Roll, Align, Draw, Record

 "Rolling ruler used by the architect Cedric Price"; Image courtesy of Geoff Manaugh & CCA

A few years ago, Geoff Manaugh of BLDG BLOG shared this photo while he was blogging from the archives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. It is a rolling ruler used by the late British architect Cedric Price. This pocket tool undoubtedly aided the architect in his sketches, speculations, and visionary projects. Whipping the ruler around, movements of a pencil-poised hand could quickly turn a blank page into a tiny world of ideas, drafted, aligned, exact yet also invitingly inexact.

The pocket rolling ruler is a vestige not only of the drafting days but also the days when architectural visions were best crafted in a sketchbook. Plenty of architects still sketch, but, needless to say, the laptop is the portable tool of choice. And what amazing tools we have there! I feel no nostalgia for hand drafting tools and in a way architects are becoming more crafty by "making" their own tools i.e. designing scripts, simulations, and so on.  Still, there is something to be said of the simplicity of Price's rolling ruler. An architect may have a studio full of tools to render and represent a building, but all the tools needed to craft an idea should fit in a pocket.

Fun Palace by Cedric Price
Price was a paper architect. The ruler assisted Price in drawing lines on a page to represent his ideas. A sound architect is equally engaged in the world of ideas, as opposed to built things. Moving beyond the page, however, the sound architect cannot shape ideas without also shaping sound. A simple analog to Price's ruler is the microphone. It is portable; it has its own metrics (i.e. gain, directionality, frequency response); it can be tracked along an x, y, or z axis just as the rolling ruler slides along (though only in a single axis).

The microphone is good at recording voice, music, or, in my experience with field recording, an ambient scene. I have used microphones in stereo/binaural combinations which allow for a more spatial recording than a single microphone. Yet, the problem is essentially one of representation versus simulation. Both the rolling ruler and the microphone are concerned with representation. The ruler says: "How can I make a legible image that stands in for something else?" The microphone is a painterly tool as the holder of microphone decides what to record, how close, etc. The end result is an audio image, played back on a pair of speakers or headphones, which merely represents the space recorded by the microphone. Little of the "space" is being simulated there. A stereo recording is largely a flat canvas.

Shaping sound, shaping architecture, should be anything but flat. Architecture and sound decay; architecture moves in time; sound reverberates. Why have we (architects) not brought to the complex task of constructing things in four dimensions a tool which is adequate to capture those dimensions? More than capture, more than represent, a tool adequate to simulate four dimensions?

Enter the Ambisonic microphone.

I first mentioned Ambisonics here on Soundscrapers two years ago, while taking part in a CCRMAGray Area Foundation for the Arts workshop on spatial sound. Ambisonics is a sound format which permits a full three-dimensional representation of sound--Up, Down, Left, Right, Front, Back, and all directions in between, known as periphonic recording. A good setup, with enough speakers, does the amazing thing of making the speakers disappear. Sound does come out of the speakers, but you don't hear the individual speakers; what you hear is a field of sound, seemingly without a locatable source. At least the artificial source is camouflaged by the mirage of real sounds in space.

To demonstrate Ambisonics during the workshop, the organizers took a pair of keys and jangled them at close proximity around an Ambisonic microphone that was in the other room. While I was sitting in the sweet spot of the speaker array, I felt as though a colossal pair of keys were being shaken all around my head. The idea that the speakers were playing sound disappeared, and I was left with the unforgettable, impossible sensation of a pair of keys larger than the room itself, somehow moving around my head.  That was architecture.

Recently I looked into what it would take to get into Ambisonics, beginning with a microphone. I was thrilled to learn I could build my own Ambisonic microphone! This task would require assembling four microphone capsules into a perfect tetrahedral frame, while making over a hundred soldered joints, any number of which not done right could short out the microphones.  Having only soldered a few times in my life, and despite knowing that so many things could go wrong with the construction of this tool, I felt it necessary to craft the microphone myself. Traditional Japanese carpenters, after all, must shape their own tools, if only for the practical reason that a tool with heavy use will require constant tuning and repair. But for a more spiritual reason too: the tool is to become a part of its maker. I wanted to do more than own a tool. I wanted the tool, the microphone, to be a part of the way I experience the world and consequently give shape to it.

