John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Luke Jerram's wind-powered "Aeolus" looks like the result of smashing together a pipe organ and a porcupine.
Appreciators of fine art often talk about certain works "speaking to" them. Well, U.K. artist Luke Jerram has created a piece that speaks to people. It says:
"Aeolus" is a 20-foot tall, 10-ton metal arch sprouting a spiny armor of more than 300 sound tubes. The public sculpture harnesses the vagaries of the wind to make spooky music that gets under your skin. Hunkered on a grassy square in London's Canary Wharf district, it mutters breathy tunes while looking like somebody jammed a pipe organ and porcupine together in a transmogrifier, which then malfunctioned.
A YouTube video of Aeolus doing its thing has generated a variety of critical takes. One person says it "would be creepy to hear at night as you're trying to go to sleep," while another shivers at the "sounds of steel that would make you crazy after a while... srlsy needs a pause function." And one dude just calls it "cool ;)". Judge for yourself with this sound clip:
Aeolus was a bad-ass Greek diety who kept the ferocious winds under lock and key on his private island. The ancients invented a wind-powered "harp" named after the gusty god; Orpheus was fabled to have had one whining in the background when he gave poetry slams. Jerram decided to build his own Aeolian harp after traveling to the deserts of Iran in 2007, where wind gusted across well holes to create an unearthly sound. The harmonic droning of the breeze is intriguing, Jerram says, because it is "hard to predict" and "almost sounds like the aliens landing."
With a little help from Institute of Sound and Vibration Research and the Acoustics Research Centre, Jerram brought "Aeolus" purring and groaning into this world. (On a side note, Jerram is also responsible for those sidewalk pianos in cities all around the world.) The sculpture builds music in three ways: First, tense strings running from some of the sound tubes to neighboring structure like trees and light posts register the movement of the wind, and vibrate accordingly. The wires sing a melody that climbs up and down a harmonic scale in an infinite number of variations, depending on the wind's speed and heading.
Jerram says that the "aim is for the public to be able to visualize this shifting wind map by interpreting the sound around them." One would imagine that "Aeolus" in a tornado would sound something like like Rachmaninoff.
Visitors who venture underneath the arch are treated to a different soundscape. Certain tubes have skins stretched across their tops, which transform air currents into low frequencies that are then channeled down toward a meeting point inside the sculpture. Standing inside brings a rich stew of rustling leaves, chirping birds and roaring jet engines to the ears from all directions. People can also jam their heads against individual tubes to soak up a narrower field of sound, as the tubes' finely polished interiors focus like boom mics on distant babble.
Taken all together, "Aeolus" spits forth a score worthy of classic Doctor Who. Here's Ian Drumm, an acoustics expert at the Acoustic Research Centre, discussing how the piece works:
Jerram's baby traveled all over the U.K. last year, and now is looking for a permanent home. If you want it in your front yard, contact the artist here. Lovers of art that feeds off of natural forces might also be interested in the sea organ in Zadar, Croatia, and Blackpool's Hide Tide Organ. There's also the wonderful "Singing, Ringing Tree" (or "Burnley Panopticon") in northern England's Pennine Mountains, which apparently escaped from a Dr. Seuss book: