A Tower of Sound

Sissel Lillebostad

Adsonore is an interactive sound installation with an almost endless time span, inspired by the functioning of the human immune system and operated by a computer program that allows for continuous input. When the work was commissioned by Public Art Norway (KORO) to the artist, Natasha Barrett, the specification was that it should be interactive, constantly changing, site specific and relative to the function of the building. In addition, the work should last more than 20 years. Now, almost 10 years after mounting the work, and just halfway through its lifespan, Adsonore is silent.


Adsonore. Photo: Sissel Lillebostad

The building in question, houses the Department of Basic Biological Research (BBB) at Haukeland University Hospital, a compact collection of buildings adjacent to Bergen's hallowed mountain, Mount Ulriken. The terrain surrounding BBB is steep and the building is partially buried in the mountainside with stone steps and walls as a framework between the different levels. The entrance is just a small rift between the stonewalls but on entering, the building opens up, revealing an ample stairway and airy lobby.  From this lobby, one can, like an incidental rambler, access the nine-floor high stairs tower, where Adsonore is installed.

The physiology of the work

According to  Natasha Barrett, Adsonore comprises seven microphones, 21 infrared sensors, 56 loudspeakers and one centrally located computer.1  In KORO´s catalogue, Adsonore is described as follows:

«The microphones record the sounds of those moving on the stairs, the sensors register the movements. The loudspeakers hanging in the stairwell, distribute sound from the 2nd to the 9th floor.  Tailor-made software controls when sound is to be recorded, determines whether this is a new or already familiar sound, and registers the movements of people that in turn determine which loudspeakers in the room are to be activated. In order to be registered by the system, the sound one makes must exceed a certain level.  The sounds are processed in different ways and simultaneously stored in the system's memory. In this way, the Work is an "organism" in constant growth, that records information (senses), saves it (memory) and responds to it (acts). The Work uses principles acquired from the body's immune system in the way it responds to the sounds in the stairwell.»2

According to Barrett, our biological immune system reacts in different ways and at different tempi, which is very interesting from a musical perspective. With inspiration from the immune system, Adsonore can develop a sonic response to the activity in the stairs tower that is processed further over time.

Interesting sounds makes for an interesting work, while boring sounds are reflected in a boring work

Simply described, the stairs rambler can trigger a seven second recording on making a distinctive sound while moving past the sensors. The computer program then modifies and sends the sound bite into the stairwell. The Work is spatial in that the sounds move, both together with, and towards the rambler, up or down the tower. It is practically perpetual in the sense that the work is continually recording new sounds. The recording and playback is made up of 11 layers, with different degrees of processing along the way. Interesting sounds makes for an interesting work, while boring sounds are reflected in a boring work, writes Barrett. Some of the layers are, therefore, composed of external recordings, creating a kind of "sound bank".3  These interact with the new sounds through a form of recognition. As a whole, the composition enables the sounds to manifest themselves differently depending on where in the cycle the sound installation finds itself. According to Barratt, some of the sounds are barely audible, almost becoming part of the room itself: 

«Each sound is continuously looped and processed with a randomly controlled choice of reverberation, delays and high-Q resonant filters of numerous different frequency ranges. This processing stage produces a very quiet result heard just above the natural background noise level, starting at the floor on which the door sensor was activated and moving slowly up and down the main loudspeaker chain. One sound may be looped for up to four minutes, and thus at most times of the day Adsonore will constantly 'murmur'. The looping and transformation effects take advantage of the tower's natural acoustic to produce a pulsating drone. Some people have suggested this makes Adsonore 'alive'.»4

Other sounds, she writes, are fast reactions, corresponding to the cells in the body guarding all entrances.  They hurl towards you at every entrance to the tower and collide in brief flashes. When the computer recognises a familiar sound, it is immediately processed and played through small and large loudspeakers in the direction of the movement.  However, as Barrett writes, "If the motion information is ambiguous, this is one instance when the sound is spatialised in the direction of the last clear detection."5 I envisage an advanced game of ping-pong, where the sounds strike rapidly between glass and concrete up and down between the floors. With the, in total, 11 sound layers, where each sound layer has a different role to play in the sound game, one will, as a rambler, get to experience quite a complex composition.

Concise information, presented on signs in the stairwell, invites the visitor to interact with the installation. According to the signs, the stairs rambler may also pass through in silence. No sound at a given point means no recording and, therefore, no playback. As we will later see, it is, in practice, difficult to pass by in silence, as just by entering the stairwell a distinct sound is made, and the sensors are located just a few steps from each doorway.