The process began with the construction of a tetrahedral, made from copper wire. Hours turned into days. Measuring, snipping, torching, filing, grinding, cursing, soldering, sighing, sanding. The frame was done. Over the following days, I set in the microphone capsules and wired them up.

Construction of an amibsonic microphone. More photos here.
Next the enclosure, a black box. (I felt it was inevitable that when I finished the microphone would not work, and I would be left with this mute, black box...). I dropped in at a hackerspace, Ace Monster Toys, to use their drill press.

The Black Box.
I soldered dozens of resistors, diodes and capacitors to the circuit boards. Wires with their frayed ends, one by one, found a home. The circuit boards (which amplify the microphone signals) slid into the case. I dropped two 9V batteries in, screwed the frame closed, and flipped the switch.

Tool of Choice: The Finished Ambisonic Microphone.
A tiny light came on. I registered audio signals on each of the four microphone inputs. The microphone is live. And there is a new tool in my pocket.


The Sound of a Dan Flavin

I visited Dan Flavin's Untitled Marfa Project in 2009 on a fellowship studying the spectrum of new uses on former military bases. One such base, decommissioned shortly after WWII ended, is Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, TX.  The property is home to the Chinati Foundation and contains ammunition sheds, old barracks, and various other military structures. Some buildings are vacant and some are filled with sculpture by Chinati's founder Donald Judd. In the 1980s, Judd invited Flavin to come and do an installation. His piece opened in 1996, the same year Flavin passed away.

While I was walking around Marfa with a sound recorder, picking up things like the specific resonance of Judd's concrete sculptures, a curiosity entered me about approaching any artwork with a sound recorder, especially a predominantly visual one like Flavin's. What is to be captured with the sound, and how does looking at something change when listening momentarily displaces looking as the primary means of taking in a piece of art?

Flavin's installation, a painting with light, deliberately includes the sources of light, the ready-made fluorescent lamps, as part of the composition.  But the lamps are also participating in the art because they emit a sound.  The faint buzzing sound has a base frequency of about 120 Hz, with several multiples of that frequency also noticeable.This buzzing comes from the ballast which keeps the current flowing through the fluorescent tubes below a safe threshold. The electricity is dampened, and the output is sound.  

Every Flavin piece will sound different. The specific configuration of lights, the number of them, the proximity of the lights to nearby walls--these factors will have subtle yet palpable effects. In addition, the light itself, its color and intensity, must have an effect. Are there certain colors which bring out the buzzing, or conversely permit the viewer to shut away the sound? Do certain colors shift the perception of certain frequencies, i.e. does a blue light point our attention to the lower note, and a yellow light to the higher note? Is there a color which allows all background sounds to melt away? 

Spending countless hours, days, and years to get his installations just right, was Flavin using the buzzing sound to inform his work? Or, how could he not? He would be subjected to it possibly more than any human being that has lived since the invention of the fluorescent bulb. We can no longer ask the artist these questions. Nevertheless, the project continues, a grand experiment to re-draw space with light and sound.  The artist here has presence; his work continually re-configures the interior of this army barracks, each day that the power is flicked on.  Flavin made a place for questioning how we perceive space.



"the most important thing to understand with regards to human underwater listening is that our ears are mostly useless" via

Introducing Soundfishing, the latest sporting activity in the great outdoors of the San Francisco Bay Area.  In a city that is all about recreation, water activities, fitness, etc., what is there to do for the non-sporty among us? To prove my credentials (in being un-sporty), I have caught exactly one fish in my entire life.

The recreational landscape of the Bay is all about the shoreline. We have hundreds of miles of it. The wrinkly edge (when it's not impenetrable due to industry or freeways) is a varied landscape for interaction between people and the water. We can imagine the soundscape of this edge - wind rustling sails, birds, water surging over rocks when a large boat passes by.  It's predictable. It's also not as clean as that. There often is a freeway nearby, or any number of sounds. But what about sticking a microphone beneath the water's surface. What does this tell us about the urban, watery edge?

Soundfishing bypasses the usual urban soundscape for an entirely new one, in which motor boats sound like angry hair-dryers, and the propellers of cool old ships produce lo-fi drone music for anybody listening in.

