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Collective Signal: The Air Raid Siren Swan Song

Once in a while, someone tells you about a project that they’re still working on, but tickles the imagination in such a way that you can’t stop thinking about it, and you strongly hope it’ll happen. I spoke with Angela de Weijer, a Dutch sound artist, educator and cultural producer. In her work, she triggers the listener’s imagination and brings the audience out-of-the-ordinary experiences.

Photo by Sas Schilten.

Angela’s Collective Signal is such a “imagination-tickling” project, but it needs some context.

In the Netherlands where I live, there’s an air raid system that consists of 4300 sirens nationwide. These were put in place in 1952 because of the Cold War, and renewed in 1993. The Dutch are very familiar with their sound, as the system is tested every first Monday of the month, throughout the year. Here’s what they sound like:

But now, the government is planning to decommission the system, probably by 2020. As a result, Eindhoven-based sound artist Angela de Weijer is creating a swan song for the whole system. Her lifelong fascination with the system has led her to take on a project that’s already been going on for about two years, and will at least last two more years.

Angela is working together with the original maintenance engineers as well as the government to realise a composition for this nationwide system. Imagine: a composition that can be heard nationwide. Played over around four thousand “speakers”. To be heard by approximately 17 million people. In a lot of places you would be able to hear more than one siren at the same time. The sound from a siren would bounce off of buildings, forests, et cetera. The sounds meet the sound of another siren, mix, and create a unique mix of timbres everywhere in the Netherlands. Here’s an impression of what that will be like:

Shots and editing: Timo de Kruijf

Photo by Sas Schilten.

A grand work that celebrates an almost obsolete technology and through sound totally reshapes our surroundings, even if it’s just for a few minutes. We will post follow-ups to this article as the project unfolds.



Mariska de Groot is a Dutch interdisciplinary artist who has been making and performing comprehensive analog light-to-sound instruments and installations for the last few years.
Just like Dewi de Vree, who we’ve featured before on this blog, she is a part of iii, an artist-run platform supporting radical interdisciplinary practices engaging with image, sound and the body in the Hague.
While having seen her performances and installations a few times, the thing that always amazes me is how the changes in the light caused by the spinning patterns are something that one can not really see with the naked eye, although they are very audible. A clear case of a situation where the ear manages to keep up in a better way than the eye does.
The way she explores the phenomenon is very interesting: in both a performative setting as well as installation settings, and everything in between. Sometimes the audience is allowed to interfere with the light patterns, sometimes it’s only Mariska playing the sounds.
For one of her latest projects called Vandmand, she collaborated with sound artist Lars Kynde (whose Tasteful Turntable we’ve featured before). Together, they researched notation and composed a piece for the Elsinore Girls Marching Band in Copenhagen. A sound/light composition for a big group of performers. A true spectacle in which the precision of a marching band definitely comes in handy.
She’ll be presenting a new version of her installation at the Birmingham Flatpack Festival next month!

Of Nature and Things

Fedde ten Berge is a Dutch interdisciplinary oriented sound artist, whose works investigate the use of different types of material. Recently, he’s been working with ceramics expert Frank van Os to research the resonating qualities and electrical capacitance of ceramics. Three of these form the collection “Of Nature and Things”: installations in which the audience is invited to physically play the material.
In each work the ceramic is combined with another object made of another material. Some of the materials stay true to their natural form, like the block of wood in case of The Trunk. In case of The Shroom, people play a wet, smooth surface with their hands or a mallet. The Egg has the most alien form, and is mainly meant to be played by proximity, like a theremin.
As the objects are so alien but still approachable, and the interactions are quite novel (sound by proximity, dipping your fingers in liquid to create sounds), the objects offer a lot of room for exploration from the public.
The Shroom mainly focuses on translating different vibrations to sound, such as electromagnetic and acoustic vibrations. Through this translation, the designed sound merges with the acoustic vibrations. The Egg contrasts a very gentle shape with harsh sound and light, and with the ceramic trays in The Trunk one can play electronic sounds in a water-percussion manner.
Technically, the installations were built using the BELA: a low-latency audio board for embedded applications. It allows the installations to run without any other hardware needed, and makes them quick to set up and play!


