Northern Sonic

[Image: Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait, source of the “ping”].

The “mysterious ‘ping’ sound” occurring beneath the waters of Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait is now under official investigation.

“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”

To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”

In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.

No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign military sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.

[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].

The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking building whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them of what cause—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.

One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.

A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.

And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.

(Via Atlas Obscura).

In Case You Missed Them

There are a few books I wanted to mention here at the height of the holiday season, not because they’re new or even necessarily recent but because, selfishly, I simply wish more people had read them. If you’re looking for an extra gift, or just a last-minute surprise, for anyone with an interest in architecture, landscape, archaeology, acoustics, geopolitics, history, and more, here are eight titles to consider.

(1) The Strait Gate: Thresholds and Power in Western History by Daniel Jütte (Yale University Press)—This is an academic work, in both tone and approach, but of the ideal kind: nearly every page had something I wanted to underline, write down, or scramble to look up elsewhere. Put simply, The Strait Gate is a history of the door, but, as Jütte shows, this ultra-quotidian architectural detail—the dividing line between inside and outside—has political, psychological, Constitutional, philosophical, mythological, narrative, cultural, and even material implications that are easy to overlook. Whether it’s a controversial order that “all door handles and knobs be removed from homes and shops” so that the metal could be melted down for war materiel, divine gateways as described in the Book of Revelation, or the resonant phenomenon of Torschlusspanik—“panic of gate closure,” aka a fear of being locked out—Jütte’s book is a superb example of how we can still look at architecture afresh.

(2) The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press)—What did cultures without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge think of the monstrous skeletons and fossilized bones they occasionally unearthed? Quite a lot, as it happens. It turns out that huge chunks of human mythology, including the existence of dragons and the idea of an extinct race of titanic super-human ancestors, can all be traced back to misinterpretations of paleontology. Mayor’s writing is casually engaging—even quite funny, at times—and the book’s many examples of ancient human societies encountering monstrous, inexplicable, and possibly otherworldly things hidden in the earth stuck with me long after reading it.

(3) The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox (W.W. Norton)—If you have even a passing interest in sound, this is the book to read. Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer, introduces readers to sonic phenomena around the world, both naturally occurring and artificially induced, from the frozen surface of Russia’s Lake Baikal to Stone Age tombs in rural England. There are examples of sound art, acoustic science, and even landscape-scale auditory effects that easily justify the subtitle, “sonic wonders of the world.” This would pair well with David Toop’s Ocean of Sound, for those of you interested not just in acoustics but in avant-garde composition and ambient music, as well.

(4) The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere (Harvard University Press)—This slim book, part of classicist Mary Beard’s excellent (but, sadly, now hibernating) “Wonders of the World” series for Harvard University Press, hit so many sweet spots for me. Author Cathy Gere convincingly shows how Mediterranean archaeological discoveries over the course of the 19th century helped to shape an emerging European mythos of the glories of war and historical empire. These same emphases lent themselves extremely well, however, to tragic and grotesque distortions that soon fed into the twin ideologies of Nazism and 20th-century fascism. Along the way, Gere writes, Classical discoveries misinterpreted by modern biases helped to justify British involvement in World War I. Gere’s book includes a brief, beautiful, and monumentally sad description of young, Homer-quoting scholars being shipped off to war to fight a rising evil from the East—only to be annihilated in the sodden trenches of the Somme. The Tomb of Agamemnon is probably one of my favorite ten books of the past decade; no other book I’ve read in that time conveys the true political stakes of archaeological research and the clear and obvious risks in distorting history for ideological ends.

(5) Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Anchor)—It’s a little disingenuous to suggest that this widely publicized book has been overlooked, but Lawrence in Arabia is nonetheless an uncannily well-timed history of the post-World War I Middle East and well worth taking the time to read. I was utterly absorbed by it for nearly a week. Part military adventure, part geopolitical biography of Lawrence of Arabia, part soul-crushing alternative history of a region that could have been—complete with agonizing descriptions of the infamous assault on Gallipoli—this book will make you see the entire 20th century differently, up to and including our own century’s Iraq War and the rise of ISIS.

(6) Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (Granta)—I mentioned this book in a recent post and I would recommend it again. Map of a Nation tells the story of the British Ordnance Survey, the institute’s original geopolitical context, and the experimental cartographic tools it used to make its imperial surveys more accurate. For anyone interested in geography, maps, landscape, or British history, Hewitt’s book is a must-read.