I like environments where it is difficult to hear. Difficult, not because it is loud, but because we are not made for a particular listening environment. When a human ear is underwater, the ear drum does not vibrate the same way that it does in air. The ear barely works under water, so the way we hear is actually through bone conduction. Pressure in water is translated to our skull, which transmits the sound directly to our inner ear.

If my ears are useless, then lend me a microphone. In order to listen to this underwater world, we must augment our hearing. I like that, the opportunity to question how we hear sound and what we might do to hear things differently. So I made a hydrophone with about 15 dollars worth of electronic parts and threw it in the water.

The hydrophone as "bait" , coated in silicone

In water, sound travels four times faster than it does in air. It's a thick medium for sound, which means sound travels well and quite far. It also means certain sounds are not able to move far, such as high frequency sounds. Above a few thousand kilohertz, sound dies off shortly after it is emitted.

My first fishing expedition was in the Oakland shipping channel off the shore of Alameda. I saw a couple people pulling out actual fish. I certainly wouldn't want to be a fish in these waters, not just for the fear of being prey but it is LOUD in there. At one point I was listening to five boats motoring around, plus a jet ski. It just sounds like a bunch of mad screaming lawn mowers and pencil sharpeners under there.

But there are some cool, subtle sounds, and a lot more exploring to be done of the Bay.  Stay tuned.


Listening Practice

Fes, Morocco, on a scrubby hill overlooking/over-listening the city. Like the view, the image in sound is dense in detail. Tiny spikes of contrast: a distant horn, sparrows flittering in the foreground, the sharper cry of a child nearby. Emerging from a grey droning sea: scooters, voices, air conditioners, idling buses, the overlapping calls to prayer. Altogether these sounds form the averaged sound of a city.

As the view confounds any understanding of the city’s order (minarets stand out as landmarks, but little else is to be read from the hilltop view), the sound adds to the confusion, the din as blurry as the myriad of flat rooftops cascading up and down the topography of the valley. What is it to listen to all of this sound, within this thickened space overwhelmed by colliding signals?

Listen to the madly twittering sparrows, but the sharp focus on one sound blurs the rest. Try to pick out a revving scooter, but is it the scooter or something else not known, not seen? Part of the fascination is just looking at the city as though it were a model train set, with tiny voices occasionally audible above the averaged sound.

A third alternative: Listen to the averaged sound and forget the names of everything, just appreciate the pure averaged sound. Is listening in this case still listening to Fes, or is the averaged sound of a city just a sound, even a kind of musical assemblage to appreciated for its own sake?

Listening encompasses all of these things: concentration on particular sounds (signals), deference to the shapelessness of background sound, and puncturing the thin divide between music and pure sound. John Cage found music everywhere, in everything. He found music because he wanted to listen, and he listened to all sounds with a devoted practice of listening. 

Recently, not traveling (at least not in an obvious way), I was walking on a lunch break from my office in downtown San Francisco up one of its many hills. I paused at a park looking over the city, and there it was again, that blend of many sounds rushing up and passing over me. If I were to snatch any one of them, say a honking taxi cab or a siren from two miles away, I would know: yes, I am in San Francisco. But I still find that forgetting San Francisco momentarily, digging beneath the language of sound, to really hear the sounds, the averaged sound—this permits a kind of instantaneous travel in time and space. Is this San Francisco or is it Fes, just in a new place at a new time.



SF Gravelator 91L

As mentioned here from time to time, I represent one third of the experimental collective DEMILIT. We are a group taking walks, recording sounds, and making connections between militarized spaces and the everyday landscape. Last year we were commissioned by Deutchlandradio Kultur to produce a radio piece on their "Newcomer Werkstatt" program, which aired in Berlin at midnight, June 24, 2011.

As DEMILIT likes to do when presented with an opportunity, we take a walk. With a plethora of former military landscapes to explore here in the Bay Area, we set our sights on Angel Island. The island has a long history as a militarized island, beginning as an Army Post in the Civil War and culminating as a strategic link in a necklace of missile defense silos around the Bay Area in the 1960s. Angel is also notoriously known as an immigrant detention and quarantine island. [More history] What DEMILIT sought to accomplish on our walk, and in the ensuing soundscape presented below, was a means of measuring the spaces embedded in the island, the spaces which cannot be seen but which can be heard.

