A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

SOUND: Secret sound installation in a Times Square sidewalk

It’s almost midnight in Times Square, and on the pedestrian island where Broadway meets Seventh Avenue, young men and women are handing out complimentary 3-D glasses. From 11:57 p.m. until 12:00 a.m., they explain to anyone who will listen, a movie called Midnight Moment will take over electronic billboards with a montage of silent images. For those three minutes, Times Square’s street-level pedestrian chaos dampens as begoggled viewers revolve, mesmerized by the screens above.



Few—if any—notice that about six feet under the soles of their Nikes, beneath the bars of an innocuous subway grate, is a sound installation that’s been part of the Times Square soundscape almost continuously, twenty-four hours a day, since 1977 (with a break between 1992 and 2002). Though the tourists look up, the momentary hush gives the subterranean sounds an unwitting audience—should anyone choose to tune in.



Embedded in the traffic island is a sidewalk grate, part of the ventilation system for the subway lines that crisscross beneath Times Square. As you pass over the grate, you hear a humming, like the ringing of church bells, that morphs slowly into an undulating drone and then into the warble of a finger traced along the rim of a wineglass. As you walk north toward the TKTS booth, the sound gets louder. Times Square directs our attention up toward the lights, not down into the darkness, and so the sound is unnoticed by the thousands of visitors who walk over it each day.


As it turns out, this subtlety is intentional: the installation, by American musician Max Neuhaus and managed by Dia Art Foundation, was intended to be encountered by accident. According to a 2006 New York Times article, Neuhaus was inspired to create the piece, titled Times Square, as he was passing across this particular island one day. In the article, Neuhaus explains, “The whole idea is that people discover it for themselves. They can’t explain it. They take possession of it as their own discovery.” When you first hear the sound, it feels like Times Square is whispering a secret in your ear, a seeming impossibility in a place that opens its arms to the world.



The unique resonance of each of the area’s subway tunnels creates the installation’s varied tones, which are amplified by sonic equipment and loudspeakers: none of the sounds, however, are composed; the installation excavates an urban heartbeat that would otherwise remain unheard. Combined with the mantra-like reverberations, the stillness of pebbles and gum trapped in the grate and the detritus that has sifted through the shaft provide a stark contrast to the chaos overhead.



In fact, the island is a designated “pedestrian flow zone” marked by signs with arrows, urging passersby not to stop but to “keep moving.”


In addition, the island has been painted with green lines demarcating a “designated activity zone,” meant to corral the Lady Liberties and desnudas to a restricted area adjacent to the grate.


Just as hardly anyone notices the sound, no one will look twice if you kneel down and press your ear to the metal grate. Tourists swarm around you, a street performer bangs on plastic buckets, cars honk, taxis swerve, fire trucks blare, a toddler throws a tantrum, tour buses sigh, a hawker cries, “Gold! Diamonds! Jewelry!” You, however, have discovered a hidden portal to a secluded valley where church bells and the chanting of monks reverberate against snow-capped peaks.


For forty years Neuhaus’s unearthed sounds have been folding themselves into the experience of Times Square. When visitors look back at the photo capturing their moment at this center of the world, will they have a memory of the secret issuing from the grate beneath their feet? Pay attention. Connect. There’s more here than meets the eye.

Max Neuhaus’s Times Square is permanently installed beneath the pedestrian island on Broadway between Forty-fifth and Forty-sixth Streets in Manhattan.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

SIGHT: Seven found city heart collages

In Sense & the City tradition, I am offering seven images for the seventh month. I have been collecting and photographing heart-shaped objects (and non-objects) spotted on city sidewalks for since the beginning of the year. I have often been amazed—and sometimes disgusted—by my discoveries. On the disgusting end: wads of spit, a crushed animal, bird droppings; on the beautiful end: a bit of string, an orange peel, and even a pink love note! The most common findings were napkins and tissues and gum and candy wrappers; some of the hearts were perfectly shaped, others more abstract. In the process, I realized that once you decide to start looking for something, you see it everywhere. Our city never ceases to surprise and delight, often in the least expected places.

All images captioned clockwise from the top left.

1.


(a) inside of tennis ball skin (b) puddle (c) Starbucks napkin (d) tissue

2.



(a) love note (b) spit (c) chewed Trident in wrapper (d) insulation
(e) hole (f) plastic bag 


3.


(1) hole (2) roll (3) cherry tomato (4) mac 'n' cheese

4.

(1) dead bird (2) orange peel (3) gum wrapper (4) rubber band

5.

(1) card (2) ping-pong ball (3) paper towel (4) burst balloon (5) bit of straw (6) bird poop

6.

(1) string (2) sticker (3) paper towel (4) peanut (5) squished gum (6) plastic bag

7.


(1) candy box bottom (2) Sara Lee (3) ace of hearts (4) ATM receipt 






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

TOUCH: The Wrecking Club

As the door closes behind me, I adjust my helmet and goggles and consider the options: crowbar, baseball bat, or sledgehammer? Before me is a roomful of furniture and household objects that I have half an hour to smash to pieces—and the clock is ticking.