(7) Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley (Grove/Atlantic)—You don’t need to be interested in the wonkish details of the telephone system to be amazed by the weirdness of Exploding the Phone, Phil Lapsley’s introduction to so-called phone phreaking. On one level, it’s a story of bored teenagers using synthesized sound and DIY home electronics to hack the global telephone network; on another, it’s a story with hugely metaphoric, almost occult undertones. The phone system’s diffuse and labyrinthine system of “inward operators,” robotic mechanical test numbers, and secret military phone exchanges—to name only a few ingredients—takes on the air of something invented by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison: teens encountering a world of numerological connection and mechanical intelligence through handheld receivers in the long afternoons of the 1960s and 70s. So good.

(8) Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwarth (Simon & Schuster)—The only thing that makes me pause before recommending Ben Hellwarth’s Sealab right now is that a brand new paperback edition is due out in June 2017; but, that aside, I heartily endorse this one. Imagine Archigram teaming up with a secretive branch of the U.S. military to invent an utterly bonkers new version of human civilization on the ocean floor, and you’ve roughly pictured what this book is about. Whether it’s describing what were, in effect, moon bases at the bottom of the sea or bizarre experiments with farm animals, submerged ecological research stations or Cold War espionage in the Sea of Okhotsk, Sealab is as much outsider architectural history as it is a maritime geopolitical thriller. At the very least, preorder the forthcoming paperback if you want to wait before diving in.

Finally, it’s super-obnoxious to end with my own book, but if you’re looking for something to read this winter—or if you need a gift for someone who can be hard to shop for—consider picking up a copy of A Burglar’s Guide to the City. It’s a mix of true crime, architectural theory, and first-person reporting, from a Chicago lock-picking club to flying with the LAPD’s Air Support Division, from an architect who became the most prolific bank robber of the 19th century to fake apartments run by the British police. A Burglar’s Guide includes interviews with a Toronto burglar known for using the city’s fire code to help pick his next target, with renowned architect Bernard Tschumi, with game designers, and with FBI Special Agents, among others, and the whole thing is currently being adapted for TV by CBS Studios. Check it out, if you get the chance and let me know what you think.

The Silence of the Bells

[Image: Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Citing lack of new business and a changing marketplace, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has put itself up for sale, the Financial Times reports.

“We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after 43 years of negotiation,” company owner Alan Hughes is quoted as saying. “That’s an example of the timescale we are working on—at least 10 years between order and delivery is normal.”

[Image: The beautiful, gleaming interior of a newly tuned church bell; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

However, the Financial Times adds, “the business has faced two other structural challenges. Bells, unlike modern devices, are made to last centuries. The other weakness of the company is that Whitechapel’s main customer, the Church of England, is in decline with congregations in the UK halving in the past 40 years.”

Check out BLDGBLOG’s visit to the Foundry back in 2012.

The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).

Marine Acoustic Zones

Outside looks at the idea of “acoustic sanctuaries” in the sea, designed to help marine life communicate free of “anthropogenic noise,” whether created by military sonar or commercial shipping. Meanwhile, how much would I love to visit an “acoustic sanctuary” on land—a landscape deliberately cleared of “anthropogenic noise”—almost like the sound gardens and acoustic forestry of a designer like David Benqué.

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).

Forest Megaphone

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

These architectural objects are “gigantic wooden megaphones” for the forest, part of an acoustic installation in Estonia’s gorgeous Pähni Nature Centre for amplifying the sounds of the landscape.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

“According to interior architect Hannes Praks,” we read in a newly published press release, “who leads the Interior Architecture Department of the [Estonian Academy of Arts] that initiated the installation project, the three-metre diameter megaphones will operate as a ‘bandstand’ for the forest around the installation, amplifying the sounds of nature.”

The actual design is by a student named Birgit Õigus.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Part building, part furniture, part recreational folly, they’re meant to focus visitor attention on the smallest acoustic details of the site—rainfall, branches brushing against one another in the breeze, distant footsteps, thunder.

[Image: Photos by Tõnu Tunnel].

Sit in them, read books, whisper to friends, listen to birds.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Not having visited these in person, I can’t speak to their performance—i.e. whether they function as planned—and the relatively orderly placement of each structure in the woods might very well lead to some unfortunately conservative acoustic effects.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nonetheless, it’s a great idea for a project, and the geometric simplicity of the stained timber frame is compelling.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Of course, these bring to mind the so-called “acoustic mirrors” of coastal Britain that we looked at here more than a decade ago.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

In turn, makes me wonder how these forest megaphones might appear six or seven decades from now, when small groups of hikers stumble upon the moss-covered forms of this old acoustic infrastructure, trying to determine amongst themselves if the strange audio effects and interrupted echoes they notice still filtering through the wooden forms are a curious accident or an engineered goal.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

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).