Chinese Whispers 5.1

Chinese Whispers 5.1

‘In the moment when the visitor is no longer unnecessarily distracted by visual stimuli, acoustic attentiveness automatically increases’. Fiona Liewehr 1

When I was a child and we went to the North Sea walking across the mudflats we used to play a game: one child was blindfolded and the others moved a certain distance away, giving vocal signals to guide the child back to the group. The way the sound and its echo travelled created an illusion to the listener and made it impossible to locate where the voices had come from. The blindfolded player walked in circles, never able to find their way back.The journey those sound waves made before they ebbed away had a huge attraction to me. From Chinese Whispers2 to the Doppler Effect3 the mathematical transformation and transition of audio waves have the potential to alter our understanding of time, reality, force, even matter.

Another phenomenon created by the interaction of sound and matter is in “galleries of whispering” where audio waves are able to travel surprisingly long distances along a hard round surface without absorption or interference. The first whispering gallery discovered in Europe is in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London and was identified by John William Strutt in 1878. Strutt studied the motion of audio waves and was able to explain how a whisper spoken into one side of the cathedral’s dome could be heard and understood at the other side but not in the centre. The same phenomenon occurs on a 3.72 meter high echo wall in the Temple of Heavens (Beijing 15th Century). If you whisper close to the wall the sound is said to travel back to you.

In the game Chinese Whispers however, the information, transmitted around a circle of people, by one person whispering into ear of another, is usually quite far from the initial expression when it arrives at the last person. This is because the information that passes through is mediated by automatic filtering and natural tuning of the available sounds.

What we choose to listen to is usually aligned with our other senses. Based mostly on visual pulses we identify the related acoustic information. But when visual information is limited or non-existent acoustic attentiveness increases. In an anechoic chamber where visual and other sensory stimuli is minimised, acoustic input is prioritised. However, this general lack of stimuli triggers all the senses, they are switched on as they try to re-orient the body in the space. The experience of sound, physicality and time changes impressively. With this in mind it is easy to understand Bernhard Leitners4 fascination for exploring sound-led stimulation in different architectural scenarios. In the late 1960’s Leitner began playing with the perception of space by changing the acoustic ambience and accentuating audio experiences using sound as a material.

Leitner_02Bernhard Leitner Cylinder Space 1974 © Atelier Leitner

Besides the mentioned natural phenomenon and the noise sound gathers on its invisible pathways in space, Leitner’s idea of sound influencing spaces to emerge lead me to my curiosity on the effects that sound might have in the fulldome space. It seemed to have a high potential for being considered as a strong acoustic environment. Not only does the dome have the ability to create a level of visual abstraction and emerging spacial moments but might contain the optimal architecture for spacial sound events in general. One experiment confirming this idea was a concert by a symphony orchestra in Buckminster Fullers geodesic dome. The dome was beforehand inspected by the acoustic expert from MIT, Rob Newman, and afterwards described as “the best acoustic condition experienced”5 by the conductor.

Having said that, the understanding of the Dome as acoustic environment only counts for the prototype of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Based on its physical nature, the shape and its construction, the dome provides optimal pathways for sound waves which enriches the acoustics through multiple reflection. However the perforated structure of the planetarium fulldome space does not have the inherent reflective capacity needed for the sound to bounce around or travel along the surface. In my current research I am looking into methods for re-creating this illusion in a 5.1. sound system. As a starting point I made some recordings in the highly reflective surface of the spherical dome inside the abandoned NSA Surveillance Tower6 in Berlin Grunewald.

leitner_01Bernhard Leitner Hand Sound Objects 1975 © Atelier Leitner

I wondered whether the intensity of the sound experience from the actual NSA dome would be very different if the recordings were applied to a different situation in the planetarium. When replayed in mono, it was not possible to recreate the same level of ubiquity as in the original space, but I nevertheless attached the recording to get an idea. But once mastered in 5.1 the spaciousness of the soundscape is re-evoked and is smashing.

I am now using these original mono recordings, feed into the 5.1 system and elaborating on 1) which sound elements and 2) where those elements need to be placed in space to be able to elicit sensitive emotional responses. Starting with simple ambient audio recordings my acoustic experiments will lead to a directed storytelling in fulldome space including the illusion of the experiences of natural spatial disorientation in the mudflats, mechanical and physical phenomena of the whispering galleries and more directed noise impact in Chinese Whisper.

Field recording of NSG Surveillence Tower Dome, Jelka Kretzschmar, Berlin, November 29th 2015



1 Liewehr, F. Trans Currid, B Bernhard Leitner EarSpaceBodySound 2011
2 A game in which a message is passed on, in a whisper, by each of a number of people, so that the final version of the message is often radically changed from the original
3 The Doppler Effect occurs when wave energy like sound or radio waves travels between two objects, the wavelength can seem to be changed if one or both of them are moving.
5 Buckminster Fuller describes the geodesic domes as one of the best acoustic architectures for concerts, speeches and so forth based on their construction reflecting sound. 2013.
6 NSA/NSG Surveillance Tower built in Berlin Grunewald on top of an old NAZI college, West Berlin, Germany.

Additional References
Princeton University School of Architecture, R. Buckminster Fuller: World Man (The Kassler Lectures) 2013.
Troop, D., Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, Continuum International Publishing Group. New York, 2011.