The sound of nature receives an upgrade

Josh Hartman - Music.jpg

“The Place Where You Go to Listen” is an art installation, created by composer John Luther Adams, in the Museum of The North. In the room are five glass panels, lit to fit the time of day and season, and a bench for people to sit while they can listen to the 14 speakers in the room. Music is continuously generated from streams of information, including earthquake, wind, aurora and solar cycle data. Josh Hartman / Staff Writer Photo credit: Josh Hartman

The deep rumbling bass of the earthquakes underlies everything, while the lilting notes from the day choir fill the air with the occasional sprinkling of auroral bells which would fade in and fade out. This is the sound of “The Place Where You Go To Listen,” an art installation in the Museum of the North, created by composer John Luther Adams.

“The Place,” as Adams calls it, is in the process of being upgraded, the time at which it will be completed is yet to be determined. Some of the upgrades are in the software, such as re-tuning the music and adding wind data to the mix of sounds. Other upgrades are to hardware, such as adding new computers, new speakers, new floors and paint for the room. In the future, there are plans to redo the lighting as well.

“Ten years after creating it, I now understand the piece better than I did when we were first making it,” Adams said. “I’ve been able to tune it in a way that is more vivid and spacious.”

“The Place Where You Go To Listen” was first installed in 2006.

“I’m delighted and astonished that the piece has lasted ten years with the technology that we had in there,” Adams said.

“The Place” is a room containing only a bench and five glass panels, colored to fit the time of day and season. Around the room are 14 speakers which play the music The Place is known for.

“The underlying idea of ‘The Place Where You Go To Listen’ is that we are immersed in music all the time, the whole world is music,” Adams said. “Much of that music that is around us all the time is just beyond the reach of our ears. In The Place, I’ve tried to tune in to those frequencies that we don’t normally hear.”

What this means is the music is continuously generated from streams of raw data. The deep rumble of the drums is earthquake data gathered from five seismological stations around Alaska. The tinkling bells are the aurora borealis, driven by data from five geomagnetic monitoring stations.

“In ‘The Place,’ you can hear the aurora, so to speak,” Adams said, “even when they’re happening during the daylight or at night if there is cloud coverage.”

Another instrument depends on solar cycles. The sun’s position in the sky determines how loud the “Day Choir” is and from what position in the room it plays. The chords played by the “Day Choir” are in the major scale, which has a brighter, happier mood. The opposite is true when the sun dips below the horizon and the “Night Choir” starts with chords in the minor scale, drawing out a dark and brooding mood.

“The sky conditions modulate the sound of the day and night choirs and of course the sky conditions always changing and never repeat,” Adams said.

Although the Place has been written about in many articles including the New Yorker, and has been visited by non-Alaskans, Adams hopes that it is significant to the people closest to it.

“People go to Fairbanks specifically to experience that little room and that amazes me, that delights me.” Adams said. “What delights me more is when someone who lives there, someone who’s home is Alaska, someone who’s home is Fairbanks finds some meaning in ‘The Place.'”

“The Place” is meant to showcase the beauty of a location through the music that the location creates, in a way that makes the listener feel more connected to the world, according to Adams. If someone wants to really understand the piece they have to be in the room in the location, rather than listening to recordings, Adams said.

“If you take [a single recording] out of ‘The Place,’ it doesn’t mean much,” Adams said. “It’s like a postage stamp of the Grand Canyon.”

The name of the installation is a reference to Naalagiagvik, a real location in northern Alaska, where a woman would sit on the coast and listen to the language of nature in the voices of the animals and plants around her, according to Inupiat legend.

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