Dissipate Michael Heizer, 1968
Consider Michael Heizer’s Dissipate, installed in Nevada's Black Rock desert in 1968. The piece consisted of five rectangular Cor-Ten steel trays, depressed in the desert floor and sloping from shallow to deep.

The noteworthy thing to me about this piece is not the iconic image but the unseen excavation, the desert removed. The dust from the excavation may even have produced a dune somewhere else on the playa. Space, itself, is excavated. The by-product is dust.

But what sort of space is excavated here? We can think of this space as a sound-space. Sound, in the desert, carries far. However the desert lacks features for sound to reflect or cavities for sound to resonate. Sound simply dissipates.

To lie down in one of these depressions--to occupy the negative space--seems to counter the notion of dissipating. If we could occupy them, the little steel coffins that they are, we might just appreciate the sound of the desert in a new way. The sound would be colored by Cor-Ten steel. The dimensions of the voids would allow certain frequencies to be amplified and resonate. The limitless expanse of desert sound suddenly would become measured, sculpted, solid.


To build with noise

Ray tracings of a single point source in a theater, 1,291 ms.



The Spatial Sound With Supercollider workshop has come to a close.  Thank you to the folks at CCRMA and GAFFTA for hosting!

Before expanding on some of the techniques that came up in the workshop, I think it would be useful to take a few steps backward and explain what it means to spatialize sound.

We can think of sound as a process which occurs in time  i.e.  I listened to Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27 in Allegro molto for nine minutes and 38 seconds on my ipod.  Even when listening to sound on headphones--there is a spatiality.  Sound is always resonating in a space, even if it is the tiny space between the headphones and the inner ear.

We can also think of sound as an object--a source--which produces vibrations in space i.e.  I can hear a garbage truck outside my house and up the street.  A great deal of sound spatialization is about decoding the ways that we are able to construct the location of a sound's source.

Sound will reach the ears at slightly different times.
The sound is then perceived to have a directionality.

Just as we need two eyes to perceive depth, we need two ears to locate sound.  The phase difference in a wave (meaning two waves traveling out-of-sync) when a sound hits one ear and then the other is one method our brain uses to locate a sound.  Other techniques which relate to binaural hearing depend on the particular form of our outer ear and the acoustic shadows that are cast by our head when sounds are to the left, right, or at some elevation above the horizontal plane.

So far these spatialization techniques refer to a source-listener relationship.  A sound--a pressure wave--is emitted from a source and after a period of time and a certain reduction in the signal strength it reaches our ears and is perceived to have a distance and direction from the listener.

Yet there is another, more interesting (or at least more architectural) way to think about spatializing sound, and that is to think of sound as the space between source and listener.  So rather than thinking about what emits the sound (the object) or what the sound is perceived as (by the listener), we simply think about sound as the vibration of something within a space.  That 'something' is usually air, but anything which can vibrate--that is, all matter--can transmit a sound.  There is space inside of a chunk of lead.  But I digress: the important point here is that to become aware of sound as a field condition, one must divorce oneself from the position of an observer listening to a source of sound.

There are a set of questions situated around how this spatial field is constructed and inhabited.  If we are talking about producing this space virtually, about capturing this space in some kind of digital format, how do we go about doing that?  And once it is captured, how is it reproduced?  And finally, how do we understand and navigate through a virtual space projected into a real space?

The 8-channel speaker setup at the GAFFTA workshop.
The dashed-line indicates a virtual space reconstructed by the listener.  
In the case of our workshop, we had an eight-speaker array on which we listened to some pretty awesome pieces of sound.  (Some were composed by one of the co-teachers in the workshop, Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, for even larger arrays of speakers).  I think a lot of the stuff we listened to can be called soundscapes.  These sonic landscapes were projected into our space and moved around the room via the speakers, but not necessarily constructing a geometrically-specific virtual space.

Listening in this 8-channel environment is ideal at the sweet-spot.  Located at the center of the array, this location provided the most accurate spatialization, as the speakers are calculated to project sound into this infinitely small point in space at the same time.

