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Acoustic Art and Industrial Architecture Make Music


For six weeks this summer, coinciding with the Farnborough International Air Show, gigantic buildings with names like Q121 and R52 are humming, droning and singing in celebration as part of an installation.

Created by sound artist Thor McIntyre-Burnie, the installation utilises the buildings' exceptional acoustic properties to produce acoustic effects.

The buildings in Hampshire, UK, are the wind tunnels that shaped the Spitfire's peculiar, elliptical wings, as well as guiding designs for supersonic aircraft from as far back as 1942. Now they are open to the public for the first time.

Finished in 1935, Q121 is a steel and reinforced concrete building some 15-metres high, housing Britain's largest wind tunnel. Designed to channel air in the most efficient manner, the tunnel boasts extraordinary acoustics.

The machine's massive fan once drove air at 185 kilometres an hour into the maw of a concrete throat. Reinforced concrete vanes turned the gale back on itself twice over until the airstream left through a grating aimed directly at the intake fan.

The open test area between the vent and the fan was large enough to accommodate entire planes.

The reverberation is tremendous; make a sound in any large industrial building and it lingers in the space. In acoustic engineering, the rate of decay is gauged by the reverberation time, which is the time it takes for sound to die away to 1/1000th of its initial intensity.

The reverberation time is largely controlled by the amount of energy dissipated every time sound bounces off the walls, floor and ceiling. Larger spaces have longer reverberation times because there is a longer interval between reflections.

In Q121, though, something else is happening as well. "The structure is built precisely to minimise turbulence, so along with the reverb you get enormous clarity," said Thor.

His installations here combine instrumental music, historical recordings and the voices of former engineers. "Also, the spaces between the vanes that directed the air in the tunnel seem to have their own acoustic properties."

It might seem that sound art would be easy to record, but it has presented some unique problems.

"Being in a space, gauging the distance between sound sources, walking through corridors and rooms, you subconsciously compensate for the way sounds from different locations arrive at different times in the ear," said Thor.

"Installations can make perfect sense in situ, but they can come apart in a recording, when there are no visual cues to help you."

His current installation is a case in point. To one side of the test area, where the main speakers hang, there is an access door leading to another part of the tunnel. Sounds travelling by this route arrive after an appreciable delay.

This aspect of sound art is, as yet, not very well understood, and since no one is going to build cathedral-like spaces for artists like Thor McIntyre to play in, that's all the more reason to open up derelict and disused industrial spaces to artistic exploration.

As pioneering acoustic ecologist Raymond Murray Schafer has said, sites with extraordinary acoustics deserve preservation just as much as those with remarkable visuals.

Tannoy provided a selection of its professional and residential ranges for Thor to utilise around the space, including Prestige, VX/VXP, and Precision, with a selection of Lab.gruppen amplifiers providing power where required.

www.tannoy.com

 

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