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

In 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. Trajan’s 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 it.
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 speaker’s 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

After 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.
Why could we not hear this? The theory is that a single set of ears is unable to hear this chord, the scale of the sound being too large to perceive. The waves are too long and the physical distances between harmonics too great. So we synchronized two DAT (digital audio tape) recorders in the center of the hall, being, then, separated in space but not in time. Bruce walked the path of the commuters going to the trains and back while Sam stayed in the center of the terminal. Later, when we synchronized these recordings and listened as if with four ears and two perspectives at once, the resonating chord immediately appeared. This chord is comprised of train motors at the fundamental resonated down the long underground tubes joining the main terminal, air-conditioning resonated at the fifth, fans at the octave, with a sub-harmonic produced by the giant ventilation fans on the roof. Remove either of the two channels and the chord disappeared again. Grand Central Terminal is like a huge resonating instrument which plays a shifting harmonic structure — an audio read-out of New York City’s transportation hub.


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

In 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.
We chose to use a resonating tuning tube of 4 meters in length at the bus stop located at the main entrance. The tube's interior reinforced a clear overtone series and reduced all incoming sounds to those possible intervals. Our rhythmic structure was the arrival and departure of busses which activated the tube’s fundamental and first octave overtone every five-to-ten minutes. A tambura-like drone was provided by the fountain in the reflecting pool nearby. Occasional interludes of people coming and going, or waiting for the bus provided melodic interest as their voices and footsteps were scanned and distributed on the upper partials. We tuned the position of the microphone in the tube to the flat 7th, giving the whole a sort of blues scale.
For several days we considered possibilities for the position of the speaker which would re-introduce this tuned resonance to the site. Finally, we chose to use a Planet Speaker on the cement floor of the plaza, pointed up at the parabolic cement roof. Since the beam of sound the Planet Speaker produces is very directional, a listener could stand right next to it with the speaker almost at her feet and the sound still seemed to emanate from the arched roof above; its first reflection. There, with very little power from the amps, we could use the parabolic architecture to amplify the sound. Walking around the site and hearing this beam of tuned resonance coupled with the architecture changed the perception of the site, making the dominating shape of the parabolic roof seem to float like a wing.
This form of composing with resonance, speakers, architecture and live input of a city as a sound source to generate all the sounds has one main benefit. It continually refreshes itself. It is never the same. As an interface, it is always changing in response to its sound environment — with the traffic, visitors, season, weather, and with the time of day. It transforms the already present interplay of elements in the sound environment into perceivable information.

Tuning Tube Video, 1995

Tuning Tube 79th+Madison, NYC

After 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 is believing.)
We took the same system to three varied locations; a waterfall, a pedestrian overpass at the World Trade Center in New York City, and rush hour on the street outside the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The results were outstanding both visually and sonically. At the Whitney, we were absorbed by hearing and seeing the rich melodic content of urban sonics and did not realize until later that we had been recording through a violent hostage situation which had developed at a jewelry store on the next block. The gunshots, sirens, and police warnings can clearly be heard on the recordings. ("Hostage Variations" on our recent CD entitled "RESONANCE O+A ‘95")
Around this time, Sam had been experimenting with digital filters from ircam institute. These grm filters were added as a tool bank for exploring city resonances and added a clarity and detail of refinement to the work. The sounds now passed from the tuning tube — which generated an overtone series — to the computer which could, in turn, be used as a window of exploration into the hearing perception, allowing an almost symphonic range of voices buried in the city ambience to be heard.

MAX RES, O+A, 1995

anthropomorphic sculpture releases tuned harmonics in railway controlled over internet

Max Res was 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- ears.
On the Platform
The various sounds coming from trains on many platforms, people, announcements, automatic doors, and baggage carts are reduced by a Tuning Tube to one harmonic series. The mic inside the tube hears all of these activities as a shifting chord based on the fundamental length of the tube and its partials. This sound is sent into the control room to a computer where it is digitally filtered.
In the Terminal
The humanoid figure of Max greets visitors as they arrive from the trains. His head is a binaural microphone sending a clear stereo mix across town. His chest is a TV monitor with real-time images from inside the tube on the platform — visual clues to the source of the sounds being heard. His feet are a cement "Cube" loudspeaker, playing back a harmonically tuned version of what’s going on outside in real-time. Overhead, a surveillance camera sends an overview of the current situation over isdn lines to the Ars Electronica Festival.
At the Ars Electronica Festival
At a remote sensing station stands a setup similar in nature to Max's over setup at the Station. Three sets of headphones are available for listening through Max’s binaural ears. There is a computer linked to the computer filters at the Train Station. With the selection of a filter change, there is a shifting of the harmonic balance of a public space across town — a shift that can be heard instantly on the headphones in binaural stereo. The response in that public space, if any, can be seen on the surveillance video. A train schedule is posted on the wall, announcing such arrivals as 6:23, "The Rosenkavalier." A clock keeps those in the remote sensing station in time with the rhythm tracks. None of this careful planning could have predicted that the kids at the station would learn to use Max's binaural ears to control the festival guests in the Brucknerhaus.

Nice "City Ears" 1996

Odland beaming sound into the MAMAC Plaza for Manca Festival


"City 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.
Each architectural space forms a resonating chamber which reflects and resonates whatever ambient soundscape it is placed in. The complex wave form is a mix of our culture; it is the constant input to architecture's sound box. Ordinarily it is difficult to perceive this relationship between the city soundscape and architecture because, as a survival mechanism, the human hearing protects itself from overload by filtering out the drone of the 60-cycle electronic infrastructure: transformers, air conditioners, disk drives, fluorescent lighting buzz, traffic, radial tires, idling busses, emergency vehicles, muzak, car stereos, helicopters, planes, trains, subways, human voices ...
"City Ears" was designed to quickly overcome those standard hearing filters and allow the audience to use their more sophisticated three dimensional hearing sense; to suddenly hear with an animal sense of hearing even in the city.
Parabolic speakers were designed and produced by O+A to send an extremely focused beam of sound which can only be heard when it is pointed directly at the observer or through reflections from architectural surfaces. Like sonar on a ship or like the echolocation of a dolphin, the signal is sent out and a rich information returns in the reflections. The shock for desensitized urban listeners is to suddenly hear city space with the detailed hearing similar to a bat's. O+A each performed a duet with parabolic "Planet Speakers". Specially prepared sound materials were composed to interact specifically with the architecture. Different tempos, frequency bands, and stereo shifting were all used in a soundplay that activated the space dramatically. The Nice-Matin described the performance as "Composers playing tennis with sounds on the walls of the MAMAC."


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 city’s 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

Harmonic Bridge,1998 to present

Harmonic Bridge" transforms 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.
An aluminum Tuning Tube 16 feet long attached to the bridge in close proximity to the traffic. A column of air resonates inside generating harmonies and melodies.
This shifting overtone music is picked up by microphones, further filtered and sent to two cement "cube" loudspeakers of Odland+Auinger’s design installed on either side of Marshall Street directly below the bridge. The result is an acoustic zone under the bridge that resonates in stereo with harmonies and melodies extracted from traffic passing overhead. The area under the viaduct acts as a Harmonic Gateway between Downtown North Adams, and MASS MoCA.
MASS MoCA is the largest center for comtemporary visual and performing arts in the United States. Built in the transformed factory buildings of Sprague Electronics, the site offers the perfect location for a piece about post industrial soundscapes. MASS MoCA has a collection of permanant sound installations.