One thing I am curious about is how to move that sweet spot.  Let's say you have a crowd of people within the array, and you want to project, let's say, a claustrophobic space on certain individuals within the crowd.  I posed this possibility to the workshop leaders, and we decided that it is possible to move the sweet-spot around by adjusting the time delay of the speakers.  As long as the array is calibrated precisely, there could be a moving location inside of the array that could receive sound from all the sources at the same time.  Imagine running around with your ears out trying to follow this invisible point in space!

A virtual space is shuffled around inside of the speaker array.

It gets much more complicated, apparently, when you try to move this 'claustrophobic space' around along with the sweet-spot.  Apparently this would require decoding the space inside the loudspeaker.  I'm still not sure what that means, but it sounds like fun to me.  The workshop coordinators, however, didn't think it was possible.  The problem, I believe, is that we are dealing with simple trigonometry when we project a sound into a point in space (the location of the listener).  However, an architectural fragment of spatial sound, with three dimensions, is not a point in space-- it is a field condition.  And a single speaker is not capable of mapping this space--it depends upon the array of speakers to do this.

So, how can we project a spatial field into another spatial field?  Overlapping soundscrapers.  I'm working on it.


A Machine for Slicing Rooms

I am almost finished with a four-day workshop hosted by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.  The title is "Spatial Sound with Supercollider".  In this workshop we have concerned ourselves with the manifold possibilities for taking sound and expanding it from the standard stereo listening environment.  This spatialization of sound is distinct from widely available standards such as Dolby Surround Sound in that we are digging into the components which reproduce spatial effects.  The program called Supercollider allows an incredible amount of control in how a recorded sound, even a mono-channel recording, can be reproduced for the listener with rich three-dimensionality.

In the workshop we have ooh'd and aah'd over the complexity involved in producing something like third-order ambisonics, where a sound source appears to cease emerging from the speakers and instead has a presence of its own in the room.

(red represents the  positive phase and green represents the negative phase of a sound)

In the above image, 16 different spherical dispersion models are used to reproduce a single 3-dimensional space.  The math to assemble these models and then disperse them into a multi-channel speaker array is heavy though not advanced, being entirely based upon sines and cosines.  These models for the dispersion of sound can be seen as the atomization of a space.  Each globe represents a directionality that, when combined with the other 'atoms' and decoded to a speaker array of your design, will produce a precise virtual environment.  Sound is not merely a temporal phenomenon; we are hearing space when we listen to a spatialized recording.

I find the analog versions of spatializing sound just as interesting as the digital models.  And for those sound engineers and musicians who are nostalgic for the sound that these analog reverb machines once produced, there are digital filters which simulate all the distortion and 'badness' that these setups are known for.

Plate reverb is particularly interesting because it is a two-dimensional machine that can produce the reverberation characteristics of a room, deceitfully producing a three-dimensional space.  It works simply like this: an electro-mechanical transducer produces vibration in a large metal plate which is held in tension.  A pickup (or two pickups for stereo sound) then records the new sound which has taken on the reverberation properties of the sheet of metal.  Check out this video which demonstrates some plate reverb effects.

The EMT 240 uses a 12" square gold foil sheet in tension to simulate the reverb in a room.

The plate is like an architectural slice of a room, where introduced sound produces wave-effects in the tensioned metal sheet just as it would in a real space.  Imagine then a whole building section represented inside a plate reverb machine.

Scientifically, we might be able to produce precise reverb filters of building sections, just as the physicist  Wallace Sabine did for the New Theatre, New York in 1913.  These plans and sections, modeled using the Schlieren method, describe the complex fluid dynamics of reverberant sound.

We are covering lots of fascinating techniques including HRTF (Head Related Transfer Function).  Each of these systems require the decoding of a mechanism which tells the brain where to find a sound in space.  It's a highly architectural exercise.


Off to Burn

Just about to take off on a week-long odyssey into the Nevada desert. Of course, I won't be alone. I'll be joined by about 40,000 people who gather each year and construct the temporary metropolis known as Black Rock City. I've been looking forward to my first trip to Burning Man all year but I've withheld expectations. My plan all along was just to show up, sound recorder in hand, and just absorb the place.

But last night everything changed, at my house-mate's insistence. A piece from my thesis, a 4-foot long, 10-inch diameter bass cannon powered by an Aura 50-watt bass shaker will be coming along. What am I going to do with it? I have tentative plans, should the desert accept them. I'll post about successes and failures when I get back.

