Whale Song Bunker

[Image: The old submarine listening station, Isle of Lewis, via the BBC].

This is the most awesomely surreal architectural proposal of 2015: an extremely remote Cold War-era submarine surveillance station on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides might soon be transformed into a kind of benthic concert hall for listening to whale song.

“A community buy-out could see a former Cold War surveillance station turned into a place where tourists can listen to the sound of whales singing,” the BBC reports.

During the Cold War, we read, “the site was part of NATO’s early warning system against Soviet submarines and aircraft, but the Ministry of Defence has no further use for the derelict buildings on the clifftop site.”

“It is now hoped a hydrophone could be placed in the sea to pick up the sound of whales.”

The idea of “derelict buildings on [a] clifftop site” resonating with the artificially amplified sounds of distant whales is amazing, like some fantasy acoustic variation on the “Dolphin Embassy” by Ant Farm.

[Image: “Dolphin Embassy” by Ant Farm].

I couldn’t find any further word on whether or not this plan is actually moving forward, but, if not, we should totally Kickstart this thing—and, if not there, then perhaps reusing the old abandoned bunkers of the Marin Headlands.

Your own private whale song bunker, reverberating with the inhuman chorus of the deep sea.

(Story originally spotted via Subterranea, the journal of Subterranea Britannica).

Howl



I watched this video with the typical ennui of your average internet user—expecting to hear nothing at all, really, before going back to other forms of online procrastination—but holy Hannah. This is a pretty loud building.

Although I would be making surreptitious ambient field recordings—and rhapsodizing to my sleepless friends about the unrealized acoustic dimensions of contemporary architecture—I have to say I’d be pretty unenthused to have this thing howling all day, everyday, in my neighborhood.

It’s Manchester’s Beetham Tower. It cost £150 million to build, and its accidental sounds are apparently now “the stuff of legend.”

(Spotted via Justin Davidson. This actually reminds me of when my housemate in college taught himself to play the saw and I had no idea what was happening).

Subterranean Saxophony

[Image: Photo by Steve Stills, courtesy of the Guardian].

Over in London later today, the Guardian explains, composer Iain Chambers will premiere a new piece of music written for an unusual urban venue: “the caverns that contain the counterweights of [London’s Tower Bridge] when it’s raised.”

The space itself has “the acoustics of a small cathedral,” Sinclair told the newspaper, citing John Cage as an influence and urging readers “to listen to environmental sounds and treat them as music,” whether it’s the rumble of a bridge being raised or the sounds of boats on the river.

In fact, Chambers will be performing one of Cage’s pieces during the show tonight—but, alas, I suspect it is not this one:

It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

Read much more at the Guardian—or, even better, stop by tonight for a live performance.

(Spotted via @nicolatwilley).

The Los Angeles County Department of Ambient Music vs. The Superfires of Tomorrow

You might have seen the news last month that two students from George Mason University developed a way to put out fires using sound.

“It happens so quickly you almost don’t believe it,” the Washington Post reported at the time. “Seth Robertson and Viet Tran ignite a fire, snap on their low-rumbling bass frequency generator and extinguish the flames in seconds.”

Indeed, it seems to work so well that “they think the concept could replace the toxic and messy chemicals involved in fire extinguishers.”



There are about a million interesting things here, but I was totally captivated by two points, in particular.

At one point in the video, co-inventor Viet Tran suggests that the device could be used in “swarm robotics” where it would be “attached to a drone” and then used to put out fires, whether wildfires or large buildings such as the recent skyscraper fire in Dubai. But consider how this is accomplished; from the Washington Post:

The basic concept, Tran said, is that sound waves are also “pressure waves, and they displace some of the oxygen” as they travel through the air. Oxygen, we all recall from high school chemistry, fuels fire. At a certain frequency, the sound waves “separate the oxygen [in the fire] from the fuel. The pressure wave is going back and forth, and that agitates where the air is. That specific space is enough to keep the fire from reigniting.”

While I’m aware that it’s a little strange this would be the first thing to cross my mind, surely this same effect could be weaponized, used to thin the air of oxygen and cause targeted asphyxiation wherever these robot swarms are sent next. After all, even something as simple as an over-loud bass line in your car can physically collapse your lungs: “One man was driving when he experienced a pneumothorax, characterised by breathlessness and chest pain,” the BBC reported back in 2004. “Doctors linked it to a 1,000 watt ‘bass box’ fitted to his car to boost the power of his stereo.”

