When landscapes sing: or, London Instrument

[Image: Keith Robinson/B+C Alexander/New Scientist].

The polar seas are filled with sound: unearthly vibrations that moan almost constantly through near-frozen waters.
"'It's like a string orchestra all practising different tunes at the same time but then suddenly playing together,' says Vera Schlindwein, a geophysicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany."
If you're hoping to stick your head underwater, however, and listen directly to the arctic seas: think again. "The sounds are not usually audible, but can be heard when recordings of seismic signals... are speeded up."
And they sound like this.

[Image: Photographer unknown; from Shifting Baselines].

So what are the instruments behind this frozen music?
Icebergs, of course.
"A spectacular 16-hour 'song' in July 2000 helped pinpoint the cause," which was "traced to a 400-metre-high iceberg." As the iceberg scraped along the seafloor, "seawater running through crevasses in the ice would have continued to flow rapidly, causing the tunnel walls [to] vibrate." It was a kind of frozen saxophone, pounding into underwater geological formations.
This is the iceberg as cello string (or perhaps kettle drum). The internal crystalline pressures of a half-submerged, mobile landscape soundtracking the arctic seas. Tectonics of ice in surround-sound.

[Image: Gustave Doré, "Over London By Rail" (1872)].

But what if you took note of this and went elsewhere, to London for instance, armed with contact microphones and an iPod? You could listen through headphones to the foundational moaning of old buildings, plugged directly in, the whole city an instrument of arches and railway viaducts, Tube tunnels and old churches, gravitational pressures. The unsettling groan of wet masonry.
Like the creaking timbers of an old ship – or like an iceberg: a landscape under strain, singing all but inaudible music. Except you've got your contact mics, and your headphones on, and the reverbed shudder of a Georgian terrace house lulls you to sleep in a cafe. Arctic music, London-based.
Or perhaps all the bedrock beneath Manhattan, hooked up to contact mics and recorded for three weeks: that recording sped-up to no less than ten minutes then played at high volume through loudspeakers.
This is what your city sounds like, you say: the loose wobble of brickwork and glass. 70 floors of an iron tower humming in the darkness as snow falls.
This is the city, settling in its marshes; this is London, instrument.

(Via Archinect's mapper of the poles, Bryan Finoki).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a cool post- always strange and wonderful things are here on this site.

December 06, 2005 12:57 AM  
Blogger sevensixfive said...


"The material for this endeavor is made up of various stones found at the sites as well as other found sound accumulators. Through the “sound-generating querying of their materiality, they will be reformatted into sound design in the recording process,” states Adamski. Later this material will undergo further manipulation at the University of Cleveland’s Research Pool Lab studio."

December 06, 2005 3:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your often wonderful posts for a while, Geoff, but this is one I REALLY think you should carry out!

December 06, 2005 4:47 AM  
Blogger trendoffice said...

You have great photos here!

December 06, 2005 10:29 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Thanks! I'd love to do this, frankly - just hook me up with some funders and wham. London instrument indeed.

To expand the idea, I'm wondering if you could hook up contact mics all over London, to the groaning foundations and sub-basements and Tube tunnel walls, and then podcast the recordings, 24 hours a day, constantly. "When landscapes podcast." Forget radio; just listen to the city settle, on headphones, in a dark room. Tectonic shortwave. Tune in to particular buildings. Recordings made available free of charge to be used how you see fit.


December 06, 2005 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like whalesong! Maybe the humpbacks are just imitating what they hear.

December 06, 2005 12:48 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Also, via sevensixfive's comment: I saw Sigur Ros play in London a few years ago as part of this Norse myth cycle thing, but they used a stone xylophone, with natural stones chosen for their sounds. Untreated. Just rocks, hit with mallets. Earth instrument.

Also, noticed sevensixfive's site has the Maunsell Towers, so check out this.

December 06, 2005 12:49 PM  
Blogger Wicketywack said...

FYI, that iceberg photo is a very old Photoshop hoax. It was dispelled on snopes.com back in 2001. Check it out here.

December 06, 2005 12:58 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

It's still cool. But thanks!

December 06, 2005 1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear Sigur Ros is a good live show- that guys falsetto is unnerving, and at the same time strangely beautiful- how did the stone instrument sound, similar to a normal xylephone or different? Do you think these urban frequencies could be manipulated by moving something in or out of their fields, like with a theramin? So that you could even "play London?"

December 06, 2005 5:26 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Nice! You bury some sort of domed, electromagnetic anti-planetarium beneath the surface of central London - or beneath Leicester Square - and then hook it up somehow to Heathrow. Whenever an airplane comes flying in to the event-horizon of London, this vast buried Theremin kicks in and the city is filled with weird music...

Meanwhile, Sigur Ros is great live - I could hardly recommend them more, in fact. Really really really great. The stone xylophone was only a one-off thing, though, back at the Barbican in 2002, part of this Norse myth cycle concert/opera. I don't remember its exact sound, I have to say, but the xylophone sounded... xylophonic.

Meanwhile the thing to do is musicalize the tectonic plates. Whenever there's an earthquake - there are beautiful explosions of sound. Earth chords. Planet instrument. Huge, vibrating, continent-sized cymbals rubbing against each other beneath the soil.

December 07, 2005 2:40 PM  
Blogger Octopus Grigori said...

I would guess you know this, but there was a project recently where a team went around the world and recorded the songs of various sand dunes.

December 08, 2005 1:18 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

That's already on BLDGBLOG, actually, check it out! It's one of my favorite posts:

BLDGBLOG presents: Sound Dunes.

December 08, 2005 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glaciers also make noise a they crack from melting pressure. Why not record that? These would also play through the ocean waters.

December 08, 2005 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That should say 'as they crack'.

December 08, 2005 5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the tectonic libretto of global warming & the earth's first recorded natural opera, brought to you by BLDGBLOG.


December 08, 2005 6:06 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Or perhaps it's the musical side-effects of global warming: rivers of water, vibrating through fissures in newly-broken icebergs.

December 09, 2005 12:20 PM  

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