Sounds in Transit

I’ve been delinquent in mentioning Jace Clayton’s new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize Clayton—aka DJ /rupture—from an interview published many years back in The BLDGBLOG Book, on the topic of music, sound, and cities.

Uproot is Clayton’s guide to various sonic undertows shaping contemporary music around the world, from Autotuned vocals spilling out of North African villages to raves in ruined buildings on the divided island of Cyprus, or from Jimi Hendrix’s literally sinister left-handed amplification of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to five thousand years of continuous habitation—and urban music—in Beirut.

Clayton has long defined himself as a kind of human forward-operating base, picking up the signals of incoming future music, writing dispatches for Fader, giving interviews to The Wire, and chronicling much of this on his own blog, Mudd Up!

The book itself proceeds through a series of longer chapters punctuated by aphoristic statements (“Dancing is a form of listening”; “Music that doesn’t change is free to do other things”; “To be local is to have few options”; “What we care for we repeat”). These summations both highlight and launch each chapter’s short, linked essays that back up Clayton’s claims.

Its very first sentence simultaneously warns against and advocates digital amnesia: “The early twenty-first century will be remembered as a time of great forgetting,” he writes. He is referring to the complex effects of an ongoing format change, as musical culture transfers “from analog to digital.” Later in the book, Clayton develops this into what he calls the “distributional aesthetics” of 21st-century music, with both approval and slight political hesitation. He has in mind not just DIY punk CDs sold for cash after road shows but Lebanese cab drivers streaming new, anonymous tracks to jet-lagged passengers over Bluetooth.

How the sounds are delivered—through whom they are distributed and how they are saved—becomes as much a part of their effect as their rhythm or their BPM.

Uproot is at its best and most resonant when Clayton is out in the field, tracking down the physical origin of today’s music, whether that means visiting a town in Monterey, Mexico, to interview a 17-year-old bedroom producer of tribal ranch techno or browsing the stalls of Moroccan public markets.

In the latter case, Clayton gives an unexpected material signature to otherwise ephemeral MP3 culture. “The inorganic tang of injection-molded plastics off-gassing complex, probably carcinogenic polymer molecules mingles with sweat and diesel exhaust,” he writes. “Find the sellers of cheap plastic and you’ll have found the sellers of music, because for most of the world music is only worth as much as the plastic it comes delivered on.”

[Images: Jace Clayton at work; photos by Erez Avissar, via NPR].

Questions of preservation, economic control, and cultural power interlace throughout the book, but Clayton manages to ground these in examples of samples—Sting profiting from P. Diddy, say—and software, such as the now-ubiquitous Autotune mentioned earlier, originally developed as a seismic tool for oil exploration.

Clayton remains both attention-addled and unusually focused, zooming in to track, with forensic detail, the unlikely paths a specific remix followed from a Berlin apartment to becoming an online dancing meme, before he abruptly changes station and moves on to new ground. Later, for example, Clayton shifts from the impossible task of preserving an ever-growing ocean of MP3s washing around online to thoughts about why sending golden phonographs to space with the Voyager mission—intergalactic file-sharing—wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

In any case, what’s particularly great about the book is that it wasn’t simply written from the comfort of Clayton’s home, an introvert’s report from too many hours spent downloading vast catalogs of exotic sounds; instead, Uproot is a road book, part field guide, part treasure map, a demonstration project to show that all music is made somewhere and that Clayton is unusually good at locating it.

Sounds in Detention

[Image: Score for a “soundtrack to a Catalan prison” by Gruff Rhys and Roger Paez i Blanch].

For those of you in Wales next month, there will be an interesting collaboration between musician Gruff Rhys and architect Roger Paez i Blanch, called “Breaking and Entry.”

It is described as the “soundtrack to a Catalan prison,” one designed by Paez i Blanch’s firm, and it relies on an unusual graphic score “based on a map of the prison that registers the emergent life that also occupies the building.”

[Image: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

The design of the penitentiary itself was also documented in a book recently published by Actar.

I’ve included some photos of the facilities here, but you can see many more over at Dezeen.