In other words, motivated by a large enough defense budget—or simply by unadulterated misanthropy—you could thus suffocate whole cities with an oxygen-thinning swarm of robot sound systems in the sky. Those “Ride of the Valkyries”-blaring speakers mounted on Robert Duvall’s helicopter in Apocalypse Now might be playing something far more sinister over the battlefields of tomorrow.

However, the other, more ethically acceptable point of interest here is the possible landscape effect such an invention might have—that is, the possibility that this could be scaled-up to fight forest fires. There are a lot of problems with this, of course, including the fact that, even if you deplete a fire of oxygen, if the temperature remains high, it will simply flicker back to life and keep burning.

[Image: The Grateful Dead “wall of sound,” via audioheritage.org].

Nonetheless, there is something awesomely compelling in the idea that a wildfire burning in the woods somewhere in the mountains of Arizona might be put out by a wall of speakers playing ultra-low bass lines, rolling specially designed patterns of sound across the landscape, so quiet you almost can’t hear it.

A hum rumbles across the roots and branches of burning trees; there is a moment of violent trembling, as if an unseen burst of wind has blown through; and then the flames go out, leaving nothing but tendrils of smoke and this strange acoustic presence buzzing further into the fires up ahead.

Instead of emergency amphibious aircraft dropping lake water on remote conflagrations, we’d have mobile concerts of abstract sound—the world’s largest ambient raves—broadcast through National Parks and on the edges of desert cities.

Desperate, Los Angeles County hires a Department of Ambient Music to save the city from a wave of drought-augmented superfires; equipped with keyboards and effects pedals, wearing trucker hats and plaid, these heroes of the drone wander forth to face the inferno, extinguishing flames with lush carpets of anoxic sound.

(Spotted via New York Magazine).

Listening to a machine made entirely from windows

An old issue of The Wire introduces us to a synthesizer called the ANS, built in 1950s Moscow by Eugene Murzin and “constructed around a unique and incredibly intricate photoelectronic system.”

[Image: The ANS].

The ANS functioned through an “array of tiny chisels” that engraved “lines and points on rotating black enamelled glass discs.” These engravings would then “regulate the brightness of light rays” that passed “through the discs onto photoelements,” like the sun streaming through carefully shaded windows. The “level of intensity” of this light then produced specific sounds.

Elsewhere (scroll down in this link till you hit the COILANS review), we read about the ANS’s unique compositional process: “The composer inscribes his visual ‘score’ onto a glass plate covered with sticky black mastic, slides it through the machine, which reads the inscribed plate and converts the etchings into sound produced by a system of 800 oscillators.”

It’s a machine that reads windows.

[Image: A representative musical score for the ANS – but what if you fed it architectural diagrams?].

The Wire then explains that, in 2002, British band Coil visited the synthesizer in Moscow and recorded nearly 4 hours of music using the machine. Listening to what they produced, we’re told, sounds “like travelling through the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt – glitting slivers of distant white light and vast, nebulous spaces populated by inchoate radioactive matter.” As you’ll notice in these three, 3-minute samples, the effect is certainly weird – but also unbelievably mesmerizing: 1, 2, and 3 (all MP3s).

Light, chisels, glass plates, oscillators, enamelled surfaces, engravings on windows – with these elements it is not at all hard to imagine a kind of ANS architecture, rebuilt on the scale of a building. Windowed lobbies and escalators; sunlight; entire lift shafts full of glass discs, inscribed and black-enamelled, emitting music like light. Whole rooms of sound, angelic, the windows slightly trembling.

Moving panes of glass, washed clean at the end of the day, pass slowly behind curtains, casting acoustic shadows.

A symphony for glass escalators. Chamber music.

Entire cities, made from nothing but windows, tuning to one another like the sound of orchestral sunlight.

(Note: The ANS was apparently used to soundtrack Andrei Tarkovsky’s films Solaris and Stalker).

Dolby Earth / Tectonic Surround-Sound

“In any given instant,” the Discovery Channel reminds us, “one or more rocky plates beneath Earth’s surface are in motion, and now visitors to a California museum exhibit can hear virtually every big and small earthquake simultaneously in just a few seconds off real time. Scientists have captured earthquake noises before, but this is believed to be the first instantaneous, unified recording of multiple global tectonic events, and it sounds like the constant, dull roar of the world’s biggest earthquake chorus.”

The planet, droning like a bell in space.