SF-91L is the name of the abandoned Nike Missile station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay where we recorded the sounds for this piece. Gravelator refers to the simultaneous process of building up and eroding away the island. We displaced the island's own material to construct a second island, an imaginary island, which is encapsulated in the sound.

In a related fashion, the military severed the island’s crown in order to install the radar system for the missiles. The missiles were made obsolete not long after it was finished and was decommissioned. Decades later, the Gravelator is a means of awakening the sequestered spaces of the silo. Listen:

I call it a "chronoscape" -- between landscape and soundscape, a work of sound both on the geographic scale and on the time scale.  Though the piece has a finite boundary in time, it is intended as an aural window onto an oceanic sonic process.  In a similar fashion the work appears to have a finite geographic boundary; however, an island is not a separate piece of land but a promontory of land which happens to rise above the water level.  There is a continuity in both time and geography which reflects the underlying and pervasive process of militarization which DEMILIT seeks to expose in our work.
More from DEMILIT's tumblr feed: http://demilit.tumblr.com/SFG


SF Lunchwalk: Attack and Decay

Four Recent Lunchwalks
Attack and Decay are technical terms known to sound editors and synth musicians, but the concept is also intrinsic to urban walking.  "Attack" is the initial rise of a particular sound and "Decay" is the falling away of the sound from its peak to a normal or "sustained" volume.   Doors open and the clamor of a restaurant rushes out (attack); someone walks in, shutting the door behind them (decay) but listening closely, the sound of the restaurant remains.

If we think of the city as an infinite sound library, the library is perused by walking through it.  Sounds rise and fall and blend together in the great mixing chamber which is the street.  I am interested in the ability of the city to edit its own sound.  The sound-makers engage in the space of the street, all competing to vibrate air molecules.  Air is resilient; like a spring, it receives the initial burst of sound energy and then recoils (decays) until the sound disappears.

Since my last post with sound, I have recorded four hours of sound from four lunch-hour walks, continuing this series where I take a walk through the city instead of eating lunch.  Listening back through the sound recordings, I am pulled in two directions.  One, I have ideas to snip up the recording and reconstruct the walk as an edited soundscape.  The other direction is to isolate only certain moments where it appears as though the city has done the mixing for me.  This latter case is explored in the following track.  Listen:

The track is unedited.  It is simply what I (or the microphones) heard over a 2 minute time-span, using elements of the city (doors cracked open, hills, different sized streets) to "edit" the sound.


SF Lunchwalk: Smokestack

Walking every week, with every chance I get.  My feet vault me out of a sedentary habit (we are what we repeatedly do) into the unique opportunity of an urban walk, latent with unexpected encounters.  Encounters, such as the sight of this smokestack somewhere north of the lunch hour ground zero.  I marvel at its unlikely location, amid the housing and workplaces.  Surely it cannot still be in use.  Do its neighbors consider it a historic resource, a neighborhood landmark?  What if it is in use, but for a use not originally intended...

The smokestack is a non sequitur, a rather large and prominent form nestled within a residential, low-rise neighborhood.  Surely, some research would tell its story.  But the point is not to know where this smokestack came from or its historical use.  The lunchwalker on the go is all eyes and ears to the sidewalk unfolding beneath the feet; no time to research on a smartphone.  Even the excuse of wanting to just "be there" aside, there is more reason to disregard the histories of structures and spaces along the walk: the forms of the city are opened to fresh interpretation.

Ceci n'est pas un smokestack.  It is a vent for a vast subterranean vault.  A wind pipe for a geological organ.  An observation post to collect ambient neighborhood sound.  Let the city try and preserve all of its artifacts.  I can create and destroy them at will.

The lunchwalker embeds a set of desires unto a set of inert objects.  The set of desires is not alien to the walking environment, not fabricated beforehand, but generated along the walk, activated by the sounds present and alive there.

Do not walk to see what the city is.  Walk to see what the city can be.  Walk, to make the city anew.