Adsonore (Detail). Photo: Sissel Lillebostad

Invasive art

Both Barrett and the commissioners were aware of the various challenges, which the sound installation might encounter. The work underwent a series of modifications in the process leading up to completion. Barrett writes that the acoustics in the tower were a challenge. She, therefore, conducted acoustic tests to determine the best frequency area for the sound, which also affected the location of the loudspeakers. The sound level was adjusted so as not to exceed the local sound level in the stairwell and the timeframe was limited to office hours, as a result of people expressing unease over noise and strange sounds late at night.

Despite the adjustments, resistance continued amongst the users.  When I visit the building today, the traces of years with distrust, surveys and contention are visible in a double row of silent loudspeakers, hanging loose in the wires between the glass facade and the concrete stairwells, that make up the core of the tower. The sensors and recorders are, in the same way, made unreceptive to influence.  The loudspeakers are coated in dust, but not so much so as to give the impression of neglect and forgetfulness. The way they hang, left behind between the panoramic view over Bergen and the building that leans heavily into the mountain, I nevertheless, feel a hint of melancholy.  What happened?

Barrett herself suggests, on her website, that the resistance to Adsonore was mainly articulated by a few of the more resourceful users of the new building. The resistance was not reserved for the sound installation: "Nevertheless, from the beginning, there was a group of department staff that did not wish for any intrusive contemporary art in their building, and Adsonore was no exception."6 Steinar Sekkingstad, who wrote the catalogue text about Adsonore, and who held a series of guided tours at BBB in 2006, maintains that the resistance to the sound installation started almost immediately after it was installed.  He wonders if this may be due to the tardiness of information about the installation - long after the sound work was assembled. The noise level was not too high, as he states in a conversation in September 2012 «There is actually more sound on the stairs when people go up and down them as normal.»

Gerd Tinglum, one of the two art consultants, remembered the contention as varying substantially, or as a kind of  "mixed blessing" situation. On the one hand, the users were excited about Adsonore and Barrett's description of the conceptual framework. On the other hand, disputes and grievances were used to fuel the flames that some of the users allowed grow out of all proportion. As to the signs and information, she states that there were prolonged tactics on the part of BBB for delaying this part of the information. There were also other artists that were affected by the same resistance and one of the projects disappeared completely during the process.

Given that contention was present, already during the planning stage, the committee used different specialist evaluations along the way. Dag Wiersholm in KORO, states that the acoustician and composer, Tor Hamrast, was brought in and he delivered a competent and reassuring statement for the concerned user representatives on the committee. At that stage in the planning, the actual tower, with its acoustic arrangement, was not complete. Barrett planned her work on the basis of the said commission, and of what Adsonore would accommodate of intellectual content, perhaps to a greater extent than the actual, physical new building.  The acoustic arrangement was considered possible to solve.

The basic sound in the installation resembled a transformer sound, a 50 Hz deep growling

Even, initially well-meaning sounds can be perceived as contaminating when they invade your personal space. According to Torbjørn Dall-Larsen, who was the user coordinator for the BBB-building, this was among the experiences that coloured relations to the sound installation. A survey was carried out by Dall-Larsen, approximately one year after the work was installed. It was not official and not all employees at the University of Bergen (UiB) who worked in the building were involved, but it came as a result of profound dissatisfaction with the experience of the auditory space in the stairs tower. In a conversation I had with him, he emphasised that while it was not representative for everyone, of the 127 respondents, 95 persons had a negative perception of Adsonore. When I asked him why he thinks this was so, he wondered if the lack of being able to control the sound themselves could be one of the reasons. He pointed out that just one motion sensor started the recordings.  The sound recording was processed, almost distorted and then sent back to the stairwell. "We could hear ourselves, but the sentences were disjointed and it was easy to misunderstand what had been said. The sound level was also a problem, especially for adjacent offices.  All sound was magnified in the stairs tower. The basic sound in the installation resembled a transformer sound, a 50 Hz deep growling" The tower sounded like a machine. The sound installation didn't work for too long, he said.  The computer stopped working in 2006, and after a few rounds of talks between the artist, KORO and the IT administrator at BBB, all was quiet.

When Barrett was asked about this, she replied that there was a lot of back and forth between her, BBB and KORO, but in the end there was little more she could do other than send a detailed list of all replacement parts to the person responsible at BBB.  After that, she heard nothing more. «We left the situation hoping that those in charge would move on, and the upkeep of the work taken on by someone more enthusiastic.» writes Barrett in an email 30.9.12. «(...) it's really quite sad to think about the state it's in now.»

