- Sonification/Listening Up
Solicited by Tara Rodgers for the Special Section "Sound and the Social Organization of Space."
Sonification/Listening Up was installed 9-16 September 2005 on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Building 54. In this temporary intervention, I focus on my interest in working in the public context with sound through architecture. Thirty-five public-address speakers were distributed across the 23-story façade of I.M. Pei's Green Building (known to the MIT community as Building 54) (Fig. 1). By inviting passersby to listen, this project utilized sound as a representation of data patterns in the ionosphere, the upper part of the atmosphere, recorded by the Atmospheric Science Group at the MIT Haystack Observatory. Changes in the fabric of ion/electron distribution across several layers of altitude in the ionosphere are transformed into sounds that make research conducted at MIT audible to the public. I created Sonification/Listening Up in collaboration with Philip Erickson of the Haystack Observatory.
The speaker arrangement on Building 54's façade resembles a downward-sloping graph. This pattern is representative of the spectral frequency distribution of the sounds, which vary both by duration and in pitch. The broadcast sounds are in fact frequency-scaled versions of ion-acoustic pressure waves within the hot ionospheric gas, which changes in a complex interaction with the sun's varying output. Seven different altitude levels in the ionosphere have been used to construct ion-acoustic sounds that are broadcast from seven layers of speakers on the building's façade. The ion-acoustic data reflects the makeup of the ionosphere above Building 54, ranging from 100 km to 800 km, hence the seven subdivisions of speaker rows on the building.
The Haystack Observatory is currently the only observatory in the continental United States that uses ground-based sensing techniques to map changes in the makeup of the ionosphere. Such changes, especially during periods of disturbance caused by solar winds, can affect the precision of GPS technology and other human-made long-distance and satellite transmissions. Knowing and predicting the constitution of the ionosphere has become an integral goal for commercial interests as well as a driver of the national Space Weather effort (see www.haystack.mit.edu/atm/mho/index.html>) funded by the National Science Foundation. Sonification/
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Listening Up puts a spotlight from an artist's perspective on nearly five decades of study by the Haystack research group at MIT.
Sonification/Listening Up is part of my larger interest in projects that take the form of temporary large-scale public art installations and explore multichannel sound setups. My interventions are situated in outdoor spaces and are typically installed across architectural facades. The repetitive grid of rational architecture is characteristic of the façades I choose. Employing the grid system used by the architects, I place my speakers so that spatial placement would correspond with sonic distribution. Listeners are engaged to look up as they listen. What they see is Building 54, host of the Earth and Planetary Science departments. They see the geometric arrangement of 35 speakers that temporarily occupy the façade. What they hear are varying tonalities derived by ion-acoustic patterns. These sounds resemble pulsing tones that change in pitch and volume at constant duration. Each speaker is driven by a separate sound channel that emits a unique sound.
The outside locations for my sound installations are of particular interest to me since the listener is no longer frontally exposed to the piece. The sound origin affects interior inhabitants in different ways than it does outside listeners who have come specifically to experience the piece. Due to its scale, the installation's sounds extend far beyond the perimeter of the building. Witnesses told me that sounds could be heard across the Charles River into downtown Boston. Perhaps a window washer across the river hanging from a downtown high-rise heard a faint "weoo-weoo-weoo" and was...