[Before I begin, if you’re interested on my thoughts on Notre Dame, musicology, and history as weapon, take a look at my Medium post]
By now, you’re probably aware of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday. But what you might not be aware of are the plans to rebuild. It’s important to note that Notre Dame, like many Gothic cathedrals, have a history of ruin and rebuilding. There were medieval parts of the church but they also co-existed with additions and replacements from later centuries. There’s no reason to believe that Notre Dame will not be repaired, especially with the outpouring of donations committed to the construction. What I’m concerned about is how it will come about, the role that digital humanities plays in its construction, and what, perhaps we have lost forever.
Notre Dame has been thoroughly documented and there are three major entities that have not only mapped the space but may be crucial in its rebuilding: Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the digital mapping project Mapping Gothic France. An unlikely trio if ever there were one but all are possibly keys to a restored Notre Dame.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is the eighth installment in Ubisoft’s franchise. Released in 2014, it is set in eighteenth-century Paris during the French Revolution with Notre Dame at its heart. In order to replicate the cathedral, level artist Caroline Miousse spent two years studying and modeling it: “80% of my time was spent on Notre Dame.” Those familiar with the game know its attention to detail in replicating historical places but the amount of records for Paris’s city plans as well as Notre Dame gave the artists more material than most to use to create what they called “a better Paris.” Now, people are looking to Ubisoft and its digital mapping to help with reconstruction, a reconstruction that’s grounded in the archives. Ubisoft has also pledged €500,000 (around $565,000) toward the rebuilding and is making Unity free to download for the next week. So if you want to see all of that work for yourself, check it out.
Disney has also pledged $5 million toward the rebuilding to help “the Hunchback’s home.” Like Ubisoft, Disney undertook a large mapping project in order to faithfully recreate Notre Dame for their 1996 animated film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. Disney had a team in Paris that created all of the large scale animations of Notre Dame, spending time both inside and outside the cathedral, covering all angles hidden and visible. (For more information on just how much went into studying Notre Dame by the animators, turn on the audio commentary in the DVD version)
But what may be the most influential project to help with rebuilding is the Mapping Gothic France project out of Columbia University and Vassar College. Led by art historian Andrew Tallon, the project painstakingly mapped Notre Dame along with other places in France using lasers. (Sadly, Tallon died last year.) This project is one of many arising out of the growing digital humanities subfield of spatial humanities that uses various forms of digital mapping. One such example is Visualizing Venice, a mapping project from the art history department at Duke University that creates digital models of past Venices using archival material. As these projects increase, we see perhaps an unintended use for them in Notre Dame: not only to look into the past but to preserve the past into the future.
These projects provide optimism for the future of Notre Dame, spurred on by various technologies. But they are concerned with the architectural and structural elements of the cathedral. And just as cathedrals are a “symphony in stone,” as Hugo described Notre Dame, they are also places of immense sonic richness. And there is a fear that the acoustics of Notre Dame that inspired Léonin and Pérotin and helped bring about Notre Dame polyphony will never be recovered. In Michael Cuthbert’s piece for the Los Angeles Times, he writes about how we “still lack the technologies to re-create the sound of historic spaces that have been transformed, or destroyed.” Historical acoustics and their influence on music created in spaces is not quite as discussed as historical building. And Notre Dame, like St Marks in Venice, had an acoustic that engendered a particular type of musical composition. Polyphony, as it is understood in Western art music, is intimately tied up with acoustics; a space’s acoustics dictate how intelligibly voices singing different musical lines travels to our ears. And acoustics are affected by bodies, materials, temperature, all things that make spaces so unique and also make them difficult to recreate. My own work on English churches and acoustics confronts these same issues and struggles to provide definitive answers. My hope is that just as the Notre Dame fire has shown how incredibly useful spatial humanities and mapping can be, that it will also raise awareness around addressing the sonic as well as the architectural. We musicologists, especially, sometimes forget about sound (a strange thing to say, I know) but the history of sonic spaces is integral to our understanding of the creation of music. We talk about not having the ears of past listeners, which is true, we never will. But those spaces give us acoustical cues to the performative and resonant life of the past. And here, now, we have a timely reminder of what can happen when we do not prioritize acoustics. I grieve the loss of Notre Dame’s sound, a sound I experienced when I first went in 2010. It was with Notre Dame that I first started recording the inside of churches —bells, organs, and so on — something that I’ve continued to this day. My hope is that the new Notre Dame will contribute to its 800-year sonic history in ways that I can’t begin to fathom and that in some distant future, someone will be able to hear with my ears.