Curated by Ben Vida
In the late seventies sound artist Max Neuhaus began experimenting with constructing a set of sound signals to be used in emergency vehicles.
Historically the sound of a siren was determined by the device used to shape and project it (such as the cranked mechanical klaxon with its rising and falling pitch), but by the sixties, with the ability to amplify loud sounds electronically, the quality of a siren no longer needed to be linked to the physical shape of the device by which it was being produced. This opened up the possibility for creating a much wider set of sound signals, but this was not something being considered by siren manufactures.
Applying his understanding of how humans experience sound, Neuhaus would spend the next decade and a half designing what he felt would be a more effective siren. He knew sound localization was the key component: 'Our mental processes for locating sound depend on a rather delicate (though automatic) comparison of the differences in the onset of the sound between the two ears. This mechanism works very well for the sound of a twig snapping, but is quite useless with either continuous sounds or those without clear beginnings'.
In New York police cruisers are now equipped with a newly designed siren known as the Rumbler. The Rumbler produces a low ascending tone that sweeps from 180 to 360 hertz, and is usually used in short bursts, giving it a very physical presence. These sweeping tone bursts are coupled with a traditional keening and varied high-pitched siren and the combination of the two creates an almost dimensional, highly localized sonic event – sort of more like experiencing an object than a sound; a sonic object that feels as if it is almost on the verge of being made visible.
In the complex topography of the urban landscape, where a sound is reflected from building to building, surface to surface, the hyper-physical sound of the Rumbler creates intense and fantastic psychoacoustic events. It is little wonder that Neuhaus would be attracted to such a functional and public form of sound delivery.
Throughout the twentieth century composers introduced new sonic materials as a way of producing increasingly complex timbres. Whether by adding auxiliary percussion sections and non-pitched acoustic sound devices to traditional orchestras or by utilizing the new production techniques made available through electronic synthesis and musique concrète, this expanded sonic universe helped to create a creative space where compositional forms could be reconsidered and the parameters of what constitutes legitimate musical materials redefined.
A contemporary analog to this is the practice of using sonic phenomena as a compositional element and the use of sound itself in space as a medium. And so now we have a new 'new expanded sonic universe', one that pushes past the boundaries of timbre and form, where the meticulous control of a sound object's trajectory within a performance space becomes both a compositional element and musical gesture.
This practice complicates both the spatial audio field as well as compositional form, and acts to obscure the temporal nature of sonic composition – now space and time are fused, the architectural and the acoustic. Thus by engaging with the use of psychoacoustic producing sound objects as a compositional material the composer creates work that can act to recalibrate the listeners sense of hearing, illuminating not only what we hear but how we hear.
Ben Vida, November 2012