Well, it has been a summer of imagining temporary things. In June, together with architect/skater Matt Baran, I developed SOUNDSKATE, a skateable infrastructure which brings the non-skating public into a playful intersection with skaters through the re-mixing of the sounds of skating (design details to be posted at a later date).

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

The idea is that this set of quarter pipes and half pipes--the standard skating infrastructure-- would be augmented with resonance chambers, tubes, and surfaces which would produce interesting sound effects. Skaters would then go about creating a personal skating routine full of riffs, bridges, choruses and, of course, self-indulgent solos. The "noise" of skating is thus turned into a noise-music soundtrack. SOUNDSKATE amplifies the sound of skating and in so doing, it aspires to bring acceptance and interest in skating to a wider public.

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

For another temporary installation, I took part in the Sukkah City competition--an opportunity to re-think the sukkah, a temporary structure which is put up for seven days during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Though not selected as a finalist, I am still convinced that I should realize my sukkah. The concept was pretty straightforward: build a sukkah in California, record the sounds of making it, then destroy it (record that sound as well) and re-project the sukkah in Union Square Park, NYC. I have half a mind to just bring a PA system and blast my sonic sukkah throughout the park. Alas I will be in Texas, not New York, at the beginning of Sukkot.

I'm packing up gear for Burning Man tonight. The most precious cargo is: a ZOOM H4n recorder and a set of microphones (a pair of stereo binaurals, one omni-condenser and one omni dynamic cardioid).

There are a number of installations at Burning Man that I am looking forward to listening to. One that stands out is Sounds from the Urban Innerground which is set up at the base of the giant man. It will be playing sound from cities around the world continuously for 24 hours corresponding roughly to the time when the sounds were recorded in their respective locations. So I could be up at dawn in the desert of Nevada and listening to the sounds of Mumbai's rush hour.

There is a lot of sound art I expect to find that won't even be dubbed as 'sound art' (part of what I love about this kind of art). These will be sonic experiences, minute and perhaps even mute, evoking through the vibration of air the connection people share in a rare place like Black Rock City.

It's exciting to be a part of such a large, leave-no-trace event. It's inevitable that how you destroy or dismantle what you take with you factors into the design of what you bring. This is the power of sound: to record these constructions and deconstructions with a medium that is the essence of temporary.

See you on the flip side of the Burn.


Dispatches from the Fortress of Eden

Park Avenue, Adobe Systems Inc., via Google Streetview
It's another sunny day in downtown San Jose, just like everyday is on Google Streetview.  The fog of San Francisco never seems to get close.  It's just an average day like this that two of DEMILIT's members, myself and Bryan Finoki, decide to have a look around.

We're getting ready for an installation at the SJ01 San Jose Biennale next month.  Our group (also including Javier Arbona) is a loose one based upon a collective gravitation toward military landscapes.  Each of us will define differently what a 'military landscape' is, what our methods for exploring them are, and what sorts of projects we envision out of them.  But the fact of the matter is we're hooked on 'em, and they don't seem to be going away any time soon.

Details will follow on what DEMILIT is up to, who is coming to speak, and the installations that we are preparing for SJ01  One thing we'd like to get people involved with is a guided tour of the militarization of downtown San Jose.  So Bryan and I made an adventure out of our first practice run.

It was our first visit as pedestrians in downtown San Jose.  We had little idea what, if anything, we would find.  I anticipated large stretches of boring, smooth, generic downtown urban space.  We definitely saw some of that.  In these sorts of mundane places, however, the clues for how the urban environment is shaped by invisible sources of power are best detected.  What is it that makes us feel safe in a city?  Is this security based on anything real, or do we depend upon invisible factors and codes that buttress our corporate-consumer culture?

San Jose City Hall, Richard Meier, completed in 2005
Bryan and I spotted the City Hall and decided to linger in the large plaza.  Bollards of many typologies (flagpoles, rocks, fountains, and our favorite--poles spouting mist (wanna-be San Francisco fog?) ) buffer the plaza from Santa Clara St.  The space definitely has some military-urbanist planning codes informing the proportions, the standoff distances, etc.  I'll leave that for a future post to delve into.

