German installation explores urban soundscapes

German installation explores urban soundscapes
An innovative new sound installation project in Berlin is connecting cities worldwide in an attempt to challenge the way people interact with their aural and urban surroundings, writes Matt Robinson.

A lead car of Berlin’s U6 underground train drags carriages underneath the German capital’s traditional shopping boulevard of Friedrichstrasse. While travelling between the stations of Stadtmitte and Kochstrasse, the train passes a short pipe-shaped object connected via cable to a computer terminal in a nearby gallery, which records and interprets the motion of the passing train.

So sensitive is the sensor that it can also detect the footsteps of shoppers on the pavement above. These signals not only record the spontaneous rhythmic activity of the immediate urban surroundings but also their intensity. The high-tech device is part of the Sound of Cities installation at the Magix Multimedia Gallery on Friedrichstrasse – just metres away from the former Cold War crossing point Checkpoint Charlie.

Conceived by Croatian sound artist Henry Stag, the project is being supported by some of the biggest names in music production software, including not only Magix, but also Arturia, Max MSP, and Applied Acoustic Systems. The installation uses a custom-built, microphone-style receiver system to register vibrations and sounds from subterranean Berlin, which are then used to trigger preset instruments simulated by computer software. This means the music is actually being performed and lead by the city itself. For example, the louder the U6 train is as it trundles along underneath Berlin, the louder the installation’s instruments in the gallery will be played.

Nursing a winter cold with a frothy glass of Hefeweizen beer at a bar in Berlin’s eastern Friedrichshain district recently, Stag enthused about his aural urban baby: “The purpose of this project is to be on the cutting edge, to use the technology we have to the full extent of its capability. I call it terrestrial symphony – the artist provides the colour, but this is the music of the earth.”

The first instrument presets at the Berlin gallery were configured by some of the biggest names in German experimental music. Joachim Irmler from Krautrock pioneers Faust, Dieter Moebius from Cluster, Markus Detmar from Klangwart and John Weizierl from Amon Düül 2.

But the project is not limited to the gallery on Friedrichstrasse. It will also be broadcast live online at, from where web surfers will soon be able to access the Berlin stream and play around with the existing presets to create their own audio just as visitors can at the actual exhibition. Gallery openings are also planned for Zagreb, Paris, Los Angeles and Tokyo in order to connect the urban audioscape streams from other cities.

In each city, the sensors will be placed in different locations. For example, in Tokyo it may be placed against or inside a window and tuned so it is sensitive enough to respond to gentle rain against the glass. In Los Angeles the receiver might be cast into the foundations of a building and capable of recording and processing the musical makeup of seismic activity in the earthquake prone city.

The project is currently in the process of being linked with the Theremin Institute in Moscow, where a gallery full of Theremins – an early electronic instrument working on a similar principal to the Sound of City’s sensors – will be used to detect and interpret the motion of visitors.

“With this project, we can further define the way we interact with sounds, by further making the sounds interact with us and our surroundings,” said Andrei Smirnov, director of the Theremin Institute at the Moscow State Conservatory, in a telephone interview from the Russian capital.

The audio product of each Sound of Cities stream will be saved for the entirety of the project, meaning that any moment in the installation can be retraced, reheard and rediscovered. Any profits from the project will go to charitable donations to both UNICEF and the International Campaign for Tibet.