Sound Experiment: Waterways



I was inspired by Valerie Tevere’s work with CUNY Staten Island, where her and partner set up a pirate radio station on the Staten Island Ferry. I began thinking about the connection between waterways and sound and the parallels between waves, which are visible and sound waves, which, as Kahn and Whitehead observe in “Wireless Imagination” require the interaction of the ear canal’s acoustics. In such a sense, sound is very personal and almost invasive. I wanted my project to explore this in a New York-specific context. In the city, we are constantly inundated with sound and in many of New York’s waterways pollution is a major issue.


I began questioning whether you could ‘hear’ contaminants in waterways. I went about collecting water from Coney Island, the Gowanus Canal and tap water from my own apartment. I chose Coney Island because of its mixed history as a pre-World War II resort, its notoriety as a gritty beachside carnival and the current conflict over what will be the future of its development. I chose the Gowanus Canal because as of March 2010, it has been declared an EPA superfund site. I included tap water, in part, to serve as a contrast but also because New York tap water has a legacy in and of itself as being a key to the tastiness of NY pizza and bagels. In such a sense, like the Surrealists, I was hoping to use history to provide a sense of legacy to the abstract work I was creating.

At the first two sites, I also captured sound recordings. I spoke at length with a friend of mine, who happens to be a scientist, to discern what effect pollution might have on sound. She predicted that there should, in fact, be some noticeable difference in acoustics between the samples because the less dense the liquid the higher the pitch and conversely, the higher the density the lower the pitch.  The density of liquid changes the frequency of which the sound waves travel.


Having gathered the water and recordings, I set up shop in my apartment. I poured the water into separate glasses and played the audio taken from the sites.  As you will see in the video below, I brushed the rims of the glasses and tapped the glasses using metal and wood objects. Though it is difficult to discern which water delivered the highest and lowest pitches, there is an undeniable difference between the sounds each sample produced. In such, a sense you can ‘hear’ how pollutants alter the composition of our waterways.

Categories: Reflective Posts


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One Comment on “Sound Experiment: Waterways”

  1. February 28, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Shannon’s comments were very intriguing, particularly the way she compared how both Nathanael and my projects used sound to convey an environmental message but how we differed in terms of how much agency we gave to the human element. Unfortunately, the time limitations prevented us from going into too much detail, but Shannon seemed to provide very key insights on all of our work.

    If I were to expand on my project, I would spend additional time with the samples to understand differences between the sounds and I would do non-sound-based studies to determine the pollutant levels, so that I could then use that as a control. Prior to my experiment, I did consult a friend of mine with a Ph.D. in physics, who explained to me that given the way pollution would affect the water’s density it would likely change the speed the sound waves could travel, which would would likely change the pitch. I understand that pollution is not the only variable that would affect sound, but given the purpose of this was more artistic than scientific, I wanted to demonstrate that their was a difference in sound between the samples that could be connected to pollution levels. I really enjoyed having so much freedom in this project and being able to creatively explore a social issue that matters to me. In undergrad, one of my favorite classes was a course in entomology that merged art and science, this project allowed me to once again explore that connection but in a more self-directed way.

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