Klankatlas

Dreaming of Urban Sound Parks

An Australian visitor's perspective on Klankenbos

Jordan Lacey (researcher at RMIT, Melbourne) made a sonic travel through Europe and tells about his experience of visiting Klankenbos during its 10th anniversary festival.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Klankenbos Sound Forest in the far Northern town of Neerpelt, Belgium for their 10th year anniversary (22nd November 2015). I arrived in the middle of a research tour investigating urban sound installations across the N-E of America, the U.K. and Europe. To be ensconced in the diverse sound world of this forest was an unexpected and invigorating disjuncture to my journey’s central research question – ‘what is the role of urban sound installations in shaping everyday experience’. Pleasingly, and surprisingly, I was provided with multiple ideas on how we might go about transforming urban environments with sound-based installations. I had the opportunity to meet several of the artists and members of the organizing team, which was a most enjoyable and memorable experience.

The Sound Works

During conversation, Paul Craenen, the director of Musica Impulse Centre for Music who with his creative team manages the activities of the sound forest, was explicit that artists, who embed works within the forest, are briefed to be sensitive to its existing conditions. This is immediately apparent when exploring the forest tracks. There are 15 sound installations situated comfortably throughout the forest, which seamlessly integrate with its atmospheres. Each presents a different artistic intention and relationship with the forest, providing visitors with an expansive range of possible sonic experiences. All works are impressive, however, there were four that I would like to comment on, due to their unexpected impact on my own research questions. I will comment on each. Following this I will describe two sound performances that were attached to the celebrations.

Houses of Sound (installation by Pierre Berthet)

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The first work I encountered was Pierre Berthet’s Houses of Sound (2005). The visitor is invited to enter two semi-elliptical metal structures either side of the picturesque, and sonorous, Dommel River that traces the edge of the forest. The weathered huts feel as if they have been forever situated amongst the trees, like ancient mythic recesses housing something unknown. Stepping into these dark interiors the listener is immediately immersed in new sonic worlds.

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Sine waves excite wires that connect the two huts causing them to resonate, vibrate and buzz. Hands pressed against the thin walls excite the body, which synchronizes with the heard tonal resonances. Houses of Sound is reminiscent of vibrational architectures, in which transducers are fed low-frequency sounds to vibrate solid materials. But this gentler version is appropriately responsive to its subtle surroundings. I would love to find networks of these huts across urban parks, each uniquely tuned for the production of diverse sonic environments.

Oorsprong (installation by Hans Van Koolwijk)

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Soon after, I came across another work emphasizing the physicality of sound: Hans van Koolwijk’s Oorsprong (2007). Koolwijk has created a long, enclosed, metal cylinder (approximately 30’ long and 5’ high) with a heavy door at one end. Upon entering, two hidden machines at the enclosed end roar to life, which immerses the visitor in a dense sonic field. As the artist’s notes describe, the emergent sound field makes it obvious that ‘sound is substance’, which is a consequence of the sound waves pushing against the human body.

At first it is disconcerting sitting inside this dark interior with its pulsing sounds. But in time, it becomes an otherworldly moment, set apart from the exterior world, which completely absorbs body, ears and mind. I imagined the structure as an urban ‘decompression chamber’, providing an entirely different experience than that of the outside world. I imagine such sonic structures appearing across our cities, providing new sensations for the fatigued city dweller.

Tacet (installation by Hekkenbergarchitects & Paul Beuk)

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Hekkenbergarchitects & Paul Beuk’s Tacet (2008), inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”, uses an architectural enclosure to subtract environmental sound, and thereby, brings attention to the critical importance of sound in shaping our experience of the world. A small wooden staircase beckons the visitor to disappear through a door into a tunnel constructed beneath the surface, which soon ascends into a space that is enclosed by a thick glass cube. The effect is to create a view of the forest in which its ambient sounds are entirely absent. In its absence, the essentiality of sound in creating presence, or our sense of belonging, becomes obvious. This work reminds us that sound is essential to interconnection: the visceral sonic touch connects objects, which our eyes can only know from a distance. The summoning of 4’ 33” is instructive, given the work, in its own way, brings our attention to the omnipresence of environmental sounds, and its continuous capacity to shape our sensations and feelings of connection.

Chaise Résonnante (installation by Tony di Napoli)

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I noted that the sound of traffic, generated by an adjoining road, is particularly present in one corner of the forest. Arriving here, I discovered Tony DiNapoli’s Chaise Résonnante (2012). This work, I think, intrigued me the most. Unlike the structures mentioned above, DiNapoli does not require an enclosure to transform the sonic environment. The chair is situated between two sounding boxes, each housing three bars of limestone (a lithophone instrument). The stones are excited by sine wave generators, which are triggered by approaching bodies. Resonant tubes hidden inside the boxes amplify the excited sounds to produce a sound field, which the seated body feels as well as hears.