We also walked the perimeter of Adobe's corporate park, and we discussed some of its features.  Lacking the glorious allusions to the elegant geometries of traditional fortresses (epaulette, ravelin, Priest's Cap, bastions with ciruclar flanks, etc), we are left with the viewing cones of surveillance cameras and blank walls of ground-floor mechanical rooms to understand its fortress nature.  Listen:

Bryan and I then traversed the innocuous San Jose landscape to an office tower at 225 W. Santa Clara Ave.  At an elusive Suite 1600, one can find the offices of Jeppesen, a Boeing subsidiary which allegedly assisted with the trip planning of CIA rendition flights.  I'll leave it to Bryan to fill in details at another time.  For now, we just want to knock on their door.  You know, we're wondering if they are hiring.  Listen:

That's it for now.  There is a lot more work to be done in order to understand the place of San Jose in the larger Bay Area fortification.  We'll also be looking at the former blimp hangars at Moffett Field and the  Mission Santa Clara de Asís as components of this military landscape.  San Jose, from fruit orchards to pyramids of silicon, is not as obvious as the military landscapes of Alameda, Richmond, and the Presidio, but it is our task to demonstrate how it is a military landscape and through this task, we may come to learn more about our own assumptions and ways of looking at these landscapes.


Translations into Noise

I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain
-The Rolling Stones

Moments of doubt around me Jesus was a pain
-Google Translate, two iterations between English and Japanese

Around me in a moment of doubt and pain, Jesus was
-Google Translate, fourth iteration

Indeed, the pain, I was around the moment of Christ
-Google Translate, sixth iteration (equilibrium)

Translation Party provides endless fun, indeed.  We are familiar with the convenience of Google Translate.  We laugh at the slight mistakes that it makes.  An entire current of humor can be extracted from the overlapping missteps of a translation machine.  Yet there remain untapped regions for exploration here.  

A few months ago, Google upgraded its text-to-voice feature to 34 languages.  Using the open source speech synthesizer espeak, we can now hear the monotoned synthesizer babble out our oft ridiculous translations in Swahili, Welsh, or Icelandic.  The espeak synthesizer works by compressing languages into spectral data, which allows for many languages to be stored and accessed quickly.  The lack of smoothness in the speech is made up for in the clarity of the signal.

It is this lack of smoothness, the choppiness of the translator's voice, that I find most interesting--the lack of transitions between sounds.  (There must be a term in acoustic phonetics for this) Testing the new translator,  a Thai friend of mine updated his Facebook status in Thai, which I copied into Translate and got out a bunch of nonsense.  But then I translated that nonsense into the first language on the list, Afrikaans, and recorded the sound.  Listen:

then I slowed it down:

slower still:

and slowest:

When it's completely slowed down, you are hearing are the pure resonances in the machine's speech, also known as the formant.  A formant is a spectral peak, easily detected, for example, when you make different vowel sounds.  We identify these sounds by their distinct signatures in the sonic spectrum.  

From the Wikipedia entry on 'formant', we might find our way back to architecture: "Most of these formants are produced by tube and chamber resonance, but a few whistle tones derive from periodic collapse of Venturi effect low-pressure zones." Referring to tubes and chambers in our oral passages, could we also have cave- and tube-like spaces in buildings which generate a variety of spatial formants?  Perhaps buildings could not only speak in the Robert Venturi sense but also in the Giovannia Battista Venturi sense of air squishing and flushing through its hollows.  Buildings could have conversations.

In 1969, Alvin Lucier was pondering a room's static sonic signature.  Famously, he recorded the sound of his voice and played it back over and over until the content was muffled and the resonant tone (formant) of the room was about all that was left.  If you listen to the recording in the above link to UbuWeb, you might fast-forward to the end which will just sound like noise.  I recommend listening to the 15 minutes straight-through.  Listen to the process of the room's resonance overtaking his stuttering voice.  Once it is understood that the noisy recording at the end is actually the sonic signature of Alvin Lucier's room, it ceases to be noise.  

The translation which seemed lost becomes the signal itself.