[Images: Mas d’Enric Penitentiary].

Finally, for more details about the composition’s debut in Wales next month, see here.

(Thanks to Ed Keller for the tip!)

“500 Years of Utopia” Opens

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

There are two quick thing coming up this week that I wanted to post about:

1) At 7pm on Wednesday, November 9, I’ll be moderating a public conversation with an amazing group of Los Angeles-based designers, architects, and critics at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. This is part of a larger evening, organized around the theme of “500 Years of Utopia.”

2016, after all, is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, and we’ll be launching a small exhibition looking back at More’s influence on political, urban, and even architectural thought—but more on that, below.

[Image: “500 Years of Utopia” title card; design by David Mellen].

Kicking things off at 7pm on Wednesday evening, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne will be interviewing Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century; they’ll be discussing the relationship between émigré composers in Southern California, the music of exile, and “utopian thought.”

This will be followed by a panel discussion featuring urbanist and landscape architect Mia Lehrer; games designer and critic Jeff Watson; architect and writer Victor Jones; and critic Christopher Hawthorne.

We’ll be looking at the role of utopia in contemporary design, with a specific focus on questions of access. We can talk about utopia all we like, in other words—but utopia for whom? In other words, if utopia is already here, who has access to it? Who has the right to design utopia? Who has the right to critique it?

[Image: Early type experiment for “500 Years of Utopia”; design by David Mellen].

Last but not least, we’ll hear from journalist and critic Claire Hoffman, who will introduce us to her newly published memoir Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.

The event is free and open to the public; however, please RSVP if you hope to attend. More information is available at that link, including parking, street address, and more.

[Image: Thomas More’s Utopia].

The second thing I wanted to mention, then, is in the same place and on the same evening, but at 5:30pm. We will be kicking off our brand new exhibition, in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, called “500 Years of Utopia.”

For 500 years, utopia—a word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe the ideal city—has been used as popular shorthand for a perfect world and lies at the heart of the Western political imagination. But what does it really mean today in the context of 21st-century urbanism, especially in a megacity like Los Angeles that has been the setting for utopian and dystopian thinking almost since its founding? A new exhibition of materials from the USC Libraries’ collections explores these questions, the history of utopian thinking, and the fine line between utopia and dystopia.

In addition to a wealth of utopian/dystopian material taken directly from the USC Libraries, we’ve used an interesting graphic approach of overlaid, differently colored exhibition text, one (in red) offering a utopian interpretation of the media and objects on display, the other (in blue) offering a dystopian spin. Decoder glasses will be on hand to assist…

Please stop by for our opening reception at 5:30pm on Wednesday, November 9. It, too, is free and open to the public, and it segues directly into the event that kicks off at 7pm.

More information is available over at USC.

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).

Horse Skull Disco

[Image: Horse skull via Wikimedia].

If you’re looking to install a new sound system in your house, consider burying a horse skull in the floor.

According to the Irish Archaeological Consultancy, the widespread discovery of “buried horse skulls within medieval and early modern clay floors” has led to the speculation that they might have been placed there for acoustic reasons—in other words, “skulls were placed under floors to create an echo,” we read.

Ethnographic data from Ireland, Britain and Southern Scandinavia attests to this practice in relation to floors that were in use for dancing. The voids within the skull cavities would have produced a particular sound underfoot. The acoustic skulls were also placed in churches, houses and, in Scandinavia especially, in threshing-barns… It was considered important that the sound of threshing carried far across the land.

They were osteological subwoofers, bringing the bass to medieval villages.

It’s hard to believe, but this was apparently a common practice: “the retrieval of horse skulls from clay floors, beneath flagstones and within niches in house foundations, is a reasonably widespread phenomenon. This practice is well attested on a wider European scale,” as well, even though the ultimate explanation for its occurrence is still open to debate (the Irish Archaeological Consultancy post describes other interpretations, as well).

Either way, it’s interesting to wonder if the thanato-acoustic use of horse skulls as resonating gourds in medieval architectural design might have any implications for how natural history museums could reimagine their own internal sound profiles—that is, if the vastly increased reverberation space presented by skulls and animal skeletons could be deliberately cultivated to affect what a museum’s interior sounds like.

