Found Sound City

There’s a building somewhere in New York City: every time you go there – maybe it’s a bank or a department store or the office where you work – you hear what sounds like air-conditioning equipment, a distant droning noise in the background that you can’t quite place.
But it’s always there – maybe sometimes higher pitched than other days, but always audible.
One day, though, you happen to be there with some friends and you’ve got a videocamera. You’re filming each other goofing off, playing in the stairwells, and so on – but when you get back home and begin to watch the video you realize it’s actually quite boring. Making faces at a camera is not as interesting as you’d hoped it’d be.
So – overlooking the fact that this would not actually be possible – you begin to fast-forward the video at 4x speed, then 8x, then 16x, then 32x – and you realize, with a collective gasp, that that droning sound in the background is not a drone at all but a piece of music played slow to the point of unrecognizability. It’s Beethoven, say, or Jimi Hendrix.
Someone is playing incredibly slow music, like a kind of acoustic glacier, inside the building. It’s avant-garde Muzak.
You go a little crazy upon discovering this, however, and begin to make field recordings all over Manhattan, recording drones. You stand in alleys, beneath trees in Central Park, and inside abandoned warehouses, capturing ambient background sounds on tape. You visit the airport, deliberately seek out traffic jams, and illegally access basements on the Upper East Side.
And for the next six months you sit and listen to all of them at 32x speed – 64x speed, 128x speed – convinced that this world has strange music embedded in it somewhere and, if only you use your equipment right, you can find it.

32 thoughts on “Found Sound City”

  1. Sounds a bit like a Chris Janney project to me. I have seen his ‘touch my building’ project in Charlotte, and that makes some interesting noises when you er, touch it. He has loads of other noisy buildings under his belt too!

  2. They could just be playing Leif Inge’s ‘9 Beet Stretch’ at regular speed. It’s a recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony stretched to 24 hours, without pitch distortion.

  3. This reminds me of an episode of This American Life on mapping the world through each of the five senses: one guy maps ambient sounds that pervade our everyday lives.

    Here’s the link.

  4. sound is bound to time and space, living as a transmission medium in the air we breathe. it is not instant or timeless like the image. even a single sample must occupy a space to be heard. the ‘found sound’ is then the space in which you find yourself, entering into, inhabited by, continual interference wave forms of the aural spectrum. produced by, yet living outside of, the structures we construct.

  5. Great post. I've been experimenting recently with a somewhat inverse, or obverse approach to this idea. I accidentally imported a 4 minute long sound file as "raw data" into my audio editor and was given a .2 second blast of digital frenzy. If compters are spaces of compression, of speed and 'immediacy fetish' I thought to apply a similar logic as you wonderfully apply- beautiful, beautiful sub and ultra sonic music emerges when you slow down the raw binary of computer files enough- at which point a whole flora and fauna emerges, .doc files sound different than .pdf's, the intricacies of a full harddrive reveal whole archeological sites to be listened through. I'll have to upload some examples when I find the server space. Speed up the "real" world, slow down the "virtual" one & voila!

    also, not really related at all, I just stumbled upon this and thought about your blog, though I'm sure you're probably familiar with Ralph Rugoff's work: "Among industrial structures, the manhole bears one of the more suggestive names on record, conjuring up visions of a gender-specific anatomical portal." – from Circus Americanus (Verso)

    keep up all the great work

  6. re: the rugoff quote, a way of mapping cities psycho-sexually? imagine we find that Freud moonlighted as some pre-situationist wanderer charting locales that condense erotic potentiality…

  7. but what will you see in the fast forwarded video?

    the frenetic but perfectly timed dancing of people?

    are they imperceptibly accompanying the music or somehow making it?

  8. wow. this is a super cool idea. how things can be made invisible be immense differences in time scale. There’s a piece by the composer cage being played in a church in Europe somewhere as we speak which is hundreds of years long.

    it also reminds me of an old sci-fi story, which I read a comic version of as a child, wherein settlers land on a new planet and find immense statues of a long extinct race. they build a city at the feet of these statues, thrive for sometime and either die out or destroy each other in a war, and then in the last panel, we see a cloud of dust rise up and blow away at the feet of the statues and then one turns to the other and says “what was that?”

  9. Tomo, I had never heard of the bloop before – amazing story. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Larry, one of the earliest posts on BLDGBLOG was actually about the Silophone. It’s a fascinating idea.

    And, Isaac, I’ve actually seen several gay bars called Manhole, so that’s not an altogether inaccurate interpretation of the word.

    Also, if you missed it, an earlier post here might also be of interest: Space as a Symphony of Turning Off Sounds.

    Sound, acoustics, noise, and so on is actually the theme of an entire chapter of The BLDGBLOG Book, which comes out in 6 months or so. There are more ideas like this in it – so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for that.

    And thanks for all the comments!

  10. yes, I loved the Felix Hess post when I first read it but didn’t have the gumption to post then. He has a really wonderful, challenging disc you may be interested in, Luftdruckschwankungen. It makes me think about what the sonic signature of the Blur Building would sound like…

  11. Many years ago, while driving down a highway that had grooves cut into it (I guess to improve traction during rain? I’ve never known for sure), I found myself thinking about the tone that my tires produced, and thought that someone should cut a song into some road somewhere and post signs saying ‘Drive this stretch at X mph’.

    Now there’s a fun mathematical exercise. How long a stretch of road would you need for a 3 minute song?

  12. Who said I was too late? Yeah, too late on the ‘stretch of road’ question, but I did say that I thought of it ‘Many years ago.’

    I still claim first rights to thinking of it!;)

    Thanks for the link!

  13. I take it you know about Jem Finder’s “Longplayer” –

    A friend also has some software which compresses sounds so that, for example, the entire back catalogue of, say, Britney Spears becomes a single 2 minute long track of scratchy, glitching electronica.

    On the same theme, have you heard the CD composed solely of the compressed samples of every occasion George W Bush said “Iraq”? It’s not big and it’s not clever, which makes it pretty apt, if not very catchy.

  14. this is a great thread, and really inspiring thought… i am also reminded of the excellent CD Buildings New York by sound composer/field recordist Francisco Lopez. This collection of field recordings made in various NYC buildings reminds you that buidings make their own music, if only you take the time to listen.

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