Skip to content


An acoustic reconstruction

19 April 2024 | 45 minutes
Notre Dame cathedral with scaffolding and crane

On 15th April, 2019 a catastrophic fire broke out in Notre Dame Cathedral. Parisians watched in horror as the spire fell and most of the roof was destroyed. In the aftermath it became clear that a large area was contaminated with toxic dust and lead.

The iconic building, which has dominated the Île de la Cité island in Paris since the Middle Ages, is a national symbol not only for the French but for people all over the world. 

President Macron pledged to build back the cathedral as it was before, and as the planned reopening in December 2024 looms, a huge office structure has mushroomed around it and 500 workers are on site daily as the team race to rebuild it.

Notre-Dame cathedral with blue sky and a crane
construction site entrance with tourists taking pictures

The eyes of the world are watching, but Materially Speaking has a story for our ears - the story of its sound.

As a sound specialist himself, Mike Axinn was fascinated when he discovered there is a group exploring the restoration of the acoustics at Notre Dame. He approached Brian F.G. Katz and David Poirier-Quinot at the Sorbonne, and their colleague, sound archeologist Mylène Pardoen, who is co-coordinator with Brian of the scientific acoustics team assisting the reconstruction of Notre Dame, and soon we were off to Paris to hear their stories. We first met Brian and David at a restaurant and then visited their simulator inside the Sorbonne to discover more.

a seated man

Brian F.G. Katz, acoustician

man with eyes closed and an arm raised

Notre Dame has a special role in western European music’s history and is generally thought of as the cradle of polyphony. Sarah was attracted to this angle as her father, Christopher Monk, was part of the Early Music movement which restored the use of the Renaissance cornett, a woodwind instrument well known in Monteverdi’s music. He also made and played serpents, long snake-shaped instruments that had a central role in music that was performed in Notre Dame many centuries ago. So she approached Volny Hostiou, one of France’s leading serpent players, and we were delighted when he and singer Thomas Van Essen agreed to join us in Paris for some experiments with Brian and David.

three men in an audio studio

Thomas, Volny and David (from left)

two men in audio studio, one singing and the other playing a serpent

Thomas Van Essen and Volny Hostiou (from left)

man holding a serpent, musical instrument

Volny Hostiou

We then jumped on a train to Lyon to meet with Mylène Pardoen and learn more about her work as one of the world’s foremost sound archaeologists, tasked with recording the sounds made by stone masons and other artisans in their work, and re-imagining the church’s soundscape at various points in its history.

woman in audio studio

Mylène Pardoen in her studio

hand holding a tiny microphone
woman holding audio equipment

A key person driving the physical restoration is Pascal Prunet, Chief architect of historic monuments in France and part of the team in charge of restoring Notre-Dame. Prunet explains that their work in restoring the church has revealed many secrets about its construction and the work done by artisans. We were fortunate to hear how his team was able to discover things they never would have learned had it not been for the fire.

Notre Dame cathedral with fire damage and scaffolding

Fire damage at Notre-Dame cathedral

As we obviously could not go inside Notre-Dame, Volny and Thomas then kindly arranged for us to hear them play in the Abbey of Rouen, built on a similar scale to nearby Rouen Cathedral, the abbey is famous for both its architecture and its large, unaltered Cavaillé-Coll organ. Here they talked to us about the serpent and their group Les Meslanges, showed us a serpent fresco on the ceiling of the Abbey and played in three different locations.

Gothic arched ceiling with fresco and stained glass window

Fresco of a serpent at Rouen Cathedral

fresco of a serpent (instrument) on cathedral ceiling
two men in a stone church, one singing, one playing a serpent

Thomas & Volny in Rouen Cathedral

singer and sepent player in a cathedral
singer and serpent player in front of interior metal gates of a cathedral

Finally Mike takes us back to Brian and David’s simulator to compare and contrast the sound of the musicians live in the Abbey of Rouen, and their simulated version of how the music would sound at different historical periods of Notre-Dame’s history.

old photograph of child surrounded by instruments

Sarah as a child playing a cornett

Thanks also to Frédéric Ménissier who made a great video recording of our visit to the Abbaye of Rouen. You will be able to watch the result on YouTube @materiallyspeakingpodcast nearer the scheduled reopening of Notre Dame, in December 2024.

We are very grateful to Brian, David, Mylène, Pascal, Volny and Thomas for giving so generously of their time and sharing their expertise and passion. You can learn more about their projects in the following links.

Brian F.G. Katz & David Poirier-Quinot
Brian Katz, originally from the U.S., is an acoustics specialist and leads the Sound Spaces research team. David Poirier-Quinot works with Brian and is a researcher, presently focused on sound spatialisation, perception, and room acoustics simulation for virtual and augmented realities.

Beginning mid April 2024, The Past Has Ears project is launching Whispers of Notre Dame, ‘Ekko of Notre-Dame de Paris’, an immersive audio guide that transports listeners through time and space to the heart of Paris's most treasured landmark. Free on Google Play, Android and iOS. It can be listened to anywhere, but is best with GPS onsite at Notre Dame.

Mylène Pardoen
Musicologist and soundscape archaeologist Mylène records and recreates the sounds of the past. She is a scientific expert for the restoration of Notre-Dame - Co-coordinator of the Acoustics group. She is also designer, coordinator and manager of the Bretez and ESPHAISTOSS projects.

Pascal Prunet
Chief architect of Historic Monuments responsible for the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is noted for his work in the restoration of the Cathedrals of Paris, Nantes, Limoges, Nîmes, Arras and Cambrai, as well as the Opéra Garnier in Paris , Le Corbusier 's Villa Savoye and the Citadel of Lille.

Volny Hostiou & Thomas Van Essen
Musicians specialising in performing compositions that were written for, and often performed for the first time in, Notre-Dame.

Volny teaches tuba and serpent at the Rouen Conservatoire and creates projects in collaboration with the Musée de la Musique de Paris.

Thomas is a musicologist, flautist and singer, dedicated to early music and founded Les Meslanges, one of the early music ensembles Volny plays in.

Les Meslanges is supported by the French Ministry of Culture, the Regional Arts Council of Normandy, the Normandy Regional Government and the Rouen City Council. The ensemble is a member of FEVIS – the Federation of Specialised Vocal and Instrumental Ensembles.


Producer: Sarah Monk

Producer/Editor: Mike Axinn

Music: courtesy of Les Meslanges - Thomas van Essen & Volny Hostiou

Running Dog Productions Ltd

Registered in England: 11933139