Hearing Perspective (Think with your Ears)
Since the Rennaisance we have had an agreed visual perspective, and language to speak acurately about images. This we still lack in the world of sound, where words fail us to even describe for instance the complex waveforms of an urban environment, much less what those sounds do to us and how they make us feel. We are lost in a storm of noise with no language for discussion.
Odland and Auinger are learning to make sense of the sound environment we live in by listening with attention, hearing, exploring, and attempting to understand the cultural waveform as a language. In a primarily visual culture where decisions and budgets are often arrived at through visual logic, we must note that thinking with your ears tells a very different story. Why does the MOMA sculpture garden, bastion of High Art sound like any taxi stand in midtown NYC? Why is an expensive "quiet" car quiet only when riding on the inside?
O+A collect, filter, and expand resonances found in nature and cities and try to unlock their meaning. These sounds are often shut out of our mental picture of a space as "noise". By listening to and studying these noises, they become useful sound sources. Closer observation of these sounds often reveals a hidden music of interesting details, useful tones, and harmonics, even a potential melodic interest. These we collect and archive as an Alphabet of Sounds.
O+A have developed a set of compositional tools to sculpt and transform our sonic environment. These tools allow us to extract the harmonic material from city noise, filter it, shape it and play it back in the moment to transform the feelings, atmosphere, and sound design of that environment. We are able to extract the melodies and make the hidden voices hearable. This alters the psychoacoustics of a site, shifts the emotional landscape, allows the people present to perceive the world through their "musical" brain instead of the part which decodes noise.
O+A do not import exotic sounds to their installation sites. Instead they distill a musical information from the ambient city noise. The compositionally chosen overtones of the collecting resonators produce a rich harmonious chord which transforms the perception of the space enhancing its aesthetic value in profound and unexpected ways.
Enlarging the selected musical resonances that are found at the site to a scale observable by the public requires a series of aesthetic and compositional choices. What is the usage pattern of the space and how can we create a perceptual shift that would enhance this in a harmonious way? Where, within the architecture, is the acoustical focal point? Which visual aspects of the site create a useful framework for listening?
When we make large scale sound installations in public spaces, our starting point is the basic environmental soundscape of the site. Architecture, history, acoustics, and social dynamics of a given space are taken into account. Often there is a large discrepancy between the visual and sonic aesthetic. A carefully planned visual aesthetic of serenity, focus, and power can easily exist within the sonic chaos of cars, helicopters, muzak, and emergency sirens. The challenge is to regain information which our hearing can decode from that chaos, and re-invigorate our hearing environment with that harmonious version of reality.
Re-tuning the Ambient Soundscape, the evolution of tuning projects
Linz, Garden of Time-Dreaming, 1990
Planet Speaker, transforming car sounds to music 1990
The first exploration we made into this topic was dictated by necessity. In our work for the 1990 Ars Electronica, "Garten der ZeiTraume," we wished to create an unusually delicate sonic transformation of the garden Schloss Linz by creating an invisible web of sound that gave the feeling of falling through centuries of time. We found our imaginations blocked, however, by the ever-present sound of traffic which kept saying to the ears "Post-War, Post-War, Post-War...". Responding to that aspect of the environmental soundscape, we created on the hillside overlooking the main commuter traffic an installation to transform the sound of cars into something more interesting and mysterious. A parabolic sound collector with a mic pointed at the road below collected the traffic sound which was "Vocoded" or "morphed," with water, wind, electric guitar, and other sounds. The "morphed" sounds were projected through five speakers, designed by us and built by John Hansen. These ceramic "Planet Speakers" sent a focused directional beam of sound up the hillside, arriving at the listener just before the ordinary traffic noise did. This "masking" formed a protective barrier to the intrusive car noise and allowed us to design the rest of the garden's sound atmosphere as we had planned. It also became an attraction on its own, as the voices of different motorcars seemed to be released through the technology on a different level of perception.
Rome: Traffic Mantra, 1992
Roman Amphora (mic inside) resonating traffic sounds
Rome in 1992, O+A made a sound installation
in support of Peter Erskine's solar spectrum work, Secrets of the Sun. The
amazingly rich visual aesthetic of the Trajan's Forum site with its
famous proto-Roman arched Aula by the architect Apollodoris was,
to our ears, completely over-ridden by the bombardment of the noise of Rome
traffic passing by on the busy Via 4 Novembre. Trajans Forum had now
become a band shell for amplifying Fiats and Vespas. Rather than escalate
and add a still louder sound of our own, we decided to use this ever-present
20th century sound as our basic material and to seek a method of transforming
An exploration of the available sound resources at the site included dropping a stereo mic into a Roman Amphora. While the sound inside the amphora was as all the bells of Rome ringing, on withdrawing the mic it was merely traffic noise. This clay vessel from slave-powered Rome had become in our fossil-fueled century an acoustically-activated synthesizer, trapping and resonating the tones of the traffic into a complex pool of shifting harmonics. Low tones of busses would activate a deep fundamental, passing Vespas would make high overtone chords, emergency sirens became solo melodic voices when heard within the echoing clay confines. We secured permission from the archeologist in charge of the Forum to use some of the vessels, and then chose for our use four out of about two-hundred and fifty amphorae, each of which had a different character to its overtone series.We used the traffic sound resonating inside the amphorae, filtered it, amplified it, and projected back in real-time, on-site, a musically tuned version of the urban noise. We chose as our focal point the archway over the old Roman road which was once used as a main entrance to the Forum. There we hung a single ceramic "Planet Speaker," powered by solar panels. The speakers focused beam of tuned traffic resonance played across the curved surfaces of the old Roman architecture and transformed the sonic ambiance in a harmonic way. What we could not have foreseen is that, at the exact time the "Traffic Mantra" began to play, an atmosphere of calm descended on the international crew of workers who, up to that point, had been arguing avidly in many languages.
