If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The sound artists discuss their recent site-specific projects and the revolutionary potential of reclaiming public space through sound.
Five weeks and another lifetime ago, Lea Bertucci and I began a conversation about something we have in common: recent projects involving the rezoning of public space via sound. Lea’s album Acoustic Shadows is a rich sonic accumulation of performance and installation from within the hollow body of the Deutzer Bridge in Cologne, Germany. The two longform pieces are in deep cahoots with the sonic phenomena found at the site. My album Alloys is a collection of audio portraits of New York City public structures: an outdoor gymnasium, parks, piers, an abandoned fairground, and two bridges. The ten compositions utilize contact microphone recordings gathered at each site to create a group of meta-instruments. In our chat, we discuss the similarities and differences of our approaches to these site-specific projects as well as art’s potential to reclaim and reframe public space.
Lea Bertucci In your recent release, Alloys, you reconsider architectural objects as musical instruments. Can you speak a bit about what motivated you to do this project? Was there a singular moment when you realized that a bridge or railing had musical potential?
Noah Wall The impulse to strum a stair railing, knock on a wall, put an ear to the ground. I think Alloys began with an interest in documenting and later repurposing the sound-based interactions we have with architecture and our environment on a daily basis. I wanted to reshape some of the sonic material contained in my immediate vicinity, New York City. Public works like bridges, parks, piers, outdoor gyms, benches, etc. are troves of sound if approached a certain way.
Working with contact microphones has helped me see the sometimes hidden musical potential of objects, especially metal ones. Since these microphones capture sound moving through solid material instead of through air, playback comes as if from the perspective of the object itself. It starts to answer funny questions like, “What do I sound like to this bridge?”
An inspirational story for Alloys is the story of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (pictured above). Nicknamed Galloping Gertie, the bridge was known to resonate like a guitar string in high winds until it’s eventual collapse in 1940. Can you imagine the sound?
In your release Acoustic Shadows you treat architecture as a partner in sound. There’s an alliance between you and the Deutzer Bridge that is maintained and nurtured through cumulative processes of negotiation, composition, performance, and installation. What drew you to this bridge, and how did your rapport with the site develop over the course of the project? Would you call Acoustic Shadows a site-specific piece?
LBAcoustic Shadows came about as part of the Bruckenmusik festival, held every year for around twenty-five years in the hollow body of the Deutzer Bridge in Cologne, Germany. The curators approached me to work in that rather epic space, which had also been home to works by many other sound artists including Maryanne Amacher, Éliane Radigue, Phill Niblock, so it was amazing to be in line with such great company.
The first site visit was an extraordinary experience. The bridge is 440 meters long and made of cast concrete and steel. It boasts approximately fourteen seconds of decay and a variety of acoustic phenomena. In addition to the acoustic conditions found on-site, there was a rich landscape of diegetic sound emanating from the bridge itself, in the form of a tram that would periodically pass over the roadway above. The sonic environment was extreme to the extent that at certain moments, the sound completely altered my visual and spatial faculties. It was truly a bodily experience!
My initial approach was to just listen and analyze exactly what was going on sonically within the bridge and find a way to creatively respond. Spending time on the site and listening to the ambient sound as well as doing acoustic-analysis tests allowed me to get a complete picture of the set of phenomena I would be working with, so my process of analysis was both technical and creative. I wanted to create music that was derived from the specific sonic and spatial qualities of the bridge—to create work in direct conversation with the architecture—and that was contingent on taking advantage of the qualities found on the site. So, yes, I would certainly call these works “site-specific” music. The process of translating these to a conventional release was also quite interesting—I read a lot of Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark texts to help me conceptualize the process of recontextualizing something site-specific to the realm of the “non-site” and how that might alter or affect the work.
It has been interesting to me to consider both of our projects in terms of ways to recontextualize public space through sound. While my project focused on the characteristics of a single site, yours draws from a multitude of places and investigates the microsounds particular to each place. It’s almost as though you’ve created a musical instrument from the built environment. Which types of sounds attracted you the most, and what was your approach to organizing these sounds musically?
NW I visited each location only once, so I’d try and gather more field recordings than I needed, knowing they could be edited and whittled down later to a group that formed some sort of meta-instrument when played together. In the end there are ten songs, each composed with sounds from one location.
I was looking for sounds with defined acoustic character and timbre. This could be something with long sustain or short attack. It was really trial and error finding the right objects, and they varied from site to site. Sometimes boring stuff like a light post would sound really cool when recorded with contact microphones. The generic black light posts at most New York City parks have eight sides, which I think creates some kind of flanging effect when strummed.
