Steam Tunnel Music



On the advice of a friend here in New York, my wife and I went over to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on New Year's Eve to watch the school's underground steam infrastructure be transformed, temporarily, into a thunderous musical instrument. Somewhere between subterranean calliope and mutant wave organ, steam-powered explosions of sound threatened to deafen everyone as it turned 2010.

I've finally gotten around to uploading some footage I shot that night; you can watch (a very badly edited) clip, above.


[Image: Pratt's underground steam HQ, stitched together and cropped by iPhone].

According to the Municipal Art Society, Pratt's steam-powered plant "is the oldest privately-owned, continuously operating, power plant of its kind in the country"—and, once a year, it gets turned into a gigantic musical instrument. One of the whistles used has even been repurposed from an old steamship, the S.S. Normandie.

The implication here, that you can attach pieces of musical instruments, and even old ship parts, to your city's existing infrastructure and thus generate massive waves of sound is pretty astonishing; this might be a very site-specific thing, to be sure, and something only Pratt has permission to do to its own steam tunnels, but the mind reels at the possibility that this could be repeated throughout New York. For instance, on any point of the existing steam network as documented last month by Urban Omnibus:
    Every winter, a typically unseen machine becomes visible in the streets of Manhattan: Con Edison’s District Steam System. Seen from the street as steam leaking from manholes, or more safely vented through orange and white stacks, leaking steam hints at an underground energy distribution system that is the largest of its kind in the United States and offers a chance for the public to become more aware of and more involved in how the city works.
As Urban Omnibus adds, "the steam system is largely ignored by the public until things go wrong"—or, of course, until that system is turned into a city-scale musical instrument through a maze of well-placed reeds, valves, and resonators.

The city is a saxophone, your grandfather explains, pointing down through sidewalk steam-grates as haunting whistles begin to sound. We have always lived inside an instrument, he adds, even if not all of us have known.

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Anonymous Nick said...

This is incredible! It sounds like the pipes are a roaring animal!

January 27, 2010 3:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I feel for the ears of you and everyone else was there; mine are beginning to hurt just from listening through headphones! Seems like a pretty rare and exciting event!

January 27, 2010 4:53 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I moved on new years eve and was three blocks from pratt and didnt know about the steam instrument and was pretty sure aliens were invading

January 27, 2010 5:19 PM  
Blogger Technovelgist said...

You'd enjoy George RR Martin's 1977 novel Dying of the Light. He describes the Darkdawn city, which is built to be a musical 'instrument:'

"...the city had a song.

"It was like no music Dirk had ever heard, It was eerie and wild and almost inhuman, and it rose and fell and shifted constantly...

"'Darkdawn built this city, and the Darklings are a strange people. There is a gap in the mountains. Their weather wardens made the winds blow through it. The wind plays the city like an instrument. The same song, over and over. The weather control devices shift the winds, and with each shift, some towers sound their notes while others fall silent...'"

January 30, 2010 9:59 PM  

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