I’m at the Wrecking Club, a new business in the basement of an anonymous Garment District building, where you can spend thirty exhilarating and exhausting minutes destroying stuff. The room, for up to two people, costs $20, and the items—from a bucket of glassware to a computer to a desk—cost an average of $20 each; you can also bring objects from home that could use some therapeutic destruction. Each session includes protective gear (helmet, ear plugs, goggles, dust mask, optional coveralls), implements, access to a sound system, and cleanup, as well as a courtesy mannequin for beating, if the mood strikes. A typical setup, around $100, includes a large and a small piece of furniture, assorted housewares, and an electronic device. Each item creates a different tactile sensation when hit, from the shattering of plates to the crunch of plastic to the splintering of wood. Each implement has a different effect: the baseball bat beats, the sledgehammer smashes, the crowbar digs in. The room’s graffitied walls make an artfully grungy backdrop for photo ops. But from the outside of the building, the only sign that demolition lurks within is a cluster of Dumpsters on the curb filled with carnage from recent wreckings.


Owner Tom Daly, a former financial analyst, founded the Wrecking Club in early 2017, when he realized there was an unmet need for a safe, no-holds-barred place where New Yorkers could go to break things, release energy, and have fun. The Wrecking Club is the only business of its kind in the city (though there are several similar businesses around the country and the world). Daly was inspired by the adrenaline rush he always got from smashing stuff to throw away. “Aside from the fact that I’d always wanted to start my own business, this was something fun, weird, and I’d get to do it all day long,” he told me.


“Aggression isn’t something you’re encouraged to express—it’s a taboo thing,” he adds. Needless to say, customers have to sign a waiver acknowledging risks that range from flying debris and collision with fixed objects to hearing loss and “emotional injuries”—though no one has been hurt so far and most clients handle themselves responsibly. At five foot six, in a backward baseball cap and hoodie, Tom acknowledges he doesn’t make for much of a bouncer; he gives customers their privacy but keeps an eye on things via closed-circuit cameras. He’s vague about his material sources (“Let’s call it treasure hunting”), but his goal is to find things that are aesthetically normal but dysfunctional.


A friend and I visit the Wrecking Club one recent weekday night; we are the only customers, though it’s often booked weeks in advance. Daly says the typical customer is raring to go, but I guess we seem a little intimidated: “You guys don't look like my usual clients,” he observes, giving us the once-over. The violence required here feels unlawful; I am someone who plays by the rules. Also, I’m surprised to feel a rush of pity for the items in the room. (When I ask Daly if he ever anthropomorphizes the objects, he pauses, then says, “I can honestly say that thought has never crossed my mind.”) I pick up a sledgehammer and swat tentatively at a chair. It skitters across the floor with each blow, and it’s hard to connect with the spindly rails. The seat, however, splits neatly in two with a crack, and I feel my first rush of satisfaction.


Decidedly more tantalizing is a multifunction printer. The initial bash through the plastic casing leads to depths of glass and finally to the groan of the innards splitting apart. Ink cartridges and electronic components sail into the air and scatter around the room in a spray of destruction. The noise is deafening. After about two minutes, the machine is in shards and I am panting. I hurl my sweater into a corner.


Finally getting into the spirit, I decide to take a baseball bat to the dummy, whose battered face has the most despairing expression I’ve ever seen on a rubber human.


I swing, and he bends obligingly on his pole; his pinstriped jacket slides off, and he bounces back in the nude for another hit.


There’s a knock at the door: Daly tells me to put my sweater back on for protection to protect my forearms (all participants are required to wear long sleeves and pants). Sweating profusely now and out of breath, I decide to tackle the bureau. As I punch the sledgehammer through the cheap wood into the hollow drawer, I feel like I’m quenching a thirst I didn’t know I had.


Crouching down and surveying the havoc I’ve wrought, I realize that the Wrecking Room satisfies a primal human urge: the desire to have a direct impact—on people, on objects, on anything—and how rare that opportunity is in modern urban life, mediated by technology and social norms. As Daly tells me, the Wrecking Club is not so much about releasing anger as about unleashing the tension and inhibitions that we don’t even know we have—that is, until someone gives us a crowbar and permission.


Daly says that after a few smashes, the first sound to come out of a wrecking room is usually laughter. Maybe the brute physical connection forges human connections. And maybe all this destruction creates something that will last, at least for an evening.

For more information, visit The Wrecking ClubMany thanks to my friend and wrecking companion Michael Hsu, who took most of the photographs for this post.

Monday, May 8, 2017

SOUND: The anechoic chamber at the Cooper Union

Have you ever wondered if there’s anywhere in New York City where you can experience total silence? No sirens, no subways, no cell phones or children or street buskers or jackhammers?

As it turns out, there is, and it’s one of the quietest places not only in the city but on the planet. It’s called an anechoic chamber, and it’s tucked away in the Vibration and Acoustics Laboratory at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, in the East Village. One recent weekday afternoon, I set out to experience it.