Sound Walls 1

Sound Walls will be a set of recurring posts which question the fundamental assumptions of how to design for the sonic environment.  A 'sound wall' is typically referred to as a piece of infrastructure which serves to block or attenuate the transmission of sound.  This series I am calling Sound Walls will reconsider the sound wall as literally "a wall of sound" wherein sound is also a construction material.  We may build walls to control the transmission of sound, but we may also build walls out of sound alone.  

I will use this series to document a set of ideas and projects which take us from the sound wall as a necessary evil to exposing it as a fertile terrain for design exploration.

Sound walls: what do we think about them?  Do we think about them at all?  These highway barriers are dull; they are often made of concrete and hardly merit our prolonged attention.  They are often poorly camouflaged, imprinted with annoying patterns which attempt to give some kind of character to a neighborhood you blast by on the freeway.  Street artists and homeowners seem to be the only ones who appreciate them, and even then they are appreciated quantitatively: for the homeowner, attenuation of freeway noise, and for those with a can of spray paint, a large, flat surface in public view.  Seldom is a sound wall thought of as a universally desirable thing.

Architects have in a few cases been able to embed a 'something else' into the functionality of this infrastructure.  Jean Nouvel designed the Red Kilometer, a science and technology park outside of Milan.

[image: Jean Nouvel's Red Kilometer via Abitare]

The client desired a sound barrier from the adjacent expressway and Nouvel turned that into the concept for the masterplan.  There is certainly no attempt at camouflage here. An architectural adage goes: If you can't make it beautiful, make it big.  If you can't make it big, make it red.  Or, if you're Jean Nouvel, you can do both.

[image: Jean Nouvel's Red Kilometer via Abitare]

[image: Jean Nouvel's Red Kilometer via Abitare]

The Red Kilometer enjoys an object relationship with its surroundings.  While the contrast is remarkable, this is not a practice that would work for the majority of sound walls, especially in inner cities.  Would the residents on the opposite side of these massive red walls appreciate the attention to this barrier?  Would drivers be inclined to drive faster along a sleek red strip?  

[image: Jean Nouvel's Red Kilometer via Abitare]

Given that Nouvel installed numbers for parking spots that recall the race track and lighting which gives the space in front of the wall the appearance of an airport runway, I think speed over tranquility is indeed the desired performance of this sound wall.

So if the Red Kilometer is not to be a typological response to sound walls, what could be?  Two recent articles have prompted in me a desire to revisit the typology of sound walls.

The first comes from the Washington Post where we learn about plans to build a sound wall along the Dulles Toll Road.  The problem of highway noise is nothing new for the neighboring communities:

Shouse Village, a Vienna community of 260 houses, has lobbied federal and local officials for sound walls, but to no avail.  A batch of trees separates Shouse Village from the toll road. But when the leaves fall, the highway noise gets louder, said Sue Rosenberg, vice president of the homeowners association. 
"I can hear the noise, and I don't live anywhere near" the tree line, she said.
So a community with a bit of economic leverage can petition to get a sound wall built (nothing new here), but my attention hangs on that bit in the middle about "when the leaves fall, the highway noise gets louder".  Fantastic!  We don't need a new sound wall, we just need to invent a seasonal sound wall, one which goes up as the leaves fall down.  We can imagine all sorts of possibilities, deploying light materials which simulate the density of trees, perhaps even hanging from the trees themselves.  We could get Cristo to design sound walls, too.

The second article comes from the San Francisco Chronicle.  In this case a temporary sound wall is drawing the complaints of its neighbors who sued over construction noise to get it in the first place.  Caltrans, the agency responsible for the construction noise, is now bowing to public pressure and is prepared to plant a row of trees in order to screen the ugliness of the temporary wall.  It will eventually be replaced by an earthen berm when the Caldecott Tunnel opens in 2014.

[image: Michael Macor / The Chronicle]

The case of this barrier also makes me wonder about the sound walls erected in communities that lack a rich homeowners association capable of launching lawsuits over sound walls.  For the designer, the task is to produce sound walls which do not recall the oppressive forms of contemporary barriers on the US-Mexico border or in Israel-Palestine.  Like these other barriers, sound walls are messy things because they are so political--couched in lawsuits, never really wanted in the first place, and in my opinion, an out-dated response to sources of noise.

