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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Building Music

Air Date: Week of

Oliver Beer’s piece ,“Deep and Meaningful” stimulates sewer tunnels to sound like an immense pipe organ. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

Humans have always been attracted to resonant spaces. The highest concentration of cave-paintings correlate with “acoustic sweet spots.” Filmmaker and musician, Oliver Beer, taps into this ancient affinity through his Resonance Project. He uses the natural resonant frequencies to turn architecture into instruments. Beer explains his sonic explorations to Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah.


GELLERMAN: If walls had ears they would certainly revel in the Resonance Project.
The project is a musical experiment - turning buildings into giant instruments - tuning into the acoustics of architecture, the natural resonance of spaces, to make them sing from cathedrals and parking lots to tunnels.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah met the man behind the music.

BEER: My name’s Oliver Beer, I’m an artist and filmmaker, and I’m currently working in Paris, should I go on any further than that? (Laughs).

SRISKANDARAJAH: He’s also a musician whose instruments are buildings - big boomy sounding places. Beer taps into the resonant frequencies of a space, and can play, for example, a tunnel like a pipe organ. That’s what he did under London’s Old Vic theatre.

BEER: What I did in the Old Vic tunnels in London was find the resonant frequencies of these extraordinary Victorian tunnels that run under Waterloo Station, and stimulate them to sing and resound.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Unlocking the precise frequency of a tunnel takes some finesse and some training.

BEER: I taught the singers how to find the frequencies and you do that simply by singing a glissando from a really high register to a low register. And if you do it smoothly, when you hit a certain note, when you hit the right note, suddenly the room will sing back to you.

IKE: How do you find the exact place? Do you have like a sine oscillation box with a wav signal, or is it all just by ear?

Embed Video of “Deep and Meaningful”:

Oliver Beer - Deep and Meaningful, The Resonance Project 2009-10 from FOM 2 on Vimeo.

BEER: In this case, for this work, it's all just by ear. And it’s interesting, it’s almost like a key. Once you tell them that the notes are there, once you tell them how to find them, it becomes quite easy.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Once he found the resonant frequencies of the tunnels, Beer placed seven singers in different places. Then he invited an audience into the dark, mysterious tunnels.

BEER: And, as you say, they’re very dark, and I really exploited that for this performance. So, what I actually did was that I switched all the lights out and it was almost completely black and so the experience for the viewer … They moved very slowly through this space, finding their way, and as they did so, it resounded.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: You couldn’t at first identify there were even people singing.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: Out of that will grow just a single melody.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Old Vic Tunnels, 2011.]

BEER: It’s a very emotive experience, really to suddenly feel like you’re in the belly of this giant architectural instrument and this great pair of lungs. People have told me that it was a very immersive and actually quite chilling experience.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Beer is not exclusively an underground musician. His Resonance Project has reverberated in spaces both mundane and sacred.

BEER: One of the first ever pieces I did was in a chapel in Oxford where I used the text of the Lord’s Prayer and distilled it through the architecture.

SRISKANDARAJAH: A small choir repeated the words:

The Resonance Project takes choirs outside concert halls, into the resonant real world. A youth choir performs in a Birmingham garage. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[SOUND: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven…”]

SRISKANDARAH: And Beer recorded the prayer and played it back over speakers. As the words bounced around of the marble floor and domed ceiling, he kept the microphone running, recorded that sound, and played it back.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

BEER: And when that finished, I played that back and recorded it again. And so I made a recording, of a recording, of a recording.

SRISKANDARAJAH: As he did that, the natural frequencies of the chapel resonate more strongly and the overtones become more pronounced.

BEER: Then I asked the choir to match those notes as they appear. The room actually then causes that wineglass effect to happen. It amplifies their voices and starts to sing back to them. And then, when it's singing back to them, and they're singing in perfect unison, I then ask the choir to harmonize with it.

The words of the Lord’s Prayer are spoken and recorded. Then a recording of that is played, and rerecorded. The process repeats until the prayer resounds, not as words, but tones unique to the shape of the Church. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: The words of the prayer echo continuously round the chapel and return as unintelligible vibrations.

BEER: One of the things that I love about this whole phenomenon - the whole project and its creative potential - is that no matter what words you say, no matter what words you sing, no matter what their meaning, no matter what their text, it will always bounce back indiscriminately. The mathematics of it and science of it is completely indifferent to the meaning of your words.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Worcester College Oxford, 2008.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Another Oliver Beer project finds music in a cement multi-story parking garage in the English midlands.

BEER: A really grim, tall, concrete building right in the center of Birmingham. I think its days are numbered. It'll probably be wiped out in the next phase of development. And I just love the idea that I could almost make a cast of the inside of this concrete monster before it gets destroyed. Obviously a cast not in a literal sense, but in an acoustic sense.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11 .]

BEER: For the text, I used the mantra which is displayed on all car parks in Britain where it just says again and again "pay and display, pay and display" wherever you go in the whole place and all the qualifications of that, like "except on Sunday."

For the piece, “Pay and Display,” Beer scores one for a concrete car park. (Courtesy of Oliver Beer)

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

BEER: Why should we not have to pay to park on a Sunday?

SRISKANDARAJAH: For his ode to a car park, Beer worked with about 20 kids, ages 9 to 12.

BEER: These kids were incredibly sensitive to the sound. It was quite amazing and I never thought kids so young could be so tuned in to the idea and to the music. It was quite beautiful.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

SRISKANDARAJAH: Just like in the Oxford chapel, Beer recorded the voices and played them back over speakers, and then looped that, and looped that. And as the words degraded, the natural frequency emerged.

BEER: Then I asked them to harmonize with it. And so it was this progression from speech, to music, and then from this single unique chord grew a harmonic progression.

[MUSIC: Oliver Beer, The Resonance Project: Pay and Display, 2010-11.]

BEER: I began the whole shoot by having just silence. Having them listen. And at the end of it, I did it again - I asked them just to be silent. And after a day of using their ears in that way of tuning into all of the sounds around them, they heard so much more than they had in the morning.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Beer says once your ears tune into the resonant frequencies of the environments we walk through every day, it’s hard to turn them off.

BEER: Everyone probably thinks I’m mad. You know, any particular space that I'm in, I’ll be singing to make it resound back at me. And I think there’s a music inherent in every space.

SRISKANDARAJAH: And that makes Oliver Beer want to explore new venues for his concerts.

BEER: There’s a great new road tunnel that runs under the Bosporus which would be wonderful to work in, or even the Pantheon in Rome. It’s been there 2,000 years resounding in the same way, and I wonder how many people have ever heard it.

SRISKANDARAJAH: If Beer has his way, and can persuade the right authorities, perhaps more people will get a chance to hear it the future. For Living on Earth, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah.



See more Resonance Project videos


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