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The Biggest Sound You’ve Never Heard

Despite having lived in New York for six years, I only first heard about The Dream House, now in its twentieth year, a few weeks ago. Tucked away in Tribeca, The Dream House is a sound + light environment designed by musician La Monte Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela. Not fully knowing what to expect, I ventured to the MELA Foundation at 275 Church Street to have a listen.

I arrived at the nondescript building that houses The Dream House, slipped off my shoes, and entered a warm, spacious, magenta-tinted room. Immediately, a cacophony of sounds began beating on my ear drums, engulfing me in a thick droning sound. An acute sense of panic swept over me—friends were coming to meet me and I didn’t think I could bear the drones for a moment longer. As I nervously paced the room, however, I started to notice something rather strange and amazing: the sound was actually changing with every move I made, right down to the tiniest, most subtle tilt of my head!

sound waves

[top] sine wave [bottom] more complex sound waves

The Dream House’s unique soundscape is a tribute to the mesmerizing power of pure mathematics, as is readily evident from the composition’s [105-word-long] title: The Base 9:4:7 Symmetry in Prime Time...1 To construct this seemingly infinite array of sonic possibilities, Young deftly employs the physical + mathematical nature of sound to compose with numbers and ratios rather than notes on a page. The sounds of The Dream House—like any other sounds—begin when the four floor-to-ceiling speakers start vibrating, setting surrounding molecules in the air in motion. As these molecules bump against each other, regions of high pressure compressions and low pressure rarefactions form a mechanical wave as the sound travels.

The most basic unit of sound is the sine wave—or the sinusoid. The frequency of the sine wave, or how quickly it oscillates up and down, dictates pitch; higher frequency waves emit higher pitched sounds, while lower frequency waves emit lower pitched sounds. The Dream House is composed of sine waves at 35 different frequencies over the 10 octaves that span the audible range for humans [20 Hz – 20,000 Hz]. Young intentionally chose each frequency to be some multiple—or harmonic—of the fundamental frequency of 7.5 Hz: beginning at the fourth harmonic [30 Hz] and ranging up to the 2224th harmonic [16,680 Hz].2   Within the room, each frequency has its own point of resonance where it is heard the loudest: the lower tones resonate in wide niches towards the middle, while the higher tones occupy much narrower bands of resonance scattered throughout the room.

from time to time, the mela foundation holds concerts within the dream house environment.

To create such an acoustic environment, Young paid very special attention to the relationships between the various sine waves, specifically to the intervals between their frequencies. These intervals can be related as ratios between different frequencies.3   For The Dream House, Young chose only to work with the frequencies in the 9:7 interval, using only the pitches found in between A and C#. Young further placed a special emphasis on harmonics within that 9:7 intervallic spread that are prime-numbered—divisible only by 1 and themselves. Each prime harmonic that appears in the composition introduces a totally new interval into the soundscape, as it produces a frequency ratio that cannot be reduced any further. As a result, the more primes used in the piece, the more unique intervals become knit into its aural fabric.

If you begin with the rational numbers and learn what they are, physically, musically, vibrationally, and spiritually, then they’re like stepping stones toward other more evolved places. ∇Δ La Monte Young

Pure sinusoidal sounds are actually never found in nature. Instead, the complex sounds we encounter every day are an amalgamation of several of these sinusoidal building blocks at varying frequencies that overlap and interact to form more complicated waveforms. Four monolithic speakers are found in each corner of The Dream House, emitting sine waves at different frequencies from floor to ceiling. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine these sine waves colliding + coalescing with one another over every square inch of the room to create the installation’s surreal droning atmosphere.

photo

me. moving through the dream house.

The music of The Dream House is unique in that it does not progress linearly through time as notes are played out from a score to a stationary audience. Instead, the music moves as you move through the environment over time. It is music that quite literally exists in three dimensional space, necessitating complete immersion into the environment of the piece: “It depends on where you are sitting or whether you are stationary or moving. As your head moves, your ears behave like fingers on a stringed instrument, activating the various nodes that emphasize different partials of the harmonic spectrum.”4  

The Dream House is the culmination of La Monte Young’s career-long fascination with the infinite and eternal. I spent over two hours engaging with this utterly bizarre space. Tilting this way and that // moving through various heights // spiraling through the room [// even standing on my hands!], I tuned into the dynamics of the room, and found that I could never encounter the same sound in the same way twice. Embedded in The Dream House’s sonic landscape are limitless possible musical journeys based on your exact trajectory through the room, so that every visit is entirely unique and perfectly tailored to that given moment in time.

To experience the interactive soundscape that embodies the very definition of the infinite, be sure to check out The Dream House at the MELA Foundation for a suggested [and well-worth-it!] donation of $5.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. The Dream House.

Sept 22, 2012 through Jun 15, 2013.

Thursday to Saturday 2:00pm to midnight.

275 Church St. New York, NY, MELA Foundation


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1 The full-length title is The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119.

2 One of these multiples, 60 Hz, is actually the operating frequency of the North American electrical grid, so that the very sound that comes out of the speakers while they are operating is actually incorporated into the soundscape!

3 Many of the sounds we hear in Western classical music can be reduced down to an intervallic ratio of 2:1 [the octave], 5:4 [the major third], or 3:2 [the perfect fifth] ratio.