SF Lunchwalk: Forty-three Ambient Slices of the City

Why even bother with the names of streets?  In a world of sound, the names of streets ring silent.  They are dwarfed by the din of traffic, overwhelmed by thousands of diffuse sounds from the city hulking above.  Market Street, for instance, beckons to be renamed every time I walk out onto it.  My feet are willing to forget, but my head still wants to know: where am I going today?

East.  The Lunchwalker needs not the guidance of familiar street names.  It's not as though these walks are to be repeated.  Nor could they be.  Tracing the footsteps of a previous day's walk is not possible.  (Although that would make a fascinating walk to attempt to do so, even memorizing the sounds as though scripted by iambic pentameter, and to recite and overlay the previous day's walk upon a new day's walk.)  The soundtrack on a given day, at the same time and with the same route, will capriciously yield an entirely different experience.  So I walk east, and I could walk east every day and still find new things to hear, new worlds of sound to discover even though the world we see appears much the same.

What is that funny thing about an urban walk which enables the feeling: "I've walked here many times and yet I've never seen that before."?  Getting lost in a familiar place is part of it.  We all read the street signs and use them to familiarize ourselves with our whereabouts and communicate to others our experiences there.  Practicality aside, the real advantage of an urban walk is ignoring precisely the need to communicate the location.  Streets should be named instead for the sounds one may hear on them.

I have provided this recurring satellite view of my walkable terrain, but I even question its value other than to give a sense of scale of the walk.  For example, the spaces which continue from the outside to the inside -- how are these sonic continuities to overcome the familiar delimiting of interiors and exteriors?  The satellite photo is blind to interiors and numb to the scale of individual sounds.

But there are unexpected relationships between quadrants of the island which in fact drive me to explore more every time I go out.  Deeper into the grain of the city, similarities between two different spaces in different moments of time could be knitted together by a precise framework.

The spaces of the city could be taxonomized by a host of sonic qualities: loudness, frequency range (Hz), frequency of occurance, breadth, height, reverb, diffuseness, velocity, proximity, timbre, fuzzyness, reproducibility, and even its inaudibility i.e. vibrations which are below the threshold of hearing.  These new names, not just for streets but for all thoroughfares and places for pause, might go this way:

Street of Cars Bowling for People
Garden of Circling Sparrows
Garden of Reverse Waterfalls
Sidewalk Spouting 700 Hz
Cranes Thumping Every 15 Seconds Alley
Muzak's Shortcut
The Street Where I Heard a Strange Bird but Maybe It Was a Machine

For this sixth Lunchwalk, I took 43 slices of sound out of the walk and glued the slices back together.  Each slice is potentially a new entry into the sonic taxonomy of the city.  Listen:


SF Lunchwalk: Taco Truck

On this fifth lunchwalk, where I take a walk instead of eating lunch, I broke the only rule: I ate lunch.  Two shrimp tacos, to be exact.  I also did not walk alone but wandered out with a friend, Marc Wiedenbaum of disquiet  fame.  Our walking discussion ranged across current projects of his, on the reasons we walk and listen, and, as we descended upon a taco truck, the sound of food.  So, here is a lunchwalk that was more of a walk to find lunch rather than a walk to capitalize on the time saved by not eating lunch.  (Indeed this series could be about walks to a constellation of food spots in the city not frequented by the Market Street workers.  Food and sound will be recurring, I am sure.)

The space carved out by the Taco Truck, sitting in the corner of a parking lot off of Bryant St., fits the spatiality produced in these walks.  The truck extends the sidewalk perpendicular to the street, expanding the realm for interaction, disregarding even the separate domains of "sidewalk" and "parking lot".  As I move through the city I too shrug off familiar boundaries.  Neighborhood lines and so-called historic districts do not exist.  Building lobbies and rooftop gardens are as fair game as parking garages and subway tunnels.  Tall fences, open water, and security guards are the only things to keep me from walking somewhere.

The Taco Truck is similarly disobedient to artificial lines, though to be sure, the truck is under a set of regulations and is permitted for certain locations only.  But like me, the truck is gone when lunch is over.  Have a listen:

 SF Lunchwalk: Taco Truck by nicksowers 

The soundscape before the truck is hemmed in by the propped-up metal flap, forming an awning over the space of ordering and eating.  Small, crappy speakers are embedded in the flap, drizzling out the fuzzy sound of a traditional Mexican orchestra.  Inside the truck, pans slide off the grill, carnitas sizzles, a cash register bangs close, and someone's order is called out: 95!  That's me. Shrimp tacos!