NYC: Infrastructure Harmonics 1992
Grand Central Terminal Recordings 1992
working in Rome, we wanted to explore the possibilities of another richly
noisy city, New York. Challenged by John Hanhardt of the Whitney Museum
to find the metaphor for Amphora in the United States, we decided to study
New York's transportation hub, Grand Central Station. We became obsessed
with the theory that there was a standing wave produced by trains, traffic,
ventilation fans, electrical hums, lighting, and air conditioning that
was producing a harmonic series and that the terminal itself with
its giant vaulted ceiling was, like the amphora in Rome, resonating.
Salzburg, Tor Noise, 1992
Sam Auinger mzkinb ibinaural the Sigmund Tor in Salzburg
As our interest in modifying ambient urban sounds developed, we were working on an idea as yet unrealized, to transform four resonances of Salzburg Austria into a real-time installation. Doppler had done much work in Salzburg. This influenced our choice to make a binaural recording of passing rush hour traffic in the Sigmund Tor, a 17th century tunnel through the Monchsberg which is a huge vertical slab of rock with a castle on top. Later we removed the cars and trucks with computer filtering leaving only the resonance of the tunnel and its Doppler shifting melody. The site we were studying, Furtwengler Park, is over an underground river, the Almkanal, which we discovered by listening in wonder to a G3 and C# tone coming up through a grating in the lawn. The hidden river was connected to the drain system in the park which were funcioning as resonating tubes producing a C#Mahor drone. We felt that we were discovering hidden inner voices of the city caused by architecture, infrastructure, traffic and water.
Berlin: "Lost Neighborhood" 1993
Resonance installation at the Kongresshalle in the Tiergarten, Berlin, 1993
1993 in Berlin we were once again making a sound installation in support
of Peter Erskin's Secrets of the Sun. This time the site was the proud
1956 parabolic structure donated by the United States at the height of
the Cold War paranoia. The Kongresshalle is located on John Foster Dulles
Allee, due west of the Reichstag, and looks like nothing so much as an
eagles beak taking a bite out of Berlin. First we listened to the sounds
existing in the area; intense traffic, bell tower, fountains, picnics,
people, cars, busses. In other words, the sounds we heard were intense
but normal large city noise amplified and reflected by the colossal
post-war cement monument that penetrated the park-like visual environment.
Tuning Tube Video, 1995
Tuning Tube 79th+Madison, NYC
making several installations where our ideas of tuned resonance were accessible
to any curious passers-by, we decided to see if we could capture some
of these principles on video. In this way, our work could be presented
to friends and other interested minds simply by pushing a button on a
VCR, especially in cases where travel to an actual site might prove difficult
or impossible. To this end, we made a portable tuning tube of 3 sections
of HPI plastic which had the interesting visual property of being like
a black mirror on the inside. We added a video camera to document the
sources of these extraordinary sounds. (Plus, we had heard that seeing
MAX RES, O+A, 1995
anthropomorphic sculpture releases tuned harmonics in railway controlled over internet
an installation by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger which linked the Linz
Railway Terminal , the Train Platform, and the Ars Electronica Festival
in a harmonic and melodic interface of human, machine, and information.
The installation brought up questions of Public and Private Space (which
space is in the headphones if what is being heard is a simultaneous transmission
of a public area across town? If this is interactive, then why can't those
people on the screen be controlled (because they are real people, not
a video game)? The "sense ratio": our choice was 30-to-70, eyes-to-
Nice "City Ears" 1996
Odland beaming sound into the MAMAC Plaza for Manca Festival
Ears" made architecture shapes observable as music by beaming extremely
focused sounds at the Museum of Modern Art in Nice and activating a 3-D
soundspace of reflections.
HIVE MUSIC, NYC, 1997
map of tube locations in Chelsea, NYC
HIVE MUSIC began as an installation called CLOUD CHAMBER at The Kitchen in NYC, 1997. It was there that Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger first played a citys resonance as a musical instrument and realized theat they were hearing a new kind of muic, a music of cultural listening predicted by John Cage, a music generated by the sounds of the economy, music of the human hive.
"Ours is not a dance about honey ... we're hearing the money dance, the sound of cash flow as it generates the industrial age soundscape, the sound of the symphonic human swarm: HIVE MUSIC. Stop lights- go lights- swimming overtone clusters as Mazda passes Volvo passes Ford passes Chevy. Low digeridu drones of the idling bus. Rush hour raves. Midnight motorcycle ragas. The incredible violence and variety of fossil-fueled economy baffles the brain when heard unfiltered, but heard through our information age processing it's THE MUSIC OF THE HUMAN HIVE." Bruce Odland
"From the Kitchen performance space the pair turned the sounds of the city into eerily beautiful music. The impatient hum of the West Side Highway filled the Kitchen like ominous music from a horror film while 10th Avenue buzzed like a musical swarm of bees" Neil Strauss-New York Times
Bridge,1998 to present
sounds of traffic real-time into music. Passing cars,trucks, and humans,
using the Highway #2 overpass cause a sympathetic resonance in two tuning
tubes to generate harmonic series. For three years now, the town of North
Adams has been resonating in the Key of C. What had been a noise barrier
between the town and the museum campus has become instead a gateway of
architecture and resonance, a public space worth visiting.