The geological soundsystem

Cerberus, the cruel, misshapen monster, there
Bays in his triple gullet and doglike growls
Over the wallowing shades, his eyeballs glare

I was alerted to a rather incredible sound recording from Mark Bain which had been posted on the superb BLDGBLOG : a digital piece which converted the subterranean geological sounds of the 9/11 Twin Towers event in New York into a four stage utterly haunting drone performance. The audio file utilised the earthquake sensors of the Columbia University’s Geological survey lab some 34 km from the incident site. This underworld moan, punctuated by the howl of the two impacts and two collapses, meant that the event’s energy left a physical imprint into the strata of the local geology, it rewrote the landscape. This analogue memory of kinetic terror and vibrations recalls the melancholy cries of the mythical Cerberus as his triple headed gaze lingers upon the spiral caverns of Dante’s Hell. 9/11 itself is already deeply entrenched in the mythology of the 21st century.

This mechanical sound system of soil and substrata also neatly leads us to the Biblical story of Jericho, of a trumpet so intense mighty walls are rendered to dust and chaos, it is mirrored by the ironic reflection of the deployment of audio weapons within America’s blunt counter offensive and “war on terror”. The soundscape leaves a progression of physical waves beneath the surface, a blunt trauma only previously imaged by the noise art of bands such as the Swans. David Toop in his excellent book Haunted Weather discussed this onslaught with Lee Ranaldo, guitarist with cult band Sonic Youth. Ranaldo witnessed the attack on New York from his apartment building and said “I’m still trying to put my finger on how to verbally explain the latent sonic image of that sound in my mind’s eye (or ear).” For him the audio violence was beyond any objective reference point, it was of a size that could only be measured at a super human scale.

Don Dellilo in his cult novel White Noise that concerns a mysterious “airborne toxic event” descending upon a college city in middle America writes “What if death is nothing, but sound? Electrical noise. You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful. Uniform, white.” The cloud forms a visible manifestation of the energy bombardment which modern life deploys against man. This cloud is the physical heralding of sonic death, tangible and imbued with dread. The 9/11 vinyl like grooves can then perhaps be regarded as a manifestation of this wound.

Geological drone music then is written into the context of physical space using these powerful vibrations, though there are experimental musicians who use the landscape to create music reversing this epic seismic endeavour. Icelandic artists such as Bjork and Sigur Ros deploy instruments made from their locale. Bjork samples the hissing volcanoes and groaning glacial fissures powered by thermal ignitions. Collective Sigur Ros both perform in natural caverns to manipulate their orchestral sound as well as (with the aid of pagan artist Odin Raven Magic) create glockenspiels and other curious artefacts from naturally harmonic rocks.


Fracking Rig from Wikimedia Commons.

The intensity of war albeit carpet bombing or architectural annihilation narrates a radial discourse into the earth, but there are also peace time pursuits which are capable of this machination. Hydraulic fracturing also known as fracking, is a process where pressurised fluid is injected by a drilling rig into a reservoir rock formation. It can be an explosive process and is alleged to have caused everything from earthquakes to the release of flammable vapours in well water. Fracking rigs could be carefully deployed to write arcane industrial music tracks into cavernous boreholes, even manufacture a winding maze only conceivable in the mind of ancient Daedalus, or perhaps conversely be used at sites like Hiroshima to map the nuclear explosion’s lingering subsurface scattering.

David Toop is his essay on noise surmises this human relationship with epic soundscapes as “Sound is a function of time, articulating time and describing our surroundings at a level of subtlety that increases environmental awareness and the skills associated with attention, should we care to exercise our familiarity with the process on a regular basis. All of these observations are germane to the use of sound as a medium, yet they have the quality of a mystery to those who privilege sight and the word.” The totality of this audio quake then surely narrates a potent mythology for our modern world.  



  1. Yeah but can you dance to it?

    I’m not quite clear on the process, but concerned that if there’s conversion involved then there’s likely to be a situation whereby a person is deciding upon what noise will represent the waves recorded. I’m assuming that if you stuck your ear to the ground at the time this isn’t what you’d hear, though I may be wrong.

    It would have been nice to be told what time the impacts occur. I’m busy / lazy.

    CF Pauline Oliveros (deep listening) and Jem Finer (score for a hole in the ground). possibly relevant to paragraph 5.

    Notwithstanding that Delillo’s suggestion is fairly presumptuous (what if death is fairground rides and lambrini?) people tend to find patterns in white noise – you can enjoy it!. The suggestion of it as necessarily horrendous is a bit dubious.

    I’d have thought that Merzbow or similarly abstract types might be more relevant than Swans.

    Anyway what’s your point?

  2. You make some interesting points, apologies if my wording is rather imprecise, as an artist I lean towards the poetic rather than exact academic text. Jem Finer’s work is wonderful and indeed another brilliant more plausible method of reading the landscape as sound. Delillo was simply dramatising a rather comical expression of American trauma, to illustrate peoples’ cold war paranoia and reactions to technological progress, it is this literal manifestation which I felt was relevant here. As you point out white noise has been used repeatedly for torture purposes in the “war on terror”, long term exposure is well documented as incredibly traumatic and mentally degrading. I was simply proposing that the underground waves had recorded the trauma of the collapses. As for the mighty Merzbow and Pan(a)sonic etc, indeed they are very appropriate, though Swans are perhaps more familiar to people?

    As for my point it is simply an open ended observation, that we as a species are ultimately unconsciously recording sound into our environment: cars punish roads, factories pulse into flood plains, railway trains vibrate rhythms into buildings, mining explosions rearrange strata and so on. 9/11 by chance with this seismological recording perfectly illustrates our hidden music.

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