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TBC: Dancing About Architecture—BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh Sounds Off on the Year's Best Audio Installations

From the New York subway's train No. 2—whose whistle, according to a February 2009 article in the New York Times, sounds like Leonard Bernstein when it pulls in to Times Square—to serious discussions about how we might “tune” the silent engines of electric cars, 2009 was a year for acoustic speculation.

It was a year in which we could attach headphones to trees and listen to the upward-welling slurping sounds of sap and water. Though English artist Alex Metcalf’s project debuted in 2007 in the UK, it made its way to North America this year, via Canada’s Oakville Gardens. Literally plugging headphone jacks into the pulpy trunks and branches of groaning trees, Metcalf produced what he calls Tree Listening.

One of Metcalf's Tree Listening installations

Of course, if we didn’t want to listen to trees, we could just play the buildings around us. For Playing the Building, a sonic project by ex-Talking Head David Byrne that came to London in 2009, you could sit down at an “antique organ” and hit whatever keys or chords your heart desired—but you wouldn’t be producing free jazz, whether Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp, and you would certainly be no Gershwin. You would instead trigger a “series of devices,” as Byrne describes them: hammers and dampers distributed throughout the building in which you sat. Distant windowpanes and metal cross-beams, hooked up to wires, would begin to vibrate, tap, and gong. Imagine someone like this sitting in the darkness beneath Manhattan, causing haunted musics and unexplained knocks inside rooms and abandoned buildings around the city. Now, even urban infrastructure will be musicalized.

An amazing project called Touched Echo by Markus Kison, for instance, used the anatomical phenomenon of bone-conduction to hide audio files in the infrastructure of the city. Lean against the rail of a pedestrian bridge in Dresden, Germany and you would “hear” an explosive roar of recordings made in that city on February 12, 1945, the night of its fire-bombing during World War II. Kison’s work suggests the fascinating possibility that we could acoustically hijack the city—let alone our own apartment buildings—by covertly publishing sounds somewhere in their structures. You never know where those sounds might be—until you touch the right door knob, or lean against the right wall, and an unreleased track bone-conducts its way into your body. Perhaps the b in b-sides should stand for buildings.

Participants in Kison's Touched Echo

Speaking of World War II, 2009 saw Nick Sowers, a graduate student in architecture at UC Berkeley, win a John K. Branner Fellowship to travel the world for more than a year. He’s been making field recordings inside abandoned military sites, army bases, and related architectural ruins in nearly two dozen countries to produce an acoustic study of landscapes and war. Microphone in hand, Sowers crawls into bunkers and pup tents to capture empty shells of sound—dripping water, low wind, spatial reverb—and the results have been uploaded onto his blog for all to hear.

Military bunkers from Sowers' Installations

With the economic downturn, however, our ruins are not necessarily ancient (nor made of stone). Reimagining Dubai, the ultimate boom-and-bust city, with its barely inhabited seven-star hotels and its artificial islands now abandoned, as an alternative setting for The Shining, Jace Clayton (a.k.a. DJ /rupture) and his band, Nettle, have composed a preemptive soundtrack to that unmade remake. Synth bass and moaning cellos drone together to suggest broken air conditioners and unwalked halls, as Nettle creates the sonic signature that Dubai’s drained downtown might soon be known for. Perhaps this will be the first soundtrack for an unmade film that actually gets optioned for production.

Read more by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG .

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