[image: wall dividing Israel and Palestine]

We should start re-thinking what a sound wall could be.  A big part of this task is to examine the source of 'noise' which gives rise to the need for sound walls.  Can we build fewer--or better--sound walls if we shift the perception of noise?  What if we could condition noise into something desirable?

I will leave off with a possible future for sound walls.  In Japan, they have been developing over the past decade sound walls with active noise cancelling.  Microphones record the sound of traffic and playback the sound out of phase to cancel it out, just like noise cancelling headphones.  This technology can reduce the height of wall that is needed.  Could we arrive at a moment where physical mass is not needed at all, and a sophisticated array of noise cancelling monitors could invisibly silence a freeway?

The intention of this series is not to propose ever more elaborate technologies to reduce the sound wall.  Rather, I am interested in shifting the perception of both sound walls and the sound they wish to block, and in so doing, bring some much needed attention from the design world to this subject.


The Accidental Archive

The #demilit workshop was a great success last week. Bryan, Javier and I led a small group of people into the vast hinterland of military space. The discussion ranged from buildings in former Yugoslavia as evidence in war crimes to walking tours to examine the remnants of nuclear militarization. It was an intense 90 minutes that could easily have spun off ten more workshops. We are excited about the future possibilities between the three of us and with those that we met in the workshops.

There is a curious tangent to this effort of producing an archive of military space that I'd like to share, before I delve into the content and future directions of the workshop in a later post. I am fascinated with ways of archiving military landscapes which could produce a documentation of a non-military landscape. Put another way, how does a peripheral vision, or if we think in audio terms, the background noise, code the landscape in ways we might otherwise not detect? The military has its own means of extracting signals from noise, which began with sound mirrors and continues today with a myriad of listening ears, satellites, etc etc. As citizens, equipped with microphones, recorders, and free means of disseminating the content of an archive via archive.org or freesound.org, how might we also decode signals from the 'noise'? Without knowing what to look for, could we actually stumble upon useful archives and linkages of soundscapes?

I owe these thoughts to one of the participants in the workshop, Nicholas Kaufmann, who pointed us toward the documentary The Tailenders. This film "examines a missionary organization’s use of ultra-low-tech audio devices to evangelize indigenous communities facing crises caused by global economic forces." These missionaries were recording stories from the Bible in other languages, which had an interesting by-product of recording the background environment in which these indigenous communities lived.  So, you could take the recordings and listen to how the language of the Bible stories translates, or you could forget about the language and just decode or 'foreground' the background sound content, what R. Murray Schafer might refer to as the 'soundmark' of a place.  Nicholas brought it up because he was interested in how to subvert the archive or at least bring awareness to how archival projects can archive other things inadvertently.  It is the accidental archive, not dissimilar from the military's accidental archiving of native birds which I mentioned in a previous post here on Soundscrapers.


Swallowed Buildings

Pulling more out from my sound archives. In September 2009, I was in Vicenza, Italy, studying the US Army base there. I was able to gain access to the base via some contacts I made through the Corps of Engineers, but I also walked the edges of the base, just because you always find interesting things in these border spaces. Among my findings, some private housing which used to be part of the Italian street. Since the property abuts the base, the military was able to lease out the building and expand into it in order to fulfill their own housing needs.


But imagine living on this street, visiting your neighbors from time to time, and then everyone is served a move-out notice by the owner. After a few months, the apartment is vacated, the barbed wire goes up and the building is no longer part of your street. Its own boundary with the base is ruptured and the apartment is militarized. It's as though the military swallows buildings.

I took a moment to record my thoughts. Listen:

They took my fork

This Friday I am leading a workshop titled "Decoding Military Landscapes" with Javier Arbona and Bryan Finoki. The aim of this workshop is to find a means for bringing awareness of invisible militarizations of space in the cities we live in.

But what do we mean by militarization of everyday space? A simple example and one which I relentlessly documented as I traveled last year is the baggage screening machine at airports. An airport is a highly militarized space as we are all flying around in potential missiles. We are familiar with the routine of removing metals, isolating liquids, etc etc. so that our bodies may pass through into the sterilized security zone of the airport's interior.