SF Lunchwalk: North-northeast

Market, the street I always begin on because my office's front door faces it, is a long street.  It is the only street which bisects the entire island--the island defined by an hour round-trip walk on my lunch break.  At the northeast edge, there is water.  So to the water's edge I aimed my stride, and off I went.

Down the canyon called Market, sirens wail and horns resonate.  The canyon is the city's great collector of sound.  The confluence of transit is witnessed here: footsteps crossing north to south, street cars sliding southwest to northeast, and buses amassing and separating like a caterpillar.  There is a definite meter to the modes of travel, a reliable space in time between each footstep, bus brake, taxi horn, and emergency siren.

Walking down this long cut through the sediments of skyscrapers, I am listening in particular to certain set of footsteps in front of me when a firetruck's blaring horn shreds my attention.  The city walk is full of these moments, where a certain rhythm is suddenly knocked out by shrill interruption of another scale or tempo of  movement.

In the compression of my hour of sound recording down into the sample below, I took a pair of scissors to the moments of dead space between such sounds as heels striking pavement, or the hiss of pneumatic brakes.  Listen:

During the track of the walk along Market Street, I also take a step off of the busy sidewalk into a bank, the first interior exploration of many to come.  Applying this same technique of cutting up the space between footsteps, I took the five minutes of wandering around the bank and sliced up its own meted-out moments, starting at 1:37.

At last, I reach the watery edge, but it turns out that wasn't the point.
Reaching the water at the midpoint of the walk is completely anticlimactic.  The rippling surface shrouds a depth I have not the technical means to plumb.  Not yet, at least.

Near the water was a man in a blue jumpsuit working for the city, raking leaves near one of the large waterfront sculptures.  I paused to record the sound of his labor, the metal tines of his rake scratching the concrete over and over.  I would soon return to my own labor, as an architect, at a desk, clicking a mouse over and over.  For me, walking in the city on the lunch hour was pure liberation.  Observing the groundskeeper's labor gave me new-found appreciation for that fact.


Notes from the Desert

1.  I took an overnight trip to Nevada with my brother about two weeks ago.  I was a city dweller in need of a desert fix, an injection of sand, a shower of still air.  My brother had never been to the desert.  So, I picked a spot about six hours by car from San Francisco—a small town that nobody makes a destination of: Hawthorne, Nevada.

2.  To travel to Hawthorne in the winter, when the road through Yosemite is closed, one drives through Reno.  Thankfully, I had a reason to be in Reno: to see two exhibitions at the Nevada Museum of Art.  Even aside from the museum, the city is something fun to pass through, like running one's fingers through a faux fur coat in a thrift shop.  (You know that fur coat has been to Burning Man and back).  The casinos of Reno present a sonic glitter and sensory spectacle at great contrast to the outlying desert.

3. The first exhibition I saw at the museum was Landscape Futures, guest-curated by Geoff Manaugh.  (Hurry to get out there, it closes Feb. 12th)  This room, packed with objects, contraptions, drawings, and dreams at all scales, reminds me of Borges' citation of "a certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which animals are categorized: "a. those that belong to the Emperor, b. embalmed ones, c. those that are trained, .... h. those included in the present classification, i. those that tremble as if they were mad, j. innumerable ones, k. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush... " and so on.    How is it that all these things exist in a single space? We could say it is testament to the imaginative power of the curator, which is no doubt true.  It is also compelling to look at the atmosphere which allows these things to exist together.

One must hold in suspense a certain scale, say 1:48, when looking at mountains of vegetation and models of drone/ferret hybrids scurrying about.  Swelling to fill a two-story volume immediately adjacent is a Goldbergian machine without scale, standing in for some planetary hydrological system consisting of wind sails, pumps, and a simulator for the moon's gravitational pull on the earth.  On a wall nearby, large images of London and New York are shown as living museums in a world not much more absurd than the one we know.  Then, glossy faceted objects painted in bright colors - things made at a 1:1 scale - are to be worn by human beings in order to experience the sensory kaleidoscope of an ant.  We don't get to try them on, but that's part of the point.