Traces of a work

Adsonore, according to some, resembled an organism, a living body that made the stairs tower alive, where, on coming through the doors on each floor, one was localized and defined, met as a passenger or an intruder and followed by sound. Through the work, one became a part of the stair tower's memory and its constant communication with its surroundings. Barrett points out, and rightly so, that in anno 2003, the computer had its limitations when it came to speed and distribution of auditory information. She also adds that the narrow store of auditory impulses in the stairwell can gradually limit the sound variations.7

Unexpected sounds that come from nowhere, as many of us have experienced, cause a physical reaction.

So, how is sound perceived in the monumental tower? Everyone entering the stairs tower goes through fireproof doors on each floor. The doors close with a loud metallic bang. I walk up the stairs slowly because I am here to see what is left of the sound installation and because I want to listen to the space. The acoustics are sharply resonant, the small sounds that I make - when my handbag brushes against the railings (a hollow steel cylinder) or the dry clicking sounds my shoes make on contact with the floor – are all reproduced in countless echoes. Others coming in make different sounds.  Banging doors, tramping on stairs, rustling of clothes and sounds of feet, make up hundreds of echoes.  I get a sense of the sounds wandering up and down along the glass facade, quavering slightly between the steps, lightly drying on the concrete walls with soft caresses and then sent whispering back in their new version along the smooth surface of the tower. As I move upwards along the core of the stairs, the echoes are not as audible as the new sounds that are, almost involuntarily, being made, all the time. They create, however, a sonic space where the size of the tower can indirectly be experienced. In a sense, the stairs tower is a sound machine, and we who move through it, are bats. The room adopts and cavorts with the sounds that are formed within it, sending them around and allowing them to play between the glass and concrete, until the waves are slowly absorbed by the materials.

It was into this repertoire of textures that Adsonore contributed new elements. As previously mentioned, Barrett was aware that the acoustic space would be difficult. Several different attempts were made to adjust the installation, but sound is motion and we are programmed to capture motion. This programming lies deep within us and cannot be rationally controlled. We react easier to individual sounds than to carpets of noise, and our reaction is quickest when it comes to unfamiliar sounds. They must be quickly analysed and located (near-far? dangerous-safe?).

Unexpected sounds that come from nowhere, as many of us have experienced, cause a physical reaction. This aspect of the unknown occurs when we are surrounded by sounds that are isolated in short recordings. It is perplexing, and filled with uncertainty.  It is this that makes the experience of this type of sound an ambivalent experience. Sound is usually associated with a specific source.  When the source is lacking, it can, in certain circumstances, be almost perceived as abstract.

That the sound source in the stairs tower was in a different location than the loudspeakers was emphasised by the sound wandering speedily between the loud speakers.  It became incorporeal, with no other form than sound waves. This should not really be a frightening experience for us, as we are surrounded by sound waves emitted from invisible sources in almost all commercial buildings.  However, a common feature of these sounds is that they are intended to reassure or inform.  This is often in the form of different types of music, where the all-important quality of recognition is present.

Adsonore, as the work is described, played with different layers of time. That, which happened there and then (in the functioning time of the work, its here and now), was connected to the archived material, that which had already occurred. The past, in which the outcome was known, was thus mixed with the present – the stairs rambler and the work's present – where the outcome could not be predicted.

Would I be embarrassed to play along, to make the next, and preferably interesting, sound when I pass the sensor?

Back in the stairwell, I try to envisage the sound play as an experience that recurs every time I used the stairs.  The door behind me closes with a click. The first sound is mechanical. Would I be embarrassed to play along, to make the next, and preferably interesting, sound when I pass the sensor? Would shyness limit my repertoire to a slight cough or a careful drumming on the stair-rails?  Many felt inhibited, they said. They could hear their own sounds, a doubled and uncontrolled version. Is this feeling due to shyness?

To be aware of oneself, and ones own reluctance, is demanding.  To be aware of ones surroundings, really aware, is even more demanding.  It is perhaps, that awareness that Adsonore requires.  Could that be why Adsonore is silent?