The fact that we have become so neutralized to, and even appreciative of this routine, is bewildering. It is the contemporary 'walled city'. Is the baggage security check our only means of defense? Hardly. Part of the agenda of this workshop is to ask first how far does the military penetrate into our daily lives and then how do we document and archive this?

In this particular example, how is the spatial experience of passage through this 'wall' mediated by this security check? What is the literal experience of the check itself, and does it constitute a military appropriation of private space? It is my desire to archive how these spaces have been militarized through the recording of sound.

In this particular example, a fork which was part of a camping set that I bought at the Kathmandu outfitters in New Zealand is confiscated by security at the airport in Athens.

The recording begins with the mic setup in my bag, and you then pass to the interior of the screening machine, and then you are inspected by the security officer. As you can probably guess, it was a much-loved fork. Listen:


The Sonic Archivist

I'm doing the folks over at the Echo Red conference a quick favor by posting some samples by the Sonic Archivist of Guam. We open with the resonances recorded in the hollows of the jet noise barrier, overlaid with an F-22 flyover. We then descend into some of the boarded-up buildings of the former air base, down into some caves (artificial or natural?) and emerge in the interior of the abandoned base. Listen:


A Shroud of Swiftlet-Space

The Ornithologist has posted his report over at Archinect.com.

What I think is most interesting in the report is the masking or camouflage of military space with artificial ecologies. By producing bird habitat, the military can prolong their presence. However, too successful of a habitat will lead to the birds' over-taking of the base, by activist protest or B.A.S.H.--Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard.

The Swiftlet is interesting because it uses echolocation to navigate in combination with eyesight. Bats also use echolocation but the sonar emitted is typically at frequencies higher than humans can hear.

The bird nests are edible, too. The industry for swiftlet bird nests is already on the rise in Malaysia. There is even a website which allows you to download Swiftlet sound for free. In this way you can "seed" your own swiftlet farm, broadcasting these bird calls to attract the birds to make their nests in your abandoned building (or military base, as it may be).

Swiftlet farming, like the US military, thrives on the production of ghost ecologies.


Air Conditioner No. 8

Air Conditioner No. 8

My first commissioned soundscraper has opened tonight at Brussels-based Silence Radio. It is titled Air Conditioner No. 8. There's a blurb in French that accompanies the piece. However, I'd rather offer this email I wrote to Etienne Noiseau, the sonographer-in-chief at Silence Radio.org, to introduce the piece.

Tue, Mar 30, 2010 at 11:19 PM
Dear Etienne,

Thank you for your patience. I have re-worked the piece and uploaded it.

In this latest incarnation, I am trying to do something like what the music box does but as an operation on the air conditioning sound. I am trying to move away from the gimmick for its own sake and towards the effect that I desired in the first place. If the music box was about extracting signals from the air, my new piece is about subtracting signals from the air. Tone, therefore, is less important than the background noise.

I took your advice to play with the dynamics. I thought that was a much more convincing way to make connections between these air-conditioners. I think it is like walking across a soundscape, using stairs instead of ramps to move between the sonic chambers.

I realize there was a large disconnect between what I wrote in the text and the first piece that I sent to you. I'm hoping that this piece brings the written and the aural closer together. You were right that the layer of natural sound as something always mediated by a machine--air conditioner, jet sound, or otherwise--is worth calling attention to.

The piece has grown a bit in length. I felt this was necessary to give space for listening. I felt a lot of my segments in the first take were too short. There was a choppiness to how things came together, which gave too much attention to the transition.

The first thing I say "What is the sound of air?" should really be "It is unavoidable to hear the sound of air. What I desire is to listen to air.

Nick Sowers


Desert Obscura

On March 20th, 2010 Soundscrapers took part in the Atlas Obscura/BLDG BLOG expedition to the "Geoglyphs of Nowhere" a.k.a. a bunch of dirt roads northeast of California City in the Mojave Desert. I put up what I call Desert Prosthetics, a series of installations which mediate the experience of listening to ambient sound in the desert. {Please refer to my post at Archinect for the full statement.}

We camped out for three days at Red Rocks Canyon, where I did a test installation and made slight modifications to the pieces at the campground. The boyscouts sure thought I was strange. ("Do I smell spray paint?")

