Landscape Circuitry

What happens when you wire up parts of a landscape and amplify its own remixed sounds? This is the next iteration of my series with SEAP : Sonorous Environment Amplification Panel. I have set up this four channel audio installation on the edge of Seaplane Lagoon on the former Naval Air Station in Alameda to explore the sonic textures in magnified detail.

Through live amplification of sounds picked up by a variety of microphones (contact, omnidirectional, shotgun, and hydrophone) I am able to reveal elements of the landscape which may otherwise go unnoticed. The sounds of birds, waves, pebbles, electricity, and wind through a security fence travel through the wires and merge digitally before being projected through the acrylic sound panel.

Even the more visible and audible parts which pass through such as Southwest jets taking off from nearby Oakland Airport are filtered through the sound installation, mixing and resonating with bird sounds and howling wind. We can hear all of this without augmentation, yet the ability to turn the dial up or down on certain sounds gives the observer a new form of participation in the landscape.

The forms of participation enabled by SEAP can be unexpected. One thing that surprised me is how the slight delay between the sounds initially heard and the sounds played back through amplification immediately creates a new atmosphere. The delay is like what you hear in a hard concrete alley, your own footsteps bouncing back to you in a kind of pangy-hollow sound. But you wouldn’t expect to find that echo effect in an open landscape. When a security guard pulled up to ask me what I was doing, his own voice was thrown back to him. He seemed satisfied with my description “Just testing out an art installation” and drove away.

Another unexpected sound comes from this security fence blocking access to the breakwater. I wired up a contact microphone to the galvanized steel post supporting the fence. The wind which slips through the fence is not audible to the naked ear, yet the metal absorbs the sound and can be amplified and mixed in with the rest of the environment. Listen:

In the recording you’ll hear the sounds of birds picked up by this omnidirectional microphone aimed down into the rocks. Crevices contain their own little sonic worlds. The space between rocks shelters a bowl of stiller air. In this placement, the microphone avoids clipping from wind. Tinier sounds like pebbles trickling down and birds whose calls would otherwise be drowned out are easily picked up.

I found myself thinking about artist Jenny Odell‘s practice of observation at the Morcom Amphitheatre of Roses in Oakland, about how this place on the fringes of a former Navy base could be my rose garden. From the perspective of an architect, I’m not doing anything here. I’m not analyzing a site as a precursor to making a building. Yet I am doing more than bird watching or walking or fishing– all fine activities for absorbing the nuances of a place and experiencing the passage of time. SEAP is an evolution of the many years I have walked landscapes and recorded sounds. Now I have an apparatus with which to gauge the subtle textures of a soundscape and add my own interpretation back into it. I expect to return to Seaplane Lagoon with an ever evolving set of processes to fold in between the processes of erosion and construction.

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