I recorded my own direct interventions with hands, various mallets, and bowing devices, as well as diegetic sound resulting from structures being ridden over, leaned on, rained on, and generally blown about.
I was also looking for groups and networks of objects with slight differences in structure. For example, light posts and the metal objects they are made of are technically all supposed to be the same size, volume, etc., but they aren’t, and as a result they have ever so slightly different resonant frequencies. When you combine a bunch of these you sometimes get an interesting microtonal scale. For the most part, I left all original pitches intact in the final compositions to preserve each site’s natural intonation.
The ten compositions, when grouped together, form an aural map of my immediate-ish environment. Some pieces are highly sequenced and arranged, and some are more true to the flow of the original field recordings, but they are all collaged in one way or another for a pretty subjective and narrative telling of the place.
I’ve always found it interesting when a recorded piece of music includes instructions or guidelines for how the listener can best experience the music. I was recently listening to Yoshio Ojima’s Music For Spiral—he recommends listening at a very low volume, no louder than a household appliance. You recommend listening to Acoustic Shadows at a very high volume. I followed your instructions and found it very enjoyable. I also listened at a very low volume and found that enjoyable too. I’m curious how you see volume playing a part in the best 2D/stereo experience of these pieces. What was volume like on the site of original performances and installations? Were there any instructions, prompts, or wayfinding in the multi-speaker installation version?
Personally, what I got out of blasting your album was an appreciation for the nuances and also a sense of the twice-baked potato-ness of the final recording. You can start to hear the accumulated iterations of the project from solo to ensemble performance to installation to “2D conversion.” It’s an interesting vantage point to be hearing all those generations of sound simultaneously.
LB My recommendation to listen to Acoustic Shadows at a high volume stems from a desire to translate the mesmeric experience of the original performance. The environment of the bridge was extremely loud, at around sixty decibels without any musical interventions. The average volume of the performances sat between ninety decibels and 110 decibels. There were no prompts for the audience to experience the performances. I like to revel in the subjective, multistable experience of the listener. I wanted to give them the freedom to move through the space as they pleased, as I think the process of individual discovery and individual experience is a powerful thing, and is ultimately something that is impossible to account for in any musical situation.
One thing I have been reconsidering in recent days, having participated in the demonstrations of the past two weeks, is the social and political significance of reclaiming public space. I think of the autonomous zone in Seattle, which is without any police presence. I think of the chant “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” and I wonder what the revolutionary potentials are of creating a music that relates to public architecture. I have long considered my obsession with making sound in derelict spaces as an anti-capitalist utopian gesture—to appropriate spaces that have been used by capitalist mechanisms and then discarded in the name of “progress,” laying waste to communities and landscape (specifically Silo City in Buffalo, New York, the site of the recordings for my previous release, Resonant Field). Is this something that has entered into your consciousness now that it’s clear we are living in revolutionary times?
NW I don’t consider my project overtly political in nature, but I do think it encourages a reassessment of the potential for the engagement with and repurposing of one’s own environment, as well as public space.
LB But it is precisely this reassessment that has revolutionary potential. When people begin to question the current paradigm of power structures, institutions, and the built environment and decide to develop ways of subverting social relationships to public space in the form of civil disobedience. I think this is what we are all experiencing in this moment in a collective gasp for justice.
NW I agree. Reclaiming and reframing public space is surely a key component of any revolution. In the hands of a movement, public space seems malleable, and I think one reason our shared and public environment is so effective as a platform for the current protests is that it is the same stage that many of the injustices in question are carried out on. I’m particularly moved by the nine minutes of silence that some of the protests begin with to honor the life of George Floyd. It’s a type of durational listening exercise, and is also such a powerful example of sound’s ability to convey a message, even in its absence. In contrast, police have weaponized sound with their use of LRAD sound cannons.
LB Yes, isn’t that interesting, that the police tactic is to assault protesters with a saturation of sound, and peaceful demonstrators instead use the absence of sound to make their point. I have seen some other fascinating engagements between the protesters and public architecture, whether it’s the sound of chants reflecting off the towers in downtown Manhattan to prison inmates banging the windows in solidarity of the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Park Row. I look forward to seeing how we reconsider our relationships to the built environment as a means to facilitate revolution.
Lea Bertucci is a composer, performer and sound designer whose work describes relationships between acoustic phenomena and biological resonance. Her discography includes a number of solo and collaborative releases on independent labels, and in 2018, she released the critically acclaimed Metal Aether on NNA tapes. Lea is co-editor of the multi-volume artists book The Tonebook, a survey of graphic scores by contemporary composers, published on Inpatient Press.
Noah Wall is an artist, composer, and musician based in New York City.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.