Pure and messy sound

As I understand Barrett, it is not important what is said in Adsonore, or who produces the sound, or what it can be recognised as.  That, which is of interest, is the naked sound, and how it physically responds to the conditions determined by the composition. In describing her work, Barrett introduces the term "acousmatic": "The focus of this work stems from an acousmatic approach to sound, the sonic images it can evoke, and an interest in high quality or unusual recording techniques that reveal detail the ear will normally miss."8  It was Pierre Schaeffer, known for musique concrète, who in 1966 coined the term acousmatic about perceiving sound where the sound source is unknown. In this connection, his most well known work, Symphonie pour un homme seul, a collaboration with the composer, Pierre Henry, perhaps serves as a short introduction to the musical method. The intention here was to apply and manipulate sounds from human activity. This could be, for example, whistling, percussion, footsteps, knocking on doors etc. The work was first performed on 18 March 1950, being also the first musique concrète work ever to be performed for an audience.  The aim of the manipulation was to alienate the sounds, thereby focusing on the timbre, rhythm and pitch.9

A careful conclusion is that sound in art forms a material.  The perception of sound removed from an event, brought with it recording and archiving opportunities.  I often attend concerts where all sound is computer generated.  I, quite rightly, make a quick association with sonic, acoustic phenomena, but recognise that sound can be formed without a physical origin. In the case of Adsonore, however, the majority of sounds had a specific cause, but were treated as pure sound material. I wonder if that were one of the reasons for the stubborn contention.  When familiar sounds are transformed into volatile and distorted sighs throughout the stairwell, like ghostly echoes of ourselves and lacking any discernible cause, the end reaction can be tense.

«Should human voices unexpectedly show up right beside ones head when one is alone in the stairs tower, could quite likely be perceived as threatening for some. Such aspects of the installation show that the sound can adopt totally different qualities other than purely musical. It is difficult to listen to the chopped up recording of footsteps as music, when one is genuinely frightened by the sound.»

So writes Sekkingstad, in Kunstens nye stemme (The new voice of art) where two sound works, including Adsonore, are analysed.10 Sound has qualities that can set in motion emotional reactions. These can be unpredictable, as the experience is personal, related to the individual's own range of experience. Being frightened by a work is not an argument we can refute here, says Dag Wiersholm, when I spoke with him in September 2012. These types of feelings are difficult to deal with, other than by either softening or removing the source of fear. Wiersholm stressed that they are trying to find other favourable means to address these feelings, but have yet to reach a solution where the majority are in agreement.

Art is demanding, because it wants something.

Natasha Barrett had a high level of ambition, both compositionally, and in the face of the knowledge represented by BBB. She adopted familiar principles in music and sound art. The title can be read as a reference to objets sonore, a term Schaeffer associated with an acousmatic perception and, which she herself emphasises is a source of inspiration. She wishes to make us aware of what the ear is incapable of capturing by pointing out what is "under the radar" for the majority of us. Making us aware of the overlooked, or in this case – that which is silent for us – is a strong undercurrent in contemporary art. Art is perceived as a place where we can experience ourselves in the world, a world that often appears paradoxical, complex, messy and unpredictable. Art is demanding, because it wants something. The public sphere is also demanding, because it is public.  While the meeting with art gives one a personal experience, the public sphere is a place for regulated interaction.  These two levels meet in the concert hall.  There, one can experience the music as personally groundbreaking, without necessarily being part of the collective perception. One benefit of this potentially staggering experience is its defined time limit. In the case of Adsonore, the location was limited, while the work itself was almost timeless. The stairs tower is also a place that does not, initially, allow for a groundbreaking personal experience. As a public space, it is already laden with functions and needs that are governed by expectations of joint interaction. As we have already seen, sound is difficult to filter out while, at the same time, it has the potential to be open for the powers of emotion – and can thereby seem overwhelming. The public sphere should have space for challenging and critical art (it is demanding to be responsive), but in order for the interaction to work, we occasionally need to ignore the more demanding sides of art. Sound – at least in terms of art – can be difficult to ignore. 


1 Natasha Barrett: Adsonore, Full text http://www.natashabarrett.org/bergenweb/quickguide.html.

2 www.koro.no/filestore/BBB_kat_web.pdf, s.42.

3 «In total, 980 prepared stereo sounds of duration 0.5-120 seconds were created. Male and female vocal materials, as well as some internal body sounds such as rumbling tummies, were used as source materials and in turn crafted to create a variety of attacks, textures, and developing morphologies.» Natasha Barrett: Adsonore, Full text http://www.natashabarrett.org/bergenweb/quickguide.html.

4, 5, 6, 7 Ibid

8 www.koro.no/filestore/BBB_kat_web.pdf, s.43.

9 Kilde: http://no.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Schaeffer.

10 Steinar Sekkingstad: Kunstens nye stemme Noen betraktninger om lyd i samtidskunsten. (2004, UiB), s.104.


Kunstjournalen B-post #1_12: Sound