Obscura Day at dawn. Listen:

Desert Obscura
A small crowd gathers at the cul-de-sac of the unmade American Dream

1. SOMT: A telescoping box for changing the frequency of ambient sound.

Desert Obscura

I've done some binaural recordings around these things. In this one, your right ear will enter the box. Listen:

2. Fata Morgana: A curved box for trapping heat and producing an audio-mirage.

Desert Obscura

I pointed a shotgun microphone through this box to record people hanging out in the cul-de-sac. You'll hear the sound of Fata Morgana rotating as I swivel it to test the resonance of different peoples' voices. Listen:

3. Slowscope: A curved, telescoping box for collapsing the audio horizon.


I tested both ears for the Slowscope. Listen:

I have come to realize that even as installations in real space, at least two of these three prosthetics are actually models for something I'd like to produce on a much larger scale.

I have also left some markers on the site which denote the coordinates of a place-less cul-de-sac in a very precise way.

34 degrees north 11 minutes 19 point 763 seconds

Desert Obscura


The Audio Cemetery at Omaha Beach

This is a quick, belated mention of two things: one, I have been commissioned to produce a sound piece for Brussels-based Silence Radio; and two, I was featured in Soundwalk's series called Editions. Soundwalk describes Editions as:

Soundwalk Editions features artists and composers who use environmental field recordings as a point of departure in their work. By recording sounds outside of the conventional studio you are in the act field recording, audibly engaged with ears that gradually refine a sonic experience, like the eye looking through a camera lens. Field recording is often synonymous with phonography, in which sound takes the place of image in documenting a location, physical act, or a natural occurrence. Drawing attention to the quality and experiential nature that can exist in the soundscapes of our environment, these works allow the viewer to have an intimate experience with the various compositional approaches practiced by each individual artist. Through listening to these recordings we have the opportunity to become aware of the various dialects that can exist in the language of field recording compositions.

In my piece, I am looking to create something at Omaha Beach, Normandy, that I feel is essential to the reading of the landscape. Even after producing this piece I am searching for a means to memorialize all of those who died on that beach. The American cemetery sits on top of a cliff as if to mark forever the Allied conquering of the beach. The only German landmarks to be found are a scattering of bunkers, and not even very formidable bunkers. So I am seeking in sound what cannot be found in visual space. Here is the direct link to my audio guide to the German cemetery at Omaha Beach: Listen.


Uncancelling the Noise of Nature

In a recent conversation with a recreation manager for Andersen Air Force Base on the US unincorporated territory of Guam, I learned something which may prove incredibly pertinent to my thesis. At Ritidian Point, the northern-most tip of the 30-mile long island, there is a wildlife center which plays in the background the recorded sounds of extinct birds. These birds became extinct by way of the Brown Tree Snake, thought to be a stow-away on a cargo ship following WWII. The snake has no natural predators on Guam, nor did the endemic species have any natural defense against them. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the populations of the endemic birds noticeably declined. (Another source mentioned that DDT also made a hit on the avian population.) Today, nine of eleven forest-dwelling species have been extirpated, including two species unique to Guam.

The remarkable thing is this: it was the Navy which gave over the sounds of the now-extinct birds. They were recording the birds in the 1950s, according to my source at Andersen, in order to cancel out the background noise in order to listen for Russian and Polish trawlers during the Vietnam War, who were in turn trying to pick up on their radar B-52s flying out of Andersen en route to torching the jungles of North Vietnam. The Navy would then jam the signals of the trawlers.

When the Cold War ended, the Navy listening post and the land at Ritidian Point was turned over to become a Federal Wildlife Preserve, and the sound recordings were thus donated. In this effort, unwittingly, the Navy preserved the sounds of the jungle that would never again be heard.

I'm in the process of looking for these sounds, but if anyone knows something about this please don't hesitate to send me a message. In the meantime, I've been going through my undocumented archives from the past year of travel and pulled up this sound, from the jungles on Okinawa. What I am interested in these nature sounds is the possibility to generate intimate spaces--an architecture--which is produced for enjoyment of the sound. Listen: