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Engineer Kees van Zijtveldt standing beside the largest sound horn of the ESA’s Large European Acoustic Facility (LEAF), at the space agency’s ESTEC Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. (Guus Schoonewille)
Engineer Kees van Zijtveldt standing beside the largest sound horn of the ESA’s Large European Acoustic Facility (LEAF), at the space agency’s ESTEC Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. (Guus Schoonewille)

russell smith

Sound machines and a (really loud) clarion call for extreme art Add to ...

One would imagine that the European Space Agency would be considerably more artistic than NASA, just because it’s European, and the people there have not disappointed: They have created, in the name of science, a giant machine that has artists all over the world salivating at its technology and imagining it as a huge piece of performance art.

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The machine can be considered as a kind of musical instrument. It is in fact a noise-producing horn, a massive one, said to be the loudest sound system ever created. It exists in the depths of a vast spaceflight simulation centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. The room that the thing lives in is a room of death. You can’t be inside the room when it is running. The machine consists of a wall embedded with large horns. The wall is 16.4 metres high and 11 metres wide; the horns run nine metres deep. That is a big sound system. The pictures of it – a beautiful metallic box, a fantasy amplifier – make one imagine a dance club for giants, the big room in Brobdingnag.

The sound is created by nitrogen shot through the horns. It can reach more than 154 decibels, and is designed to sound like rocket engines. The steel-reinforced concrete walls that surround it are coated with a special epoxy resin to keep the sound field uniform inside – and to protect the humans standing outside. The chamber itself sits on rubber pads so it doesn’t shake the whole place down. It can only operate with all doors closed. The ESA claims that no human could survive standing close to it at maximum volume.

There is a boring practical purpose for this (to test satellites by subjecting them to the noise of launches), but that’s not why it has caught the imagination of every electronic-music magazine and a whole lot of installation artists. DJs and music geeks all over the place are linking to this breathlessly, as if to say, this is just the coolest thing in the world.

Sound is big in installation art right now. Technology has enabled artists to create three-dimensional soundscapes in galleries. Some of the best-known of these artists are Canadian: Janet Cardiff and Gordon Monahan come to mind; they are both scientists and artists, and their installations combine physical movement and electronic amplification. Most of their amplified spaces are aurally pleasing, but there is also long tradition – ever since the Italian Futurists and their noise concerts of the 1920s – of alarming and upsetting gallery-goers with jolts of noise.

An interesting example of this pursuit of noise is the amazing work of Berlin-based artist Christina Kubisch, who has designed special headphones that pick up electromagnetic interference around them and translates those signals into deep, pulsing sound. Kubisch then maps walks of various cities, noting where the greatest electromagnetic hot spots are. Users put on the headphones and follow the map, hearing the invisible electromagnetic city. The sounds are buzzing and clicking and drones – exactly the kind of thing we try to suppress most of the time. Often they are overwhelming.

There is pleasure in noise. I know not everyone experiences this, but I certainly do. There is excitement in fear, in risk; there is pleasure in awe; there is pleasure in annihilation. I love being made to feel sick by vibration. “The loudest sound system ever” is an adolescent fantasy, perhaps, but it is a persistent one because of the idea of violence: We know it can cause harm, like drugs, we know it can be used as a weapon. (And it is: The U.S.-created Long Range Acoustic Device is a sound beam used against pirates. Who doesn’t think that’s awesome?)

My girlfriend once threw up after dancing near the speaker stacks, because of the bass vibrations. (It was at a short-lived Toronto club called Boa Redux; people who remember that space all talk about the pulverizing sound more than they remember the DJs.) You’d think that would be an unpleasant memory, but it is something we both boast about now. In the punk days, there were always hard-cases who would show off by sticking their heads right inside the horns, in the terrifying wall of black boxes. That kind of thing is a bit like snorting wasabi or skateboarding off the roof; it’s risk bravado – but it also reflects an urge to lose oneself in experience.

An interesting case of how we seek noise for pleasure is the Mosquito – a high-frequency sound used in Britain to deter teenagers from loitering. The idea is that teenagers can hear higher frequencies than older people can, so stores and public spaces could be equipped with these annoying high-frequency alarms, sending a constant tone into the air, that would only annoy those under 25. Mosquitoes are now in use at malls and schoolyards around the world. But teenagers have found another use for it: A company turned it into a cellphone ring tone. It’s perfect because it can go off in class and your teacher can’t hear it. (You can download it as “Teen Buzz.”)

Apparently painful noise becomes not painful if you choose it.

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