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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.