From granary to Immovable Heritage Award
The Norbertuspoort, which connects the abbey with the agricultural area, has won the audience prize of the fourth edition of the Immovable Heritage Award. A granary in a past life, the Norbertuspoort currently houses the Alamire Foundation’s ‘Library of Voices’. “We study and valorise musical heritage.”
Every year, the Immovable Heritage Award focuses attention on unique immovable heritage projects. This year, the emphasis is on heritage sites that are not normally accessible to the public. An external jury selected three nominees from a total of nineteen candidates: the Guildhouse of the Free Boatman in Ghent, Hof Ter Beemt in Zingem and the Norbertuspoort in... Park Abbey.
The internationally renowned Alamire Foundation has been housed in the Norbertuspoort since 2018. This organisation plays a pioneering role in research into music from the Low Countries. Their projects focus on polyphony and the Gregorian repertoire. “Using innovative techniques, we study music manuscripts, centuries-old prints and music fragments from around the world. We then put all puzzle pieces together,”
explains Bart Demuyt, Director of the Alamire Foundation and, since 2016, a Senior Innovation Manager of Musical Heritage at KU Leuven. Since 2011, Demuyt has been working at the Mariapoort at the abbey, where Alamire launched the ‘House of Polyphony’, a popular destination for both research and music professionals.
Open house and meeting place
The Library of Voices was also opened recently, a modern meeting place where books, digital images and sound are made accessible using the latest techniques. It was established in the Norbertuspoort in 2018. “The restoration work was carried out with technical support from KU Leuven and was an impressive feat. The floors were raised, heating installed, hundreds of cables laid and more. The library racks were also meticulously custom made. The Order of Cabinetmakers even paid us a visit because of them!” laughs Demuyt.
“In the Library of Voices, we study and valorise musical heritage,” he explains. “It’s an open house for experts and occasionally the general public, who can learn about the musical heritage of the Low Countries. We work together with researchers from the Musicology research unit and ESAT, the engineers at KU Leuven who helped build the Sound Lab and data centre here.”
What can be found in the library? “We have a rich collection of standard works on polyphony and Gregorian music. Private collections have also been donated, such as from Dirk Snellings, the artistic leader of ‘Capilla Flamenca’, who died far too young. We also have the ‘Leuven Chansonnier’ on long-term loan. This unique little book dates back to the fifteenth century and contains 50 polyphonic songs in the Franco-Flemish polyphony tradition, of which 12 are unique and, until recently, not found anywhere else in the world,” says Demuyt.
The collection is also being expanded continuously. “Last winter, we discovered an interesting antiphonary that, like the Leuven Chansonnier, was purchased by the King Baudouin Foundation. In this case, it is a Gregorian manuscript and is unique in that we believe it was made around here. The music documents include texts by Jérôme de Moravie, a medieval music theorist. The discovery of these texts is a rare occurrence and they are now being studied further by the Alamire Foundation,” adds Demuyt.
The Library of Voices is more than just a library; it is also a sound laboratory. “The second floor has an analytical sound lab with twenty loudspeakers and a high-tech screen. Here we can listen to vocal polyphony in which each voice is heard in a different spot in the lab. You can also ‘select’ voices and group them. This provides greater insight about polyphony and the possibility to unravel and better understand polyphonic music.”
Alamire also has a travelling digital lab (Alamire Digital Lab) and an interactive sound lab on the third floor of the Norbertuspoort. This sound lab has no fewer than 28 loudspeakers, six microphones and a large screen. “On it we visualise manuscripts found elsewhere but digitalised by our Alamire Digital Lab. We study these music scores with our vocal ensemble, Park Collegium, which can decipher and immediately sing the musical language from the Middle Ages.”
This makes it possible for the Alamire Foundation to make music available that is at risk of being lost. “Not only that, but we can also record the chanting of an ensemble in the Sound Lab and send it back to the lab in real time, albeit adapted to the acoustic pattern of the space for which the manuscripts were originally written. This is not possible anywhere else in the world,” concludes Demuyt.