This weekend was the annual TodaysArt festival in The Hague, Netherlands. TodaysArt has always been about how new ideas shape our daily lives. This year’s edition focused on technological advances that we cannot immediately understand anymore, such as the complex nature of algorithmic systems and automated data feeds that frame our daily lives.
Except for a conference programme, performances, and a club night, there were various exhibitions in various locations. One of the installation works that stuck with me was Mike Rijnierse & Bob Bothof’s RELIEF. Which, according to the description, is not a sound sculpture, but an echo sculpture. This is because RELIEF uses ultrasonic parametric speakers to project sound on tilted surfaces, letting the viewer experience sound as if it is coming from the sculpture itself, while it is being projected by a moving  ultrasound speaker array.
The ultrasonic speakers are in an array of small units that all emit very high, non-audible (ultrasonic) sound waves. Because they are in an array and interact and mix with each other, they can create audible frequencies which are very focused like a beam, making it very different than normal speakers which are audible everywhere and emanate all over the place.
By placing tilted surfaces before it, and moving the speaker array, you are able to experience the sculpture in audio in very much the same “tangible” way as experiencing it in physical space. It is very close to how blind people are able to navigate the world around them.

Great Animal Orchestra

Bernie Krause is an American musician and soundscape ecologist. He has been recording, researching and archiving soundscapes for over 40 years.
Recently I was at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMa). Part of the Cartier Foundation’s exhibition which is on, is “Great Animal Orchestra” by Bernie Krause and United Visual Artists.
It celebrates the work of Krause’s work, adding a simple but fitting and room-filling spectrogram to the recorded soundscapes, emerging the listener in sound, and being able to recognise the animals with visual cues. Here’s a 360-degrees video, if your browser can play that:
The idea is quite simple, but the soundscapes are compelling and diverse. While it can sometimes be hard to get an audience interested in sound-based works in a museum, United Visual Artists did a great job of adding a simple visual counterpart to keep those who aren’t used to only listen to sound, interested.
If you want to know more about the work of Bernie Krause, I suggest watching this TED Talk about “The voice of the natural world”.
As Krause states in this talk: “…while a picture might be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures”.

Using neural networks to create new music

I think creative sampling as we know it is going to change. Here is a sample I generated based on two Radiohead albums using a neural network. It is based on a Tensorflow implementation of the WaveNet algorithm described by Deepmind.
Deepmind is a Google-owned company focusing on artificial intelligence. They’re trying to create neural networks that are “intelligent”: can play video games, collaborate with clinicians, or solve how to use vastly less energy in data centers, for example. Last year, they published a paper about WaveNet, a deep neural network for speech and audio synthesis. While most neural network-related experiments in the field of sound and music are about the descriptors of sound or just data-sets describing audio (MIDI, for example), WaveNet actually looks at the tiniest grains of digital sound possible: samples.
screenshot from a gif in the paper “WaveNet: A Generative Model for Raw Audio”
As you probably know, digital audio consists of measurements. A CD contains 44100 data points per second, that makes up the waveform which is, when played back, converted back into a continuous signal by the DAC (Digital to Analog-converter), which will then be converted back into sound by your speakers that make the air vibrate. The WaveNet model actually uses these samples as input, trying to learn what will come after the current sample. It creates a possibility space of where one can . If it has learnt this, it can then start generating samples, based on the model the neural network has created (As I’m just starting out in the field of neural nets, this might be totally wrong, please feel free to correct me!).
screenshot from a gif in the paper “WaveNet: A Generative Model for Raw Audio”

The paper on WaveNet describes how it was originally created to do better Text-to-Speech. The researchers found, however, that when they didn’t tell the model what to say, it still generated sound. But without meaning. The samples in the paper were super interesting to me. Half a year later, the all-round musician Espen Sommer Eide wrote a (great!) article on “Deep Learning Dead Languages”. Some audio from Espen’s article:
Audio examples from Espen Sommer Eide’s article

Moving to a new studio, and finally having the time to set up computers with a proper video card to work these algorithms, I wondered how a quite diverse database of musical material would work as a training set, and decided to train a neural net on two Radiohead albums for about a few days last week. What do you think of the results? While I don’t think it’s particularily musical, it has a very organic quality that could be very useful for sampling. To make this into a musical piece, we might need yet another algorithm to structure the creations from this WaveNet algorithm in (macro)time.
Since the Deepmind paper became public, various people have made several implementations available on Github. This is the one that I used.