41 Cooper Square; photo courtesy of waymarketing.com

Inside 41 Cooper Square (a building remarkable in its own right), in a windowless lab room filled with blinking monitors and snaking wires, a set of stairs leads to a small, insulated metal door with a large handle. It looks like the entrance to a bank vault, or perhaps a solitary-confinement cell or walk-in refrigerator. Close the door behind you, and you’ll find yourself in a 1,1150-cubic-foot room characterized by complete silence.


I am escorted into the chamber by Keira Li, a junior studying mechanical engineering at Cooper’s Albert Nerken School of Engineering, and Professor Melody Baglione, the chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. (Note: the chamber is not open to the general public.) The moment the door closes behind us, the silence creates a phenomenal sensory bombardment: the auditory equivalent of stumbling upon the Grand Canyon in the midst of a woodland hike.

Mechanical engineering student Keira Li and Professor Melody Baglione with a sound meter in the chamber
“Wow,” I exclaim inadvertently—but as soon as I utter the word, it vanishes, eaten up by the room’s walls. The silence is intense, honest, brutal, intimidating in its purity. It seems almost to have a form of its own. People have been known to go crazy in anechoic chambers. Hallucinations occur. Some feel suffocated; others achieve a meditative calm. If you are alone, and particularly if the lights are turned off (not possible during my visit), a claustrophobia of the self can occur. You are met with nothing but the imaginary sounds of silence and the magnified churnings of your own body: your heartbeat, breath, blood. When Keira faced me and spoke, her words seemed to be directed only at me, even to be passing through me—like the most intimate form of communication. But when she turned toward the wall, I could hardly hear her, though she was only a few steps away.


This is because the walls, ceiling, and floor are designed so that sounds produced inside create virtually no echo (hence the term anechoic). For sound researchers and product developers, measurements taken inside constitute a baseline for theoretically ideal acoustic conditions in the real world. This isn’t the quietest anechoic chamber on earth, however: that honor belongs to the chamber at Orfield Labs, in South Minneapolis, which holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s quietest place. Also, they’re not all as tiny as this one. The Benefield Anechoic Facility at California’s Edwards Air Force Base is large enough to hold a fighter jet.

The anechoic chamber at Edwards Air Force Base. Photo by Christopher Okula: http://www.edwards.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/911906/back-in-baf-b-1b-lancer-returns-to-benefield-anechoic-facility, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50646781

The walls of the chamber are lined in wedges of wire-mesh-covered fiberglass arranged in a checkboard of vertical and horizontal rows. The floor consists of a metal grid set over more foam wedges. Punctured balloons have fallen into the cracks from years of balloon-bursting experiments, which demonstrate the room’s acoustic properties. If the silence isn’t intimidating enough, the wedges appear to loom toward visitors like gaping jaws.

As Professor Baglione explains, “An anechoic chamber is designed to be almost 100 percent absorptive within a specified frequency range. When sound hits a surface, it is either absorbed, reflected, or transmitted. Fiberglass is porous, so when sound impinges on the wedges, it reflects back and forth in the air gaps in the fiberglass and the acoustic energy gets dissipated.”

One of the fiberglass wedges that line the anechoic chamber and absorb sound

The wedges’ shape and alternating orientations are intentional. As sound waves approach the V where two wedges meet, they bounce off the sloping wall of one wedge, then the wall across from it, gradually moving toward the juncture where they intersect, by which point all the sound waves have been absorbed. In the real world, the sound waves of the human voice decay after about 0.8 seconds; in here, they decay in 0.035 seconds.

The floor of the chamber
After our voice test, Keira and I sit on the floor and close our eyes, trying to remain as motionless as possible. I hear the creaking of the leather of my sandal, the imperceptible movements of my legs, the whisper of my clothing, and a sort of wheezing that turns out to be my breath entering and leaving my nostrils. Keira also points out a “ghost noise,” a low-frequency pulsing that she’s traced to two machines in a nearby room. (Another student figured out an algorithm to smear out this noise for measurements taken in the chamber.)

The chamber’s jawlike door
Cooper Union students have used the room to study, among other things, low-cost MEMS microphones (like those in iPhones), why a Stradivarius violin sounds the way it does, and the precision of various sound measurement instrumentation. Students also research the more ethereal field of pyschoacoustics, or how humans perceive sound. The department has collaborated with NYU’s Sounds of New York City (SONYC) project, which is researching the effects of noise in outdoor urban environments and training computers to identify the sources of typical city sounds. The chamber has served as a testing ground for various models of low-cost noise sensors to be mounted around the city.

Michael Pimpinella, who received his master's in mechanical engineering in spring 2016, conducts research into the quality of different low-cost microphones. Professor Baglione was his faculty adviser. Photo by Mario Morgado, courtesy of the Cooper Union
Keira told me she had recently heard a cellist perform in the chamber. Because there’s no reverberation, the sound wasn’t as resonant as it would be in a concert hall. You could hear each tiny mistake, errors that typically would be smudged by the echoes of the previous notes. It turns out there is a place in New York City that can provide not only complete silence but also sound—and communication—that is pure, intimate, and most fully itself. Imagine that.

For more information on the Cooper Union’s anechoic chamber, please visit its website.