New York City of Sound

In 1999, New York-based sound artist Stephen Vitiello was awarded a five-month studio residency on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center. For his project World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd, he taped contact mics to the studio windows, “picking up the sounds outside of passing planes, helicopters, storm clouds and traffic, the building itself swaying in the wind.”
You can listen to a short NPR piece about the project (and find other sounds here); meanwhile, Vitiello was recently interviewed in Artkrush, if you want a bit more information.
But this reminds me of two other, related projects: 1) I read a review once in The Wire about a guy who taped contact mics to his window to record the sound of snowflakes hitting the glass – a recording which was then released on CD. Unfortunately, I can’t find any information about this at all.
2) Extensive seismic readings were taken by Columbia University during the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th – the Precambrian bedrock of Manhattan was rumbling as the two towers collapsed, and this showed up on Columbia’s seismometers. Sound artist Mark Bain then transformed this information into audio files, so you can actually listen to the wounded, melancholic howl of Manhattan as its two tallest buildings fall to the ground.
Ultimately, Bain produced “a 74-minute recording of the ground vibrations of the World Trade Centre’s collapse and contiguous mayhem,” The Guardian writes. “It certainly does not make easy listening. The piece begins with a low, disconcerting rumble and proceeds through a range of fluctuating sounds. Bain says the vibration of the towers as they were hit by the hijacked passenger planes sounds like ‘tuning forks’.” He then seems quick to add that he “sees nothing morally questionable in making an artwork out of the event.”
“I guess I’m the black sheep,” he says, “the anti-architect.”
If you have RealPlayer, you can download a 2-minute excerpt.
Another vaguely related story, of course, is William Basinski

(This post was extensively updated on 26 January. For more on urban soundscapes see Orchestra of Bridges, London Instrument, Sound Dunes, and – an old favorite – musicalized weather events).

11 thoughts on “New York City of Sound”

  1. …ago about a guy who taped contact mics to his window to record the sound of snowflakes hitting the glass…

    Wasent’t it John Hudak ? I have a piece from called ‘snow’ (Mp3 only ?).

    By the way (=> your post about singing bridges) do you know John’s work about Brooklyn Bridge (1998 – Brooklyn Bridge – CD) ?

    I (toy.bizarre) also did a full year audio stream from my window around 2001-2002 (Check kaon website) including periods of “sound of snowflakes hitting the glass”. There are some pieces composed with that, but still unreleased at the moment.

  2. Have you been to They have a 7 minute excerpt of Vitiello’s WTC peice, plus many more by him. Not to mention scads and scads of work by other historic and contemporary sound artists. It’s an essential website.

  3. Mark Bain it is! Thank you so much!

    The above link, in its totality:

    The day the earth screamed

    Mark Bain has turned the seismological data from the September 11 attacks in New York into a musical composition. It’s not easy listening, says Mark Oliver