4 Terry Riley on La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in a 1967 essay. Quote taken from here.

Fractaled Atlas

No matter where we look in the natural world, we are sure to find recurring patterns everywhere. As a result, natural scientists devote their careers to [humbly] attempting to find and define these very patterns. The most abundant of these natural motifs is arguably the fractal—a geometric structure that can be subdivided into smaller parts that look roughly similar to the whole. Take the branching pattern of the veins on a leaf as an example: zoom into one of those branches, and you’ll find that it’s reminiscent of the overarching branching structure // zoom into one of those branches’ branches and you’ll find the same thing… over and over again!

snail shell // milky way // leaf veins // motor neuron

fractals in nature. snail shell // milky way // leaf veins // motor neuron

At their core, fractals are simply the geometric result of repeating the same pattern over and over at a smaller and smaller scale—increasingly tiny patterns within a greater overarching motif. But fractals are the ultimate paradox. Though they are built on simple repetitions, they are infinitely complex. You can subdivide // zoom in // subdivide // zoom in and you’ll still see the same [or similar] patterns emerging and repeating with detail at all scales. Nature is built on these repetitions, all the way down to the subatomic level—the quarks // leptons // bosons.1

Philosophy is … written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures … without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth. ∇Δ Galileo Galilei

The ultimate quest for a mathematician is to define simple equations with far-reaching consequences: a2 + b2 = c2 // e + 1 = 0 // E=mc2. To distill limitless complexity down into elegant + powerful formulas. Surprisingly, despite the natural abundance of the fractal form, it was not until the 20th century that mathematicians even really began investigating fractal structures and their geometry. In fact, it was not even until 1975 that mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot even gave a name to these forms! Mandelbrot is largely credited with elevating the study of fractals to its prominence today, beginning with his discovery of the Mandelbrot set.2

mandelbrot set. on loop? or forever zooming in?

Mandelbrot created his revolutionary // revelationary set essentially by assigning every point on a screen with a unique number. He then plugged each number into a formula, got a result, and plugged the result back into the formula.3 Over and over. Millions and billions of times. In this manner, Mandelbrot tracked the fate of each point on the screen; either it grew to infinity or shrank to zero through these repetitions. If the initial number shrank—was bounded— he colored the point black. If, however, it grew—or escaped—to infinity, he assigned the point a particular color based on how many times he could repeat the formula before the result became exceedingly large.

I never had the feeling that my imagination was rich enough to invent all those extraordinary things … They were there, even though nobody had seen them before. It’s marvelous … the goal of science is starting with a mess, and explaining it with a simple formula, a kind of dream of science. ∇Δ Benoît Mandelbrot

Point by point, Mandelbrot transformed a mathematical repetition into a visual, fractal form. Amazingly, you can zoom in and in on the result and find limitless repetitions of the same basic pattern so that there is complexity at all levels—infinite resolution. The Mandelbrot set is often called “the thumbprint of God” not only because it is a visual representation of the infinite + eternal, but also because it is the mathematical embodiment of so many [if not all] of nature’s forms. [Fingerprints are also yet another great example of fractals!] If beauty really is in the details, then the Mandelbrot set—and fractals more broadly—provides an infinite source of beauty.

electric sheep.

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?” One of the flock.

With the rise of computing capabilities, fractal art has gained a major foothold in the art world, as artists have begun applying this mathematical elegance to their work. Electric Sheep, the brainchild of Scott Draves, is an iterative screensaver that is continually evolving based on the aesthetic selective pressures of over 450,000 participants: “It’s all about how pattern emerges from chaos and random stuff.” The project has taken fractal art to the next level by incorporating animation into the fractal framework to generate abstract animations using the fractal Flame algorithm. This algorithm treats each pixel on a screen like a particle and moves it based on an equation that is reiterated. The animations are the result of the interactions of billions of interweaving pixels that move according to the algorithm’s instructions. These animations are then collectively ranked by participants using the Electric Sheep screen savers, and the most highly ranked—the most fit—mate to produce new animations for the next generation [an iterative process of evolution by aesthetic selection].

Given that the algorithms that code for the emergence of the Electric Sheep are based in natural forms and phenomena, it is no surprise that our computers’ dreams flow organically into and out of each other, endlessly looping into new and beautiful forms. For me, Electric Sheep is a prime example of the art inherent in these most fundamental models for the natural world. Of how seemingly abstract numbers and figures have the potential to inform and add a new dimension to art.


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1 Unlike mathematically generated fractals like the Mandelbrot set, fractals found in nature are not infinitely repetitive. The repetition ends at the subatomic level because, at least to our current knowledge, there is no unit smaller than a subatomic particle.

2 The Mandelbrot set was first published in Scientific American for a broad audience in 1985: “Computer Recreations: A computer microscope zooms in for a look at the most complex object in mathematics.”

3 If you’re interested in some more mathematical detail, he called each unique point c. He then plugged each value for c into the formula f(z) = z2 + c using z = 0 and calculated what number came out. He took the result, plugged it back in as the new z value and saw what number came out again. The output of the equation becomes the input for the next iteration of that operation. This mathematical process is called recursion.