[Image: Inside the Paris Natural History Museum; photo by Nicola Twilley].

Like David Byrne’s well-known project Playing the Building—”a sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of the building, is converted into a giant musical instrument”—you could subtly instrumentalize the bones on display for the world’s most macabre architectural acoustics.

(Via @d_a_salas. Previously on BLDGBLOG: Terrestrial Sonar).

London Bells / Urban Instruments

[Image: Outside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London; all photos by BLDGBLOG].

Before leaving London last week, I learned that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was offering walk-in tours for the duration of the Olympics, so Nicola Twilley and I headed out to see—and hear—what was on offer.

[Image: Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry].

I’d say, first off, that the tour is well worth it and that everyone on hand to help us along on the self-guided tour seemed genuinely pleased to have members of the public coming through. Second of all, if you have any interest at all in the relationship between cities and acoustics—say, the influence of bells on neighborhood identity or the subtle differences in city soundscapes based on different profiles moulded into church bells—then it’s a fabulous way to spend the afternoon.

We were there for nearly two hours, but I still felt like we were rushing.

[Image: Bell-making tools at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry].

In any case, the Foundry bills itself, and is apparently recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, as the oldest manufacturing company in Britain. They made Big Ben; they forged the first Liberty Bell; they created, albeit off-site, the absolutely massive 23-ton 2012 Olympic Bell; and, among thousands of other, less well-known projects, they even made the famed Bow bells whose ringing defines London’s Cockney stomping ground.

[Image: The ingredients of loam].

The self-guided tour took us from buckets of loam, used to shape the earthen moulds into which “bell metal” (an alloy of copper and tin) is later poured during casting, all the way to the mind-blowing final sight and sound of the bell-tuning station.

Here are some quick photos, then I’ll come back to the tuning process.

[Images: Interior of the Foundry, plus some of the casting/pouring equipment. In the bottom two images, the frames visible on the back wall were used to cast, from left to right, Big Ben; the original Liberty Bell; the Bow bells; the enormous 2012 Olympic Bell; and another bell, on the far right, that I unfortunately don’t remember].

The next sequence shows the casting of hand bells. We were basically in the right place at the right time to see this process, as the gentleman pictured—whose denim vest had written on it in black marker, “I’m not mad, I’m mental, HA! HA! HA!”—pulled apart the suitcase-like casting frame seen in these photos to reveal gorgeously bright golden bells sitting silently inside.

Using powder, almost like something you’d use to sugar a cake, and an air-hose, he removed the bells from their loamy matrix and got the frame ready for another use.

[Image: The bells are revealed and powdered].

The whole thing was a kind of infernal combination of kilns and liquid metal, soundtracked by the sharp metallic ring of bells resonating in the background.

As the origin site for urban instruments—acoustic ornaments worn by the city’s architecture to supply a clockwork soundtrack that bangs and echoes over rooftops—the Foundry had the strange feel of being both an antique crafts workshop of endangered expertise (kept afloat almost entirely by commissions from churches) and a place of stunning, almost futuristic, design foresight.

In other words, the acoustic design of the city—something that isn’t even on the agenda of architecture schools today, considered, I suppose, too hard to model with Rhino—was taking place right there, and had been for centuries, in the form of vast ovens and casting frames out of which emerge the instruments—shining bells—that so resonantly redefine the experience of the modern metropolis.

So that brings us to the final stage of the Foundry tour, which was the tuning station.

[Images: Tuning a bell; note the shining flecks of metal on the floor, which have been scraped out of the bell in order to tune it. “Tuning” is thus a kind of mass reduction, or reductive sculpting].

Assuming I remembered this correctly, modern bells are tuned by having tiny bits of metal—mere flecks at a time—scraped or cut away from the inside. This produces an incredible texture of bright, polished grooves incised directly, even violently, into the metal; the visual effect is absolutely magical.

[Image: The grooved interior of a recently tuned bell; in the bottom image, note the word “tenor” written on the bell’s inner rim].

