Cover Bands of Space

In David Toop’s excellent book Ocean of Sound – a short history of ambient music – he quotes composer Brian Eno, at great length, on the connections between landscape, sound, time, and the city.

“There’s an experiment I did,” Eno tells us; it was “a good exercise that I would recommend to other people.”

I had taken a DAT recorder to Hyde Park and near Bayswater Road I recorded a period of whatever sound was there: cars going by, dogs, people. I thought nothing much of it and I was sitting at home listening to it on my player. I suddenly had this idea. What about if I take a section of this – a 3-1/2 minute section, the length of a single – and I tried to learn it? So that’s what I did. I put it in SoundTools and I made a fade-up, let it run for 3-1/2 minutes and faded it out. I started listening to this thing, over and over. Whenever I was sitting there working, I would have this thing on. I printed it on a DAT twenty times or something, so it just kept running over and over. I tried to learn it, exactly as one would a piece of music: oh yeah, that car, accelerates the engine, the revs in the engine go up and then that dog barks, and then you hear that pigeon off to the side there. This was an extremely interesting exercise to do, first of all because I found that you can learn it. Something that is as completely arbitrary and disconnected as that, with sufficient listenings, becomes highly connected. You can really imagine that this thing was constructed somehow: “Right, then he puts this bit there and that pattern’s just at the exact same moment as this happening. Brilliant!” Since I’ve done that, I can listen to lots of things in quite a different way. It’s like putting oneself in the role of an art perceiver, just deciding, now I’m playing that role.

All of which is interesting already – but it makes me wonder if a band could then reproduce that tape, live, as a kind of cover song, in concert. Godspeed You! Black Emperor plays the sounds of Bayswater in their closing set, a perfect rendition of Eno’s old tape…
Instead of another Led Zeppelin cover band, you book a Times Square cover band for your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah; they play the traffic, voices, and horns of a typical Times Square day, for hours. Even lifetime Manhattanites can’t tell the difference.
Or an International Space Station cover band, playing for you, live, acoustic versions of the Station’s lonely clicks and whirs.
A St. Louis Arch cover band – the St. Louis Arches® – reproducing the sounds of Eero Saarinen’s structure on stages around the world. “It’s just like being there,” The New Yorker reports. “The effect is uncanny.”
An Elevators of the Empire State Building cover band. Alexanderplatz acoustically reproduced on guitar… by a busker in Alexanderplatz.
The sounds of Death Valley – live, at the Hollywood Bowl.
What the Kremlin would sound like if it had been built in the Piazza Navona – played live, in a small room outside Tokyo.
Or a man who tunes the infrastructure of his building till it sounds exactly like a hotel he once stayed in in Paris. The ducts rattle in just the right way, and the door hinges creak… reminding him of better days. He then hires a band to reproduce those sounds at the office Christmas party.
He is promptly fired.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Soundtracks for Architecture and Silophone resonance: architecture to play by phone. Coming soon: a great interview with Walter Murch, in which I ask him about the Brian Eno quotation, above).

13 thoughts on “Cover Bands of Space”

  1. For what it’s worth, by the way, this cd has always struck me as a particularly good approximation of what an abandoned space station, floating through space, might sound like… But then how would I know.

  2. But can you hum it?

    I enjoy mimicking the sounds of squeaky doors and other environmental noises. Fortunately, my partner finds it amusing.

    I must mention the sequence in Cremaster 3 where Barney tunes the Chrysler building’s elevator shafts to produce a specific chord. Turning the building into a giant bag pipe.

    And, of course, the origin of all this thinking, 4’33”
    by John Cage.

  3. Ooh, I love that Hz album although it always makes me think of hot weather, probably because I bought the EPs on their first release during the summer of 1995. I only ever play it when the temperature hits 30C. Being in LA, I suppose you could play it a lot.

    Eno developed that street noise idea in 1997 for an exhibition at the White Cube gallery in London.

    “”Music For White Cube” was a sound installation created by Brian Eno for the White Cube gallery in London, which consisted of 4 CD players playing tracks of Brian singing one note with a background of traffic and other street sounds, which had then been slowed down and enhanced using audio software. This CD of extracts from the installation was released in a limited edition of 500.”

    The CD is okay but I generally prefer his more timbral ambiences.

  4. reminds me of Bernie Krause’s theory of “niche hypothesis” – the natural (whatever that means) environment actually functions something like a symphonic score – with various animals, insects, birds moving in and out of the aural arrangement in respect of each others “playing”…

    Krause is quite an interesting guy, having been a one time Motown session guy, Weavers member and prog synth dude amongst other things…

    should we apply the niche hypothesis “scores” to the urban environment it would prove interesting ie: cars only able to move after the elevator bells have chimed this in turn only occurring upon the slow decay of a passing aeroplane etc…

    in tokyo, japan, railway platform tannoys often regale journey folk with bird sounds which in turn has led to avian migration patterns being disrupted…

    if whistles were fitted over car exhausts to play “randomly pleasing tonebursts” would congestion be such a bad thing?

  5. Re: Beaver & Krause, it should have occurred to me earlier (since I’ve had the album for years) that the second half of their Gandharva album was recorded in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, so there’s another architectural connection for you. The end of the album features about 15 or 20 seconds of the sound of the building itself after the musicians have ceased playing. Not so surprising these days but pretty advanced for 1971.

  6. John, while we’re on the subject of hot weather and ambient music, Tim Hecker’s Radio Amor always reminds of August humidity and the chilly whir of a window air-conditioning unit in Philadelphia. I listened to it every night, two or three times, for a few weeks in August 2003, and a permanent memory was made…

  7. just to add to the archi-derive…

    Maryanne Amacher:

    “An entire building or series of rooms provides a stage for the sonic and visual sets of her Installations, produced almost exclusively in large expansive architectures.”

    runs the introductory blurb – To experience, it has to be heard at super high volumes and basically causes the listener’s ear to vibrate and produce audible tones… the listener is the producer…

    the bizarro medically astute will be aware that this is actually possible in some folks without the need for super loud encouragement and has in fact been recorded in whole families – their houses quietly buzzing with the eerie clicking tones… Brian Eno, with DAT in hand, appreciatively gasps as he lies beneath their floorboards and taps record…

  8. I have a CD, released by a couple of Japanese sound artists, that consists of 70 minutes of the sound of an empty room, recorded by applying contact mic’s to the windows.

    It is a very strange listening experience.: it doesn’t sound like anything at all until you turn it off — at which point you are confronted by a radical change in the acoustic properties of the environment you are in. It’s quite startlingly noticeable when you would be hard put to say that you were listening to anything other than silence. Architectural music at its purist perhaps.

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