    13 February 2004

    “It was important to get the sound between the two towers going down … It’s kind of eerie.”
    So says Mark Bain, a 37-year-old Seattle-born “vibrations artist” who has recently completed a CD project using seismological data from New York during the September 11 2001 terror attacks.
    Bain, who has been based in Amsterdam for the last four years, says: “I got the data from Columbia University, which records seismological data in that area. They run the earthquake-listening stations in New York and New England.”
    Columbia University was the closest station to Manhattan, but was still 34km away – which meant the sound was a very low rumble.
    “The data was at extremely low frequencies, so I brought it up to higher octaves, 2,000 times what it was … I sped it up … then I stretched it out so you can hear it. It’s very heavy.”
    The result of his 9/11 project is a 74-minute recording of the ground vibrations of the World Trade Centre’s collapse and contiguous mayhem. It certainly does not make easy listening. The piece begins with a low, disconcerting rumble and proceeds through a range of fluctuating sounds.
    Bain says the vibration of the towers as they were hit by the hijacked passenger planes sounds like “tuning forks”.
    Between the first and second impacts there are moments when there is just “the sound of the Earth”, which he says is around seven hertz. The human ear cannot hear sounds below 20 hertz.
    Bain says his work is not “another memorial” to 9/11 and sees nothing morally questionable in making an artwork out of the event.
    The attacks have been analysed in all sorts of ways, and listening to the sound of the Earth’s vibrations provides another perspective. Bain says one of his preoccupations is the “screamingness of the earth”, which is constantly active, pulsating with countless vibrations we cannot hear.
    As well as marshalling seismological information, increasing it and stretching it out, Bain has also created a series of installations in which he attaches oscillators to buildings to make them vibrate, the sounds enveloping a live audience.
    “I have to tell them about five times: what you’re hearing is the building’s vibrations. The people that come to my shows can put some headphones on and just zone into the building,” he says.
    A common response is a feeling that the building is going to fall down. Bain comes from a family of architects. “I guess I’m the black sheep,” he says, “the anti-architect.”
    One of his areas of interest is the “connective tissue” between the buildings and the humans at the show or installation, whose own bodies contribute to the sum of vibrations.
    He has also vibrated bridges: steel bridges sound similar to bells; wooden ones are more like a big marimba or xylophone.
    To the uninitiated, the sounds are very experimental, some might say unlistenable. But Bain feels much of his work could accurately be called music, as he does orchestrate his sounds. Bain is also a member of a band with his brother called the Mutant Data Orchestra. In his installations he often works with “infrasonics”, sounds below the human hearing threshold, which in the past have interested the CIA and the Soviet Union for riot control or offensive weaponry.
    Bain says: “[From infrasonics] I really get strange reactions at my shows. It’s weird, people move into another mental state. A lot of ghost apparitions, ghost feelings, are related to infrasounds, say in a building’s ventilation system.”
    Infrasound can induce nervousness and anxiety, even a desire to go to the toilet. He says he once invited people to spend a few minutes in a container he was pumping with infrasonic sound. “I could take it to the frequencies where your eyeballs would oscillate, or blur.” For all Bain’s artistic flourishes, there is a spine of impressive knowledge about sound. He has studied sound at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More recently he been busy in Europe, putting on shows and installations. He made a boat vibrate in Rotterdam and last week did an installation in Paris.

  4. Peter, what does the Minnesota seismic/music transformer actually do? Can it transform seismic data in real time into a musical composition? In other words, can you “listen” to the California fault systems? Every little stress and movement.

    I don’t know if you know the book The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin – about earthquakes, seismology, and the (pseudo-)science of earthquake prediction – but there are a number of really interesting cases in it of people finding “evidence” of seismic strain by listening to radio static at the extreme low end of the dial – “a symphony of static coming from an elaborate array of radios tuned between stations at the low end of the dial.” (p. 211)

    I’m not advocating or confirming that observation, mind you, simply putting it in the context of audio art, and the use of seismic information to generate “music.”

    In any case, I’ve written about that book in an older post: Earthquake Body Radio. Would love to hear that thing you’ve got in Minnesota, meanwhile.

  5. And Francisco Lopez really interests me – he has a quote I love, from when he was field-recording Costa Rican rain forests, something like: what you call the sound of the wind is actually the sound of branches and leaves.

    Which is like an Escher print, suddenly reversing everything, the background becomes the foreground. Or a Zen koan.

    Anyway, he’s an interesting guy.

    As far as John Hudak goes, I can’t yet find any specific info on the snow piece – but if someone out there has an old issue of The Wire from ca. Jan/Feb 2002, it was reviewed in that somewhere, maybe toward the beginning of the issue if I remember. But maybe it was Hudak; I’ll keep looking. And I’ll check out your links, too, ingeos.

    Finally, Joseph, I do know Ubu but don’t utilize it nearly enough. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Geoff, as far as I can tell, the installation at the Science Museum of Minnesota uses real time seismic data (from an internet source, I suppose) to direct hammer strikes on one of the marimba-like instruments that hang from the ceiling. The resonating tubes are the dominant feature, and they are arranged differently in each grouping. One set hangs in the shape of a U, with the tubes all parallel. Another set hangs down in a straight line, with each tube perpendicular to the tube above it.

    One set uses wooden bars to produce the notes. Another uses metal bars. I forget what the third set uses.

    Rather than creating a piece of music, the notes appear to be random, in the way that wind chimes are random. The notes vary in intensity. Some are soft and others loud — relating to the intesity of the seismic activity.

    Before the museum opened, I happened to be around when the installation was being tested. Someone had connected a keyboard and was playing music. I’d love to hear that again.

    You can see it in the upper left hand corner of the photo on this page:

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