Even better, while these massive bells are rotating anti-clockwise on their turning plates, having their insides scraped away, they are actually ringing!

Deep below the abrasive droning roar of the bell turning you can make out the resonant tone of the bell itself. The effect was like listening to tuned rocks falling endlessly in a tumbler, polished into acoustically more beautiful versions of themselves. This process alone could make a new instrument: a full orchestra of bell-tuning stations, as if mining shaped metals for their sounds.

Finally, then, the tuning process is controlled by one of three ways, often used in combination. One uses software; you bang the bell with a mallet and the software tells you if it’s resonating at the right frequencies. The second method uses an oscilloscope, which looks like something straight out of a 1980s submarine-warfare movie.

[Image: As if looking for ghosts inside the bell, the oscilloscope spins and glows].

And the third is much more analogue, relying entirely on the tuner’s own sense of pitch and the use of tuning forks.

[Image: Tuning forks at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry].

At the risk of going on too long about this, there really was something almost indescribably beautiful about the tuning process: watching, and listening to, otherwise featureless metal surfaces be sculpted and inscribed from inside by an anti-clockwise machine as the weird circular howl of the bell grew gradually more distinct, more precisely pitched with every scraping away of unpolished metal.

Being, as you’ll know by now, prone to clichés, I can’t help but think of William Blake’s “Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution every time I enter an industrial facility these days, and a vision of some titanic factory somewhere in the pollution of a future era, spinning raw metal into bells, golden and shrieking things droning as if enspirited or possessed, is almost too fantastical to contemplate.

Anyway, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is open for walk-in tours, for £10 per adult, until the end of the 2012 Olympics, after which the tours go back to advance reservations only (and the ticket price goes up to £12). Enjoy!

Cathedral Scan

Artist Blake Carrington turns Gothic cathedrals into sound.

As Carrington explains it, his project Cathedral Scan—which will be performed live on Thursday, March 3, in the basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City—”translates the architectural plans of Gothic cathedrals into open-ended musical scores via custom software. Treating the plans as a kind of map, in the live performance Carrington navigates through them to create diverse rhythms, drones and textures.”

Groups of scanners filling the sonic spectrum may act in synch, forming a single harmonically-dense rhythm, or they may scan the plans at different speeds, resulting in complex polyrhythms. Each plan is treated as a modular score, with a distinct rhythm and timbre of its own. Also, by varying the speed and intensity of each scanning group, drone-like sounds may emerge based on the “resonant frequency” of the black and white plan.

Coming out later this month, March 2011, is an album version, on which Carrington’s work is “edited from a live concert in a large church space, and combines the direct signal created in software with the immense natural reverberation of the performance space.”

The video embedded above consists only of the “direct signal”—that is, “without spatial acoustics”—recorded during a concert in Montréal back in October 2009.

Of course, it’s difficult not to wonder what this might sound like applied to radically other architectural styles and structural types, from, say, the Seagram Building or the Forth Bridge to underground homes in Cappadocia. Further, it would be interesting to see this applied not just to plans or sections—not just to architectural representations—but to three-dimensional structures in real-time. Laser scans of old ruins turned from visual information to live sound, broadcast 24 hours a day on dedicated radio stations installed amidst the fallen walls of old temples, or acoustically rediscovering every frequency at which Mayan subwoofers once roared.

If you’re in NYC, be sure to check out Carrington’s concert.

(Thanks to Christophe Guignard, Sublamp, and Blake Carrington for the tip! Earlier: Listening to a machine made entirely from windows)

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).

Super Reef

[Image: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef].

A “vanished giant has reappeared in the rocks of Europe,” New Scientist writes. It extends “from southern Spain to eastern Romania, making it one of the largest living structures ever to have existed on Earth.”

This “bioengineering marvel” is actually a fossil reef, and it has resurfaced in “a vast area of central and southern Spain, southwest Germany, central Poland, southeastern France, Switzerland and as far as eastern Romania, near the Black Sea. Despite the scale of this buried structure, until recently researchers knew surprisingly little about it. Individual workers had seen only glimpses of reef structures that formed parts of the whole complex. They viewed each area separately rather than putting them together to make one huge structure.”