Of course, the musicalization of the earth’s tectonic plates has come up on BLDGBLOG before, specifically in the context of 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers. Among many other things, 9/11 was an architectural event which shook the bedrock of Manhattan; the resulting vibrations were turned into a piece of abstract music by composer Mark Bain (more info at the Guardian – and you can listen to an excerpt here).

Meanwhile, if somebody set up a radio station – perhaps called Dolby Earth – permanently dedicated to realtime platecasts of the earth’s droning motions… at the very least I’d be a dedicated listener. A glimpse of what could have been: Earth: The Peel Sessions.

In any case, if I could also remind everyone here of an interview with David Ulin, in which he discusses the intellectual and philosophical perils of earthquake prediction – the topic of his excellent book, The Myth of Solid Ground. One of the predictors discussed in Ulin’s book, for instance, spends his time “monitoring a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial.”

Dolby Earth, indeed.

(Thanks to Alex P. for the Discovery Channel link! Related: Sound Dunes).

Musicalizing the weather through landscape architecture

The idea of listening to a landscape – how to podcast a landscape, for instance – tends to be literally overlooked in favor of a site’s visual impact or even its smell. When I was in Greece a few years ago, for instance, hiking toward an abandoned village on Tilos, every step I took crushed wild onions, herbs, and different flowers, and a temporary envelope of scent, picked up by breezes, floated all around me as I walked uphill. I may not remember every single detail of what that path *looked* like – but I do remember how it *smelled*.
It was like hiking through salad.
In any case, you don’t often see people packing up the family car, or hopping onto a train, to tour Wales or the Green Mountains of Vermont so that they can listen to the hills – they’ll go out to look at autumn leaf colors, sure, or take photographs of spring wildflowers. But to go all the way to Wales so they can hear a particular autumn wind storm howling through the gorges, a storm that only lasts two days of every year? Specifically going somewhere to *listen to the landscape*.
Seasonal weather events and their sonic after-effects. The Great November Moan.
All of which brings me to the idea of sound mirrors.


Musicalizing a weather system through landscape architecture.
BLDGBLOG here proposes a series of sound mirrors to be built in a landscape with regular, annual wind phenomena. A distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October due to northern winds from Canada, has its low, droning, cliff-created reverb carefully echoed back up a chain of sound mirrors to supply natural soundscapes for the sleeping residents of nearby towns.
Or a crevasse that actually makes no sound at all has a sound mirror built nearby, which then amplifies and redirects the ambient air movements, coaxing out a tone – but only for the first week of March. Annually.
Landscape as saxophone.


It’s a question of interacting with the earth’s atmosphere through human geotechnical constructions. Through sound mirrors.
What you’d need: 1) Detailed meteorological charts of a region’s annual wind-flow patterns. 2) Sound mirrors. 3) A very large arts grant.
You could then musicalize the climate.
With exactly placed and arranged sound mirrors atop a mesa, for instance, deep inside a system of canyons – whether that’s in the Peak District or Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – or even in Rajasthan, or western Afghanistan – you could interact with the earth’s atmosphere to create music for two weeks every year, amplifying the natural sounds of seasonal air patterns.
People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes.


A few questions arise: in this context, does Stonehenge make any sounds? What if – and this is just a question – it was built not as a prehistoric astronomical device but as a *landscape wind instrument*? You’d be out there wandering around the Cotswolds, thinking oh – christ, it’s 5000 years ago and we’re lost, but: what’s that? I hear Stonehenge… And then you locate yourself.
Sonic landmark.
This raises the possibility of building smaller versions of these sound mirrors in urban neighborhoods so that, for instance, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg sounds different than Mitte, which sounds different than Kreuzberg – which sounds different than South Kensington, which is different than Gramercy Park… Etc.
You’d always know which district of the city you were in – even which city you were in, full stop – based on what the wind sounded like.
(Which reminds me of another idea: that, to attract people to a city without much going for it, you could *flavor the water supply*: make it taste like Doritos, for instance, and then sell that on huge billboards: buy your new home in Detroit, the water tastes like Doritos… the water tastes like tofurky…).
Second: is there a sonic signature to the US occupation of Baghdad? And I don’t mean rumbling Hummers and airplane engines, I mean what if all those Bremer walls –


– generate sounds during passing wind storms? All the American military bases of Iraq moaning at 3am as desert breezes pass by.
What does the occupation *sound like*?
A sonic taxonomy of architectural forms could begin…