The touring Sound Installation BOX 30/70 is the newest project to be launched by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger. Since 1987 the two composers have been researching the properties of sound in urban spaces. In their installations they react to the soundscape of public spaces with subtle acoustic transformations, thus changing the way a place is perceived aurally. The BOX 30/70 Project adds a new dimension to their work by taking a fixed set of Sound Installation elements on a two-year tour of cities. At each location BOX 30/70 will respond to and alter various acoustic and social situations of the site.
The tuning tube
Odland and Auinger use a special resonating tube for their sound installations. The specially selected "tuning tube" is placed at a select spot within the urban sound environment and responds to the surrounding sonic input by creating an overtone series through sympathetic resonance. Harmonic intervals are emphasised while background noise is suppressed. The length of the tuning tube defines its fundamental tone: for instance, the sound wave of a bass F has a length of 12 feet. A tube this long, therefore, amplifies this note as well as its harmonic series. Despite their musical transformation, distinctive sounds and noises characteristic of the urban environment remain recognisable- emergency vehicle sirens, the deep throb of trucks, dogs barking and human voices all retain their unmistakable character.
For the BOX 30/70 Project the "tuning tube" has been attached to a specially designed acoustic lens constructed on top of a shipping container. This lens allows the BOX to respond to local acoustical conditions, and control the waveforms arriving at the tube. (The BOX also provides an acoustic space, which can be entered by visitors.) Two microphones are installed inside the tuning tube at precisely calculated and calibrated positions so that particular overtone combinations can be extracted. The resulting harmonics shift according to the frequency content of the sound environment producing recognisable melodies. Each site for BOX 30/70 whether street, plaza, or other public space is chosen for its characteristic sound. For earlier installations in urban environments the two artists installed their "tuning tubes" in places such as an old underpass in Salzburg, Trajan's Forum in Rome or the West Side Highway in New York.
The city "tuned"
The introduction of transformed urban sounds in real-time to public spaces effects a subtle change in the acoustic identity of a city. The transformed sounds at once enter on a dialogue with the original acoustic material picked up in the urban landscape. Ambient roar, noise, and acoustic disruptions normally heard as a nuisance, are thus given a harmonic keynote which affects their perception, interpretation, and thus the prevailing mood at the site. It's not just the sounds; the whole situation is "retuned". When perceived through a harmonically altered soundscape, architectural, social, and visual aspects of urban life
The core of the project is acoustic transformation. First, Odland and Auinger have designed the interior space of the container as a quiet refuge from the noise outside. In this controlled listening environment visitors can observe the harmonically transformed sounds in their purest form, as free as possible of outside noise. Parallel to this experience a realtime transmission takes place in public space outside the container, where the transformed sounds are broadcast from the cube loudspeaker and mix with the acoustic image of the city.
This dual presentation of transformed sound enables visitors to become familiar with the altered sounds in different contexts. The differences between the two playback situations elicit a sharpening of listeners' senses, and an intensification of perception. The entire Installation was conceived independently of any individual places in which it is to be presented. The specific sounds peculiar to any particular city, on the other hand, are perceived almost as incidental. The sites include Witten, Rotterdam, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Dresden and Vienna.
Odland and Auinger use an iconic cube shaped loudspeaker of their own design cube for playback in public spaces. Constructed of cement, impervious to weather, too heavy to lift, the "Cube" is ideal for long term outdoor installations. With a downward facing speaker the "Cube" broadcasts uniformly in all directions and therefore couples with architecture of its site in a unique way. For BOX30/70 a single cube is placed at a location where it speaks to the architecture and social use of that site.
The most important new element of the project is the box: a shipping container, which has been prepared to receive a maximum of 10 listeners at a time. Its green color makes the box stand out distinctly from its surroundings. The tuning tube is on top of the box. It is mounted on a specially designed acoustical structure consisting of a barrier with two swivelling reflectors by means of which the acoustical coupling of the tube can be modified. Input that is too powerful can be screened out, source sounds redirected, and feedback controlled.
Visitors enter the actual listening room through a small antechamber, where they remove their shoes. The interior is fitted out like a "chillout room" with soft carpeting on the floor and on the walls, cube-shaped seats and dim lighting. A video screen shows real-time images from the tuning tube while an oscilloscope screen graphically displays the sound waves. The exterior world can be dimly seen through a small tinted glass window. A "Memory-Station" documents previous sites with an archive of recordings, available over earphones.
Alphabet of Sounds
In order introduce a musical time structure within the Box, real-time transformed sounds are intercut with prerecorded material in a 30/70 time ratio. Three minutes of real-time transformed sounds would be followed by 7 minutes selected from O+A's "Alphabet of Sounds", a collection of ear opening and spatially diverse compositions from their 13 year collaboration. During the real-time transmission a video screen shows the view through the tuning tube at exterior sound sources as a visual point of reference. This strict time ratio alternating between real-time and recorded composition functions as listening guide, an ear opening exploration, and a method for examining the complex resonances that surround us.
Early in 2001 Odland and Auinger were in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles doing preliminary work on the project. At the edge of the desert far from the expressway density of the city each car driving on Route 136 passing by at a uniform speed can be observed in great as it crescendos and then decrescendos. The specific dimensions of the tuning tube for BOX 30/70 were determined on the basis of these observations. The acoustic results of the preliminary phase are recorded in the "Memory-Station" of the box. This is the zero form prototype which can be compared with the acoustic complexity of all future sites.
Listening in the room
Visitors can stay in the box as long as they want. The sheltering atmosphere of the listening room and the reduced visuals of the darkened environment make the listening processes extremely clear. The longer you let yourself in for the acoustic happening, the more sensitised you become to the sounds. The arrival of untuned noise from the environment outside is in extremely close time synch with the stereo harmonically tuned version within the box. It is as if a wave of noise passes, and a 3-d tuned version sweeps through the space occupied by the Box. How harmonically tuned sound alters the perception of public space is the central issue addressed by this project.
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