Sonic Architecture (Sonarchitecture)
From Earshot No 3, Journal of Soundscape, Nov 2002, UK
For some time I've been involved in an ongoing research into the area of sound and
architecture and how different sonic events can condition bodies of inhabitants and
buildings they occupy. For the most part this has focused primarily in two fields of
research that both relate to each other and act as separate entities, that being the activation
of structures and the acoustic recording of materials that make up structures. In this
work, I design hybrid systems that engage sites. These devices are not necessarily artistic
products in themselves, but rather tools developed which lead to certain artistic ends.
These actions can be thought as a kind of divining, a search for a living entity within that
which is normally thought as static and dead: architecture, structures and sites. This text
outlines some of the work that I have produced over the past six years, which relate to my
interests in this area.
Most of the investigations started while I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and
working at MIT, a large technical university there. The first prototype was called the
Live Room and involved a defunct laboratory space that was used originally to develop
and test guidance systems for ICBM missiles in the 1960’s. This space had a unique
suspended floor system that was made of aluminum, with I-beams and a thick plate
covering. Underneath the floor panels, was a sub foundation made of concrete and sand
which was isolated from the surrounding building and contained seven isolation pads
which were designed to hold the tilt tables used in the testing of the gyroscopic
apparatuses. For this piece, I reversed the original intention of the space (made
specifically for isolation from outside vibration) and added six large frequency inducers
(vibration exciters) to the underside of the floor which were connected to a control mixer.
After the room was reassembled, the instrument was complete and I had a kind of
tectonic sound machine which spectators could walk on and feel through their bodies.
Because of the scale of the work, large amounts of infrasound were produced. This type
of sound is specifically that which is un-hearable, a sound that resides below the lower
threshold of human hearing and is perceived as thick pumping or whooshing or as a kind
of low frequency wind. It is a sound beyond conventional senses and activates the
internal organs both of the spectator and the architecture with interesting effects,
including the disruption of the sense of balance in persons.
Part of this piece also involved the use of a fine powder material spread on top of the
floor panels to visualize the waveforms travelling throughout the floors. When activated
and tuned, this material would self organize into patterns in direct relation to the energy
imparted. This is similar to work done in the 18th century by Chladni and later by Hans
Janney, only on a much larger scale.
After developing this initial work of sound into structures, I wanted to devise another
system with which I could record these actions onto tape. Due to the low frequencies and
vibrations involved, I needed an unconventional apparatus that could pick up these
events. I started to research specialized sensors that are used in seismographic studies
and data collection. I found that instead of data collection, I could convert these small
devices for audio collection instead. After building a simple two-channel set up, I found
if I magnified the numbers of sensors to strings or arrays, I could greatly increase the
sensitivity. Not that I needed this for the direct vibration projects, but used alone I could
tap into the strange sounds resident within the materials of structures and land sites.
Acting like hypersensitive contact mics, I found this secret world of micro sound standing
right beneath our feet and containing a quality of sublime heaviness. Using the basic
premise that sound travels more quickly through materials with greater density than air,
the sound I captured inside materials had a unique richness containing a mix of all action
impacting a site at a specific location. I found that differing materials influenced this
mix, acting like filters of translation. Some of these recordings can be found on the mini
CD, Vibronics on the Staalplaat label, Amsterdam/Berlin.
With these two systems of activation and recording developed, I have since gone on to
producing other projects in North America and Europe utilizing the same techniques.
Some of them include the activation of large steel trestle bridges, one in Boston harbor
and the other in Pescara, Italy. These produced low frequency ringing tone that could be
tuned to different harmonics including a frequency that would flake rust off. I have also
produced some whole building activation’s including the V2 building in Rotterdam and
the Het Paard in den Haag (a large music venue that was slated for
demolition/renovation). With these whole building projects, possibilities for sonic
destruction become a reality depending on the tunings I select (as in the case of the Het
Paard where I was allowed to take out a floor and induce severe damage on some of the
thicker walls). The resonance properties on these structural elements have different
sound properties depending on the materials they are made of. Concrete rings differently
than steel or wood, and the tonalities produced reflect these characteristics. In 2001 I
made two portable earthquake machines in Holland, one in Gronigen and the other in the
city of Tilburg. In Gronigen, I produced the Angel Machine, this involved three six-ton
earth compacting machines connected together and tuned for earth frequencies. In
Tilburg I produced the GeoSite, a portable earthquake which consisted of a 6-meter long
steel plate buried in the ground with three large vibronic activators mounted to it. The
piece was invisible on the surface of the ground, but when activated induced severe
tremors that spread outward to a half a kilometer radius in the surrounding area. Another
work involves micro pirate radio transmitters that contained sensor units, batteries with
solar charging, a one-watt FM sender and an antenna. These were packaged in a compact
weatherproof box as a kind of radio grenade that can be left in locations to transmit the
live sound of that exact location to the surrounding area of more than a kilometer in
distance. Using multiple units tuned to the same frequency, they are distributed in an
urban area to relay the sound of different locations. As you traverse the city, listening to
your walkman or car radio, you pick up the sound of one place, then as you go out of
range, you pick up the next transmission then on to the next and so on. This acts as a
kind of urban listening experience where your specific location navigates the mix. This
work was presented in Cologne, Basel, Durban, Riga and Amsterdam. These land and
structure recordings and transmissions become interesting in how far you can listen into
the material and what you can pick up, voices, machinery, underground animals etc.
Currently I am working on a permanent installation for the new city hall in the city of
Seattle which will involve hundreds of sensors imbedded into the building with the sound
relayed live to two elevator cabins made specifically for public access. In a sense this
becomes a true acoustic democracy project, the sound of government in action and laid
bare for public witness, an architecture of sonic transparency.