[Image: The reefs of Raiatea and Tahaa in the South Pacific; NASA/LiveScience].

In fact, Marine Matters, an online journal based in the Queen Charlotte Islands, thinks the reef was even larger: “Remnants of the reef can be found from Russia all the way to Spain and Portugal. Portions have even been found in Newfoundland. They were part of a giant reef system, 7,000km long and up to 60 meters thick which was the largest living structure ever created.”

[Image: The Pearl and Hermes Atoll, NW Hawaii, via NOAA Ocean Explorer].

The reef’s history, according to New Scientist:

About 200 million years ago the sea level rose throughout the world. A huge ocean known as the Tethys Seaway expanded to reach almost around the globe at the Equator. Its warm, shallow waters enhanced the deposition of widespread lime muds and sands which made a stable foundation for the sponges and other inhabitants of the reef. The sponge reef began to grow in the Late Jurassic period, between 170 and 150 million years ago, and its several phases were dominated by siliceous sponges.

Rigid with glass “created by using silica dissolved in the water,” this proto-reef “continued to expand across the seafloor for between 5 and 10 million years until it occupied most of the wide sea shelf that extended over central Europe.”

Thus, today, in the foundations of European geography, you see the remains of a huge, living creature that, according to H.P. Lovecraft, is not yet dead.

Wait, what—

“We do not know,” New Scientist says, “whether the demise of this fossil sponge reef was caused by an environmental change to shallower waters, or from the competition for growing space with corals. What we do know is that such a structure never appeared again in the history of the Earth.” (You can read more here).

For a variety of reasons, meanwhile, this story reminds me of a concert by Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki that I attended in London back in 2002 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. That night, Suzuki played a variety of instruments, including the amazing “Analapos,” which he’d constructed himself, and a number of small stone flutes, or iwabue.

The amazing thing about those flutes was that they were literally just rocks, hollowed out by natural erosion; Suzuki had simply picked them up from the Japanese beach years before. If I remember right, one of them was even from Denmark. He chose the stones based on their natural acoustic properties: he could attain the right resonance, hit the right notes, and so, we might say, their musical playability was really a by-product of geology and landscape design. An accident of erosion—as if rocks everywhere might be hiding musical instruments. Or musical instruments, disguised as rocks.

[Image: Saxophone valve diagram by Thomas Ohme].

But I mention these two things together because the idea that there might be a similar stone flute—albeit one the size and shape of a vast fossilized reef, stretching from Portugal to southern Russia—is an incredible thing to contemplate. In other words, locked into the rocks of Europe is the largest musical instrument ever made: awaiting a million more years of wind and rain, or even war, to carve that reef into a flute, a flute the size of a continent, a buried saxophone made of fossilized glass, pocketed with caves and indentations, reflecting the black light of uncountable eclipses until the earth gives out.

Weird European land animals, evolving fifty eons from now, will notice it first: a strange whistling on the edges of the wind whenever storms blow up from Africa. Mediterranean rains wash more dust and soil to the sea, exposing more reef, and the sounds get louder. The reef looms larger. Its structure like vertebrae, or hollow backbones, frames valleys, rims horizons, carries any and all sounds above silence through the reef’s reverberating latticework of small wormholes and caves. Musically equivalent to a hundred thousand flutes per square-mile, embedded into bedrock.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

Soon the reef generates its own weather, forming storms where there had only been breezes before; it echoes with the sound of itself from one end to the next. It wakes up animals, howling.

For the last two or three breeding groups of humans still around, there’s an odd familiarity to some of the reef-flute’s sounds, as if every two years a certain storm comes through, playing the reef to the tune of… something they can’t quite remember.

[Image: Sheridan Flute Company].

It’s rumored amidst these dying, malnourished tribes that if you whisper a secret into the reef it will echo there forever; that a man can be hundreds of miles away when the secret comes through, passing ridge to ridge on Saharan gales.

