My work examines the inter-relationships between the spatial nature of sound, silence, focus, perception, and the act of listening itself. With the guidance of Steven Turner, Curator of Physical Sciences, I intend to explore the Museum of American History’s collection of 19th Century acoustic apparatus for scientific demonstration—specifically the many sirens, waveforms, and other inventions of the German physicist Rudolf Koenig.
I will focus on the Grand Tonometer (c. 1870-1875). The only instrument of its kind in existence, this beautiful and precise set of 670 tuning forks expresses the frequency range 520 v.s (vibration simple)(260 hz) to 8192 v.s. (4096 hz). The pitches of the forks extend over four octaves, affording a perfect means for testing, by enumeration of the beats, the number of vibrations producing any given note. My goal is to digitally record the Tonometer’s complete range, as well as a multitude of subtle tonal variations, and to use these recordings as source materials for new works, both compositional and as a potential 5.1 surround sound installation utilizing the complex array of tones.
Koenig considered the Tonometer and his other creations to be purely scientific instruments. His precise workmanship extended the Tonometer’s range to very low frequencies across the field of human perception, thus allowing the listener a chance to witness the nature of sound itself. My own compositions juxtapose soft and hushed, almost imperceptible, fragments with high and low frequencies, bursts, and static in an asymptotic process that cuts away from and deepens the nature of sound, finally achieving compositional focus in the spaces between them. I feel a distinct connection to Koenig’s approach to sound, and to his aim of a new, or enhanced, way of listening.
In 19th century Paris it was common for contemporaries to visit shops for scientific “séances” – gatherings in which they would use the maker’s tools and materials for experiments and debate. In addition to the exploration and documentation of the Tonometer, I propose a recontextualization of these displays. In the site-specific, controlled environment of an installation, my work with the Tonometer will repurpose these “séances” for a digital age. The installation, much like one of Koenig’s demonstrations, will direct concentration to select aspects of the act of listening–bringing the listeners’ attention to the physicality of the sound and their perception of it in relation to their placement within the space.
Through this hands-on investigation and the guidance from Steven Turner —scientific, historical, and musical —I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the physical and tangible nuances of the sources I have been manipulating in a wholly digital realm since the beginning of my career. The final source recordings of these myriad devices made throughout the research will be donated to a digital archive to the Smithsonian’s collection.