What holds all of these things together is the visitor's willingness to go one step further than the separation already exercised from the city to the museum (the city itself a separation we unconsciously make from the landscape).  If not in a desert, and then if not in a city, and then if not in the building which we call the museum... what is the space of the exhibition but a fictional world swirling inside of my head.  Landscape Futures says to me: Why not imagine all landscapes as infinitely malleable.

4.  The other show at the Nevada Museum of Art is The Altered Landscape, a selection of photography which in a broad swath,  "examine(s) human interaction and intervention with environments".  My brother, on our drive out of Reno, made it clear to me the value of having just witnessed all of these photographs of massive-scale interventions in the landscape--rock quarries, gold mines, river deltas, and Christo.  We were flying past some gravel yard on the I-80 and it was though we were seeing these trucks and mounds of rock as alien interventions.  Who is it that makes piles out of earth, who carves terraces out of mountains and yet, as large as these interventions may seem, how small they are, and how unchanging the earth is.  So, the opposite is also true: when viewed at a large enough scale, a landscape is immutable.

5.  The museum was our threshold to the desert, the vestibule which permitted a shift in atmosphere as we left behind the anthropocentric city.  I gained a new appreciation for the museum as a perceptual acclimatizer, just as it is necessary to physically acclimatize in order occupy the desert (warm clothes for the winter, drinking water, chapstick, etc)  The museum enabled us to see on another level, which, in turn, I am always translating to the world of sound.  What kind of space in a museum might permit an acoustic threshold.  Further, how might we hear in the small space of a gallery a sound at the grand scale of the desert.

6.  Over halfway to Hawthorne, we pulled off the road to eat a lunch of Manchego cheese, salted almonds, and olives.  Foods from some far off, verdant land, preserved by salt.  What a luxury to eat salty things in the desert, for we could quest our thirst with the greatest ease with the water we drove in with.  In that case it wasn't a true desert.  Each town which offered us human comforts negated the desert.  Even the road itself, while beautiful in its simplicity, negates the desert.  It is the string which reminds us we are still tethered to the city.

7.  A lake stretched out below us, its blues shifting into greens superimposed by the reflection of yellow hills on the far shore.  Hundreds of small white objects appeared to float motionless in the lake.  As we scrambled down the rocks, I could see these were not inanimate objects but rather birds, probably Loons.  Here and there, the birds ducked down to get something in the water.  They were a long distance off, probably a quarter-mile away.  And yet, when we stopped rummaging through the bag of almonds and sat silent, you could hear each of the birds make their tiny moves in the water.  The astounding thing was this: the landscape was so massive, and here were these tiny sounds that were almost negligible yet still audible. There would be no way to hear them at that distance if not for the stillness of the air.

8.  T.E. Lawrence said he liked the desert because it was clean.

9.  The United States Navy also liked the desert because it was clean.  In 1930, by order of Congress, a new ammunition depot was opened which would later service the war in the Pacific.  And so Hawthorne, Nevada--our destination--became a bunker city.  There are over 2,400 bunkers containing 600,000 square feet of storage for weapons, bombs, and other such not-so-clean things.  Curiously, the Wikipedia article linked to above lists as "capabilities of the center" both "demilitarization" and "ammunition renovation".

But that's par for the course when it comes to the history of the military and the desert.  The apparent 'cleanliness' of the desert has always provided an excuse to drop bombs and test missiles.  I have witnessed this elsewhere--for example, at White Sands, New Mexico.  The desert does not demonstrate the same malleability when it comes to demilitarizing.

Hawthorne Army Depot via Google Maps

10.  I had recently finished reading Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a conversation with the artist Robert Irwin.  He describes visits to the desert outside Los Angeles as incredible sensory experiences that he wished to share with others.  But to intervene in the desert, to add something (or subtract something ala Michael Heizer) so as to signify "PAY ATTENTION" would be pointless.  Whatever it would be, even something as simple as a painted rock or an arrow, would be mistaken for part of the experience itself.  The experience of the desert is already complete.