What about interior shots???

I intentionally skipped interior shots to leave a fraction of mystery and make you wonder how are things there inside, not to mention that interior shots would have broken the homogeneous feel of the whole movie.

Yet I understand that it is interesting to see what’s inside. For that purpose I’ll be posting pictures from the inside of those sanctuaries later once I’ll start presenting those churches one by one (and I really hope I’ll find time for that). But better – just go there and visit every one of them by yourself.

Bonus question: why not record the choir in actual church?

As I already mentioned, the initial idea of mine was to collect impulse responses of all orthodox churches of Vilnius as well as later all catholic churches and share those with professionals working in post-production or music production fields.

When I started showing my work in progress to people not related to the industry, I quickly realized that if someone will ever truly value my work as well as the ability to compare sanctuaries of their interest are those absolutely unrelated to professional audio field. Because when I hear and see my work, I think technical stuff. But when someone else does – they can experience the whole thing in aural, visual and emotional levels as well as wonder how on earth is this possible?

Collecting those eleven impulse responses of orthodox churches of Vilnius was hard and time consuming enough for one person. To actually record the choir in each church would be nearly impossible. At best it would require much more time and preparation and most importantly it wouldn’t output consistent and objective results that could be later used in such a free and creative manner as impulse responses can and will.

interior of empty orthodox church of Archangel Michael in Vilnius in early morning with a man standing in front of the iconostasis holding yellow balloon in his hand ready to record last impulse-response for project sounds of orthodox churches of Vilnius

Orthodox church of Archangel Michael in Vilnius. This was the last one recorded and I needed to wait for this opportunity several months since they were changing the floors in there.

Would you like to hear yourself sing in one of those orthodox churches of Vilnius? How about all of them? I can make it possible in few hours. That is the power and flexibility of acoustic prints or reverb impulse-responses. But I’m getting ahead of myself and I promised to become all technical a bit later, did I?

So for now I’d like to thank you for reading my introduction and invite you to experience all eleven christian orthodox churches of Vilnius in a way you never thought was possible.

Feel free to skip everything but THIS:

In the following video you’ll be seeing all eleven orthodox churches of Vilnius and hearing an orthodox chamber choir “Svetilen” perform two songs. While particular church will be shown, the choir will sound as if it is performing in the church you’re seeing. So listen carefully (best with headphones on) to actually hear the differences. Or just relax and let the singing of the choir take you somewhere…

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