Acoustics in Penn rotunda reveal ‘Secrets of the World’

 Composer Scott Ordway conducts a rehearsal of 'Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World' in the Penn Museum's Chinese Rotunda. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Composer Scott Ordway conducts a rehearsal of 'Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World' in the Penn Museum's Chinese Rotunda. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Chinese Rotunda at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has soaring stone ceilings.

That’s ideal for showcasing ancient foo dogs and Buddhist deities, but the acoustics are terrible. Every subtle sound carries as it endlessly bounces up and down the hard walls.

The museum, with the American Composers Forum, commissioned Scott Ordway to compose a piece of music that responds to the museum — its architecture as well as its content.

“I chose to work in the Chinese Rotunda with its incredible 90-foot ceiling and its 6-second reverb,” said Ordway. “Which is problematic acoustically, but also presents a tremendous opportunity.”

Ordway calls “Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World,” a piece written specifically for performance in the Chinese Rotunda, a “whisper play.” He took the quietest sound he could make — a barely vocalized whisper — and set it in long string lines that hang in the air of the rotunda. 

“Each measure will resound both with the measure that preceded it, and the measure that follows it,” said Ordway. “So each moment of the music is literally in dialogue with the past and the future, which resounds nicely in a museum that has 5,000 years of human history.”

“Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World,” to be performed by the museum’s resident Daedalus Quartet, premiered in April. For this week’s performance, the piece is programmed with an older work by avant-garde composer George Crumb and a new work by Penn grad student Joshua Hey.

Ordway worked with curators to research ancient texts in the museum’s archive related to secrets. He chose written secrets about love, death, and God.

For this piece, each member of the audience —- expected to number about 150 — receive a different snippet of text, which that audience member is expected to whisper when cued by a lighting signal.

No one has the same text, so the audience will not be whispering in unison; rather, they will create a quiet wall of inarticulate sound.

“The sound I was interested in was the mass of people whispering different texts,” said Ordway. “The sound is beautiful in its own right. The meaning comes from a one-to-one relationship between an audience member and one text.”

Ordway is working on a recording of the work, but he says that recording will be missing the audience-participation element, which he said is critical to the experience.

“Tonight We Tell the Secrets of the World” will be performed, along with George Crumb’s “Black Angels” and the premiere of Joshua Hey’s “lens flare from Alpha Centauri,” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Friday, January 13, 8 p.m.

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