From the underground tunnels to the palatial skylit dome, MIT is a campus rich in unusual spaces, each with its own particular acoustic and cultural resonance. These are nooks and crannies that hum and vibrate, whisper and sing. This spring, MIT and Berklee College of Music students creatively explored these locations through a series of sound installations at the intersection of music, art, architecture, and sound engineering.
The course 4.373/374 (Sound Installations and Sonic Interventions), sponsored by the Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), explored how sound can offer new ways of understanding space and place. It was led by artist Gediminas Urbonas, an associate professor in MIT’s program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), in conjunction with two composition classes, 21M.065 (Introduction to Music Composition) and 21M. 351 (Music Composition), both taught by Keeril Makan, an associate professor of music at MIT.
Instrumental to these investigations were visiting artists Scanner (otherwise known as Robin Rimbaud), Stephen Vitiello, and members of the experimental ensemble Either/Or. These artists served as creative catalysts, coming to campus once a month throughout the semester to advise students on their projects, perform original works, and discuss their own pioneering work in music and sound art.
Other collaborators were Neil Leonard, an MIT research affiliate and artistic director of Berklee’s Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, and Ann Lui SM ’14, the course’s teaching assistant. Seth Avecilla, a fabrication associate, and Madeleine Gallagher, a media associate, both set up the electronic production lab for the sound installations.
Exploring auditory perception
With these acclaimed artists, students explored the burgeoning — albeit difficult to define — field of sound art. Sound conveys information and orients us to our location. Yet, according to some, Western philosophy has long dismissed hearing as subordinate sense to vision as way to acquire knowledge. Recent scholarship and creative work has, in turn, sought to reestablish the value of sound as a significant learning tool, exploring both the cognitive and cultural dimensions of auditory perception.
“As soon as these artists started coming in, everyone went off on a new tangent. Their opinions were what drove us forward and gave us new ideas,” says Chris Martin MA ’15, who, together with Berklee students Audri Acuña and Zai Zhe, amplified a hidden metal staircase in the funhouse-like Stata Center by processing the resonances produced by the space’s vibrations.
“It was exhilarating playing the staircase as if it were a giant metallic instrument,” Acuña says.
Another project by Carolina Lopez-Trevino ’15 and Berklee student Jonas Margraf brought to life the desk-lined gymnasium of Walker Memorial, infamous to undergraduates as the dreaded site of final exams. With its complex acoustics, Lopez-Trevino says, the gymnasium is a place where “you can hear everything and nothing all at the same time.”
New sonic textures
In “Pedestrian Music,” a microphone was installed in the grand, domed lobby of Building 7. Using custom software, the piece picked out and amplified individual tones from the larger tapestry of ambient noise to reflect beautiful new sonic textures. It was created by Longrui Peng, a graduate student in the department of urban studies and planning, and Berklee students Dalton Harts and Ni Cai.
Sara Goheen ’14 and Berklee students Collin Russell and Pamela Gonzalez piped underwater sounds into the Green Building’s radome, a fiberglass bubble enclosing the building’s weather radar dish.
The course also presented a unique opportunity to bring together students from different disciplines. “Being in a partnership made us braver,” says Nisa Ari, a doctoral candidate in art history, who collaborated with Berklee student Chelsea Southard. Together, they created “BexPhone,” a monument to the soon-to-be-demolished Bexley Hall, a famously eccentric MIT dormitory.
The class “did much to promote dialogue about sound and society within our communities and beyond,” Leonard says.
Documentation of this work can be accessed on the course’s website, Resonating MIT, which also allows visitors to “pin” their own sounds on an interactive map and for MIT community members to upload sound-based events and recordings pertinent to their research. In celebrating spaces on campus that might otherwise be overlooked, these projects inspired audiences to recalibrate their senses towards the built environment. As Martin says: “The soundwalk really explored MIT to its fullest.”
Scanner and Vitiello culminated their residency in an improvised and immersive sound performance, “Sonic Bodies,” accompanied by Either/Or members David Shively and Jennifer Choi. Artist Madeleine Gallagher created a backdrop of kaleidoscopic visuals. Surrounded by speakers, audiences were immersed in a rich and ever-shifting sonic landscape whose resonances could be felt within the body.
“It was the perfect capstone to an amazing class,” Urbonas says. “These sonic interventions produced series of creative acts, that made research spaces and disciplinary boundaries resonate, making the essence of things go out of themselves producing new spaces. Once again we could witness the power of art appropriating these new emerging territories for critical exploration.”