Splendour Lender

Jelle Mastenbroek is a Dutch artist interested in the “true meaning of objects”. With his design studio, he creates unusual and playful products reflecting on society, money and the human condition.
Quite a few of his works, such as the here pictured Splendour Lender, Money Back Guarantee 1 & 2 amongst others, take status and money as the concept.
How important is status in times of declining moral standards? In times where financial markets collapse, economies are shrinking and money tend to become a goal in itself? With this project I want to express the real nature of money and tell the true story of status; happiness. The splendour lender brings porcelain to life and shows the original function of money as a medium to exchange goods and services. By putting a euro coin you’ll experience a joyful moment. After usage the coin will be returned so the circle can go round.
I love the playfulness and delicacy of the work, and the fact that it is very transparent and can appeal to a big audience!

Sonify... your package's journey

There’s different ways of sonifying data, and it’s often hard to strike a balance between making it musical or “listenable”, and translating the data into sound in a correct manner. We’ve seen different ways of sonifying data before in this “Sonify…”-series. With FedEx’s SoundTrack, they very clearly went for music. Which seems logical considering SoundTrack is a marketing gimmick.
FedEx Soundtrack takes a tracking number, or asks you to create a fictional package, and then sonifies this. Everything from the route, delivery type, package’s weight and dimension will influence the composition. A heavier package will for example create a track with a more intense bass track. For a multinational courier company, it is quite a fun feature that will certainly get them some attention.

Max Motor Dreams

It is common knowledge that babies and small children fall asleep in the car quite easily. This could be a few things, the muffled engine noise, the slight vibration of the car, a regulated temperature. Furthermore it could be a conditioned response: when kids are put in a seat and strapped in, they can’t really move around much and are kind of forced to relax. They have probably slept in the car before so are conditioned to do it again.
Using this knowledge, Ford is promoting it’s new vehicle range with “Max Motor Dreams”, a baby crib that reproduces the sounds, movement and light of a parent’s car. Parents are even able to use an app to collect data from routes and replay it in the crib at home.
It seems super novel, and for a minute I thought it was an April Fools’ prank, but on second thought it is not such a crazy idea. We know that this combination of sound, light and movement works to put kids to sleep. So why not take it out of it’s original context and try to recreate it. It is an interesting experiment. What other environments could we recreate in another context to evoke a certain physiological response?

Vertical Studies at Sonic Acts

The theme for this year’s biannual Sonic Acts festival (23-26 February, Amsterdam) is “The Noise of Being”. The festival generally focuses on contemporary and historical developments within art, music, science and technology. Over the last decade, the festival’s focus has shifted more and more from the universe to planet earth. This edition, it hits a little closer to home, speculating on the strange and anxious state of being human.
One of the commissioned works this year is the collaboration between Espen Sommer Eide and Signe Lidén. The two have worked together in the past during Sonic Acts’ Dark Ecology programme, recreating the historic soundscapes of the Russian settlement Nikel in the work “Altitude and History”. Through working with the local communities, they brought back the sound of wood being chopped, the lighting of the morning stoves, the sounds of animals and birds in the forest, which has since been burnt away. Vertical Studies builds upon this work.
For Vertical Studies, they reimagined the beautiful water tower in the Dutch settlement Sint Jansklooster into a vertical field-lab, where Eide and Lidén are introducing their ongoing investigations into connections between sound, history, wind and weather. For this, they use several specially constructed instruments, created for the recording and playback of sounds in the vertical dimension. By recording sounds using instruments with strings resonating with certain wind speeds, they created an archive of sounds of wind at various heights.
By using this material in the 46m high water tower, they are able to let the audience experience the effect of sounds at different altitudes in different ways, creating a kind of concert hall for vertically recorded sound. It’s quite the trip from Amsterdam (a 1.5 hour bus drive), but the building alone is already worth it, and to hear the ongoing research of Eide and Lidén in this unique space is quite the experience. It can take quite some time to get used to the space- I kept slowly going up and down the stairs, trying to find the right position to be able to fully take in all of the interventions in the space, which is logical with a piece in a new context like this. The artists use various ways of making the space resonate beautifully: by using glass resonators and very physical low resonating tones, they create a very diegetic work consisting of their archive of sounds. While the piece is about using the sounds recorded at different heights, the piece is also very much about the beautiful architecture of the water tower itself.
“Vertical Studies” can be visited during the upcoming Sonic Acts festival, which is from the 23rd until the 26th of February in Amsterdam. The excursion leaves on the 23rd from Amsterdam, at 12PM and 02PM. The installation in the water tower can also be visited on 4, 11, 18 and 25 February. Have a look at the website for more information.