What is of particular interest is the sonic transformation of traffic. By each emitting slightly different frequencies the boxes produce a beating pattern, in which the traffic sounds advance and retreat in a rapidly alternating sonic sequence. What is unique about this work is that a section of the forest that might be off-limits to those artists presenting self-contained sound environments, has been exploited by the artist for its sonic material, and in so doing, presents a sound installation that would be just as suitable to an urban environment. Imagine street benches that can transform sounds, as well as providing rest.

Performances

As part of the celebrations Musica arranged a number of sound performances in the Klankenbos sound forest. These were held in the afternoon, which gave me the opportunity to explore the above works in the morning. The afternoon crowds would have disturbed the reflective environment that the forest typically provides, but they were, of course, a perfect addition to the exciting atmospheres generated by the performers. There were two distinctive works that I will mention. This is not to downplay the other works, which included an improvising violinist situated by a lake, concert-based sound poets and sound-artists, and Hans van Koolwijk’s playful balloon concert, which I was lucky enough to participate in. Koolwijk’s performance was the final event of the day: multiple balloons filled with helium are released by assistants, the air of which pushes through attached flutes filling the concert hall with harmonic sounds. Also of interest were a number of sound instruments that visitors played during the day, filling the forest air with strange and intriguing sounds.

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Piano Wire & Polystyrene Boxes

Peter Jacquemyn and Jan Pillaert are notable improvisational musicians, both of whom have a strong muscular build. It may seem strange to mention this, but such physiques are necessary to endure the extraordinary performance they provided. The artists spent the morning stringing parallel pairs of piano wire, up to 40’ in length, between adjacent trees. Polystyrene boxes were snagged between each pair of wires, at either end. Jaquemyn and Pillaert spent the next four hours, atop separate ladders, playing the piano strings with long metal rods. The sounds were abrasive and violent – sensationally exciting – and at first, seemingly out of context with the existing environment. But with extended listening the innovation of this work became clear.

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It was not the grating of metal that was of primary significance, but the unworldly amplification that leaped from the polystyrene boxes. Each box projected different sequences of laser-type sounds, which responded to the gestures of both artists.

Some of the sounds were uncannily reminiscent of Australian sound-artist Alan Lamb’s contact microphone recordings of stretched telegraph wire < https://vimeo.com/116199327>. As my listening became more focused, the wire-metal rod combination and the polystyrene laser-shots began to intertwine creating a suspended moment of spatial density and sonic intensity.

Thick Sound Fields

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Tony Di Napoli treated crowds with two performances of his lithophone instrument. I had never watched or heard one of these played before and was amazed to hear the total absorption of the sonic environment by the produced sounds. To one side, DiNapoli had four pieces of limestone, each with a contact microphone excited by sine tone generators. Each limestone sat beneath a resonating tube that amplified their vibrations. The emitted frequencies filled the immediate sonic environment. He took two playing sticks, with adjoining rubber balls, and rubbed several lengths of limestone that lay across the empty box, which formed another instrument.

Significantly, there were no electronic devices connecting these two instruments. Di Napoli was able to shift the entire sound field by rubbing each limestone, which were amplified only by the resonant box on top of which they lay. It was extraordinary to watch, and quite mysterious, from the perspective of a listener (like me) who had never seen a lithophone in action. I imagined the sound field as an invisible sonic pattern surrounding the crowd, subtly shifting its 3D shape each time DiNapoli rubbed the limestones. It was a peaceful experience that held the body in a womb of sound. Crowds watched silently, and respectfully.

Dreaming of Urban Sound Parks

Belgium should be proud to house such an extraordinary place. The fact that Klankenbos is 10-years old, and is clearly popular with everyday people (that is, not just passionate sound-artists!) is testimony to the curatorial work of the creative team. But it also points to the potential for such places to provide for the imaginative needs of future populations. As our wilderness areas dwindle, it is incumbent upon creative practitioners, and those governments who fund them, to work together to provide those public spaces that nourish our need for connection and inspiration. Klankenbos provides an excellent example of what such places can sound and look like. On a personal note, the entire experience made a deep impression on my own research question. Finding ways to introduce new sonic experiences in the city is not just a question of interfacing with urban infrastructures, it includes the addition of sounds to existing parks, or the creation of green spaces, in which city dwellers are provided the opportunity to immerse themselves in environments that enrich the imagination and our sensate lives. Just like the Klankenbos sound forest, in which the listener is embedded in a world of new wonders, me might consider the potential of urban sound installations to provide us with augmented creative and sensate experiences in our urban parks and gardens.

About the Author

Jordan Lacey is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University’s School of Architecture & Design, Melbourne, Australia. Jordan is researching the interface between urban design and the sonic arts, with the objective of creating sonic environments that improve social health and wellbeing in global cities. He is a practicing spatial sound artist, musician, author and educator. His book Sonic Rupture: a practice-led approach to urban soundscape design (Bloomsbury Publishing) is due for release on the 2nd June 2016.

Artist website: hiddensounds.net

Research website: http://www1.rmit.edu.au/staff/jordan-lacey

Book website: http://www.bloomsbury.com/au/sonic-rupture-9781501309977/

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