And then there’s just the reef, half-buried by desert, whispering to itself on windless days—till it erodes into a fine black dust, lost beneath dunes, and its million years of musicalized weather go silent forever.

Sound dunes

“Sand dunes in certain parts of the world are notorious for the noises they make,” New Scientist reports, “as sand avalanches down their sides. Some [dunes] emit low powerful booms, others sound like drum rolls or galloping horses, and some are even tuneful. These dune songs have been reported to last for up to 15 minutes and can sound as loud as a low-flying airplane.”

To test for the causes, properties, and other effects of these sand dune booms, “Stéphane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate.” There, Douady’s team “found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle.”

The transformation of a sand dune – and, by extension, the entire Sahara desert, indeed any desert – even, by extension, the rust deserts of Mars – into a musical instrument. Music of the spheres, indeed.

“When the sand avalanches, the grains jostle each other at different frequencies, setting up standing waves in the cascading layer, says Douady. These waves reinforce one another, making the layer vibrate like the surface of a loud speaker. ‘What’s funny is that in these massive dunes, only a thin layer of 2 or 3 centimetres is needed to set up the resonance,’ says Douady. ‘Soon all grains begin to vibrate in step.'”

Douady has so perfected his technique of dune resonance that he has now “successfully predicted the notes emitted by dunes in Morocco, Chile and the US simply by measuring the size of the grains they contain.” The music of the dunes, in other words, was determined entirely by the size, shape, and roughness of the sand grains involved, where excessive smoothness dampened the dunes’ sound.

I’m reminded of the coast of Inishowen, a peninsula south of Malin Head in the north of Ireland, where the rocks endlessly grind across one another in the backwash of heaving, metallic, grey Atlantic waves. Under constant pressure of the oceanic, the rocks carve into themselves and each other, chipping down over decades into perfectly polished and rounded spheres, columns, and eggs – as if Archimedean solids or the nested orbits of Kepler could be discovered on the Irish ocean foreshore –

– all glittering. The rocks, I later learned, were actually semi-precious stones, and I had a kind of weird epiphany, standing there above the hush and clatter of bejewelled rocks, rubbing and rubbed one to the other in the depopulated void of a coastal November. It was not a sound easy to forget.

Because the earth itself is already a musical instrument: there is “a deep, low-frequency rumble that is present in the ground even when there are no earthquakes happening. Dubbed the ‘Earth’s hum‘, the signal had gone unnoticed in previous studies because it looked like noise in the data.”

Elsewhere: “Competing with the natural emissions from stars and other celestial objects, our Earth sings like a canary – it drones on in a constant hum of a gazillion notes. If it were several octaves higher, and hence, audible to the human ear,” it could probably get recorded by the unpredictably omnidirectional antennas of ShortWaveMusic and… you could download the sound of the earth. Free Radio Interterrestrial. [Note: the “drones on” link, a sentence or two back, offers a contrary theory (published in 2000) about the origins of these planetary sound waves.]

Which, finally, brings us to Ernst Chladni and his Chladni figures, or: architectonic structures appearing in sand due to patterns of acoustic resonance. The architecture of sand, involving sound—or architecture through sound, involving sand. Silicon assuming structure, humming.

The gist of Chladni’s experiments involved spreading a thin layer of sand across a vibrating plate, changing the frequency at which the plate vibrated, and then watching the sand as it shivered round, forming regular, highly geometric patterns. Those patterns depended upon, and were formed in response to, whatever vibration frequency it was that Chladni chose.

So you’ve got sand, dune music, terrestrial vibration, some Chladni figures – one could be excused for wondering whether the earth, apparently a kind of carbon-ironic bell made of continental plates and oceanic resonators, is really a vast Chladni plate, vibrating every little mineral, every pebble, every grain of sand, perhaps every organic molecule, into complex, three-dimensional, time-persistent patterns for which we have no standard or even technique of measurement. Or maybe William Blake knew how to do it, or Pythagoras, or perhaps even Nikola Tesla, but…

The sound dunes continue to boom and shiver. The deserts roar. The continents hum.

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…