Jason Kahn 
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"Dropped From the Sky"

Technique: environmental sound recordings, max/msp audio synthesis software, speakers, amplifiers, cd players

Klangturm St. Pölten
St. Pölten, Austria

April 28–June 14 2001

hear the recording

I grew up in Los Angeles. As a child I once went on a trip with my mother to the Mojave Desert. There we visited a ghost town, something out of a western movie slowly rotting to dust between the deep blue sky and the sandy landscape dotted with scrub bush and cactus. The town appeared out of nowhere, as if rising from a mirage. Miniature dust tornadoes spun down the main street, tumbleweeds richocheted from one storefront to another and the wind howled and whisteled through the empty builidings, sounding indeed like ghosts bemoaning the fate of their last home as it baked away into nothingness beneath the relentless desert sun.

Some time later my mother had a job working at one of the big Hollywood film studios. Each year this studio invited all the employees and their families for a picnic. I always managed to break away from the crowds and head off into the backlots and abandoned sets. Suddenly I found myself on a perfectly reconstructed copy of Brooklyn one hundred years ago. Turning a corner I encountered Camelot, further beyond a graveyard of rusting tanks, cannons and decrepid aircraft. Everything was fake. Behind the façade of each building was nothing: the tanks were made of wood; Camelot’s walls nothing more than tarp and paper maché. Here too the wind blew down the empty streets and set the phoney worlds shivering.

As I grew older, I realised that much like the studio backlots and Mojave ghost towns Los Angeles too was one big illusion of transplanted housing tracts, Disneylands and the blight of Hollwyood permeating every aspect of existence. It became the ghost town of peoples' dreams kicking across a vast network of congested freeways, slowly withering like the swaying palms in the heat and the smog.

So, it was to my delight and surprise when Roalnd Schöny invited me out to St. Pölten to look at a place called the Klangturm (sound tower). It was to my delight because the tower stood in the heart of a completely artificial tract of concrete and chrome, designed to be tasteful and somehow practical but devoid of absolutely any relation to the surrounding countryside or the city of St. Pölten. This reminded me of home, of Los Angeles, of empty backlots, of ghost towns, of places and things which seemed to have dropped from the sky.

And this Regierungsviertel was to my surprise because never would I have expected to find something like this out in the Austrian countryside. What a concept!

Of course, the would-be dazzling buildings are not empty--but perhaps nearly. Beaurocrats are bussed in every workday or swallowed in their cars beneath the buildings in a vast network of subterranean parking garages. But one hardly sees any sign of human life. Perhaps the workers never leave their offices or there are secret passagways leading from one building to the next. It all reminded me of a ghost town built for some future day cataclysm, constructed as some people might erect bunkers in case of war; yet with this town its real function wasn't clear to me. The gleaming buildings stood defiantly against the wind surging down the main street. Nowhere else in St. Pölten is it this windy. It seemed to me as if some omnipresent natural force wanted to blow the buildings away and restore this corner of St. Pölten to its original state of grass and trees and marsh. Of course, this will never happen and the roaring wind seemed a visceral testimonial to this.

The Klangturm affords one a panoramic views of the surrounding area. The higher one goes the more one sees, and the more one sees the clearer it becomes just how little this colony of government buildings has to do with St. Pölten or the small towns and fields stretching off into the horizon...

I went home and began to think about what one could do in this Klangturm, in this Regierungsviertel. It seemed to me that none of this should have been there and the truth in this was even more painfully apparent in the very place where I was to do an installation: the Klangturm.

I returned several weeks later, ostensibly to do some recording in St. Pölten and environs. I often work with on-site sound and had thought it would be a good idea to go around St. Pölten and gather some material.

I arrived at seven in the morning on a grey, cold, rainy, windy March day. Some places inspire me instantly with a wealth of sound, an atmosphere, a presence. But on this day in St. Pölten I felt all but inspired. It was as if I were walking around in a ball of damp cotton, sound reaching me vaguely from some far away place. I eventually made my way up to the Regierungsviertel and found myself engulfed in icy gale force winds blasting rain into my face and chilling me to the bone. The odd person emerged from one of the buildings and scurried across the main street to disappear into another similair building. In the distance traffic roared.

"What am I doing here?" I asked myself. This is no fun! I decided to head down to the Traisen river, which runs just outside the row of builidngs. Here too it was windy but not the storm raging up on the main street. Grass rustled in the wind and watefalls provided a pleasant bed of natural static as backdrop to my gradual retreat from the grey buildings towering above me and, now that I was making my way along the river, receeding into the distance and out of present memory. On my walk along the Traisen I finally realised what it was that I wanted to do in the Klangturm.


The soundfiles used in the installation are taken from four sources:

1: The town of St. Pölten: in the streets, the churches, restaurants, coffee houses, stores, train station; and in the countryside just outside the town, primarily near the Regierungsviertel but also as far away as the Ratzsersdorfer See.

2: From the Klangturm itself: the wind blowing through the staircase, the sound of the (seemingly) silent rooms; the various drones emitted from air ducts and hidden whirring machinery; the sound of me “playing” the Klangturm--which seemed appropriate to me as a klangturm should klingen; and as I am a drummer--and everyone knows drummers will happily tap away on any object which stays still long enough to be tested--I though it only appropriate to extract sound from the Klangturm's various surfaces.

3: From radio recorded while in the Klangturm: not so much music, announcers, newscasts, advertisements, etc. but more the sound in between the sounds--the nebulous space lingering between the stations. As in literature, sometimes the most meaning is found between the lines; and so with radio what often draws my attention is the sound of transmissions struggling to surface from a morass of cross static; or simply the cross static itself can often be beautiful. The idea of using radio seemed perfectly appropriate for the installation as the Klangturm, perceived from a distance, seems at first glance an over-glorified radio tower.

These soundfiles were then edited and burned onto cd's. In the installation there are three CD players, each with a CD from one of these sound categories. Each CD is played in a different sound kugel, though the location can change dependent on several factors (see below).

4: A fourth sound category is introduced with the prospect of continous live sampling of sound in the installation space during the opening hours of the installation. Several microphones are mounted throughout the Klangturm, recording whatever happens to be in their path at the moment they are triggered.

The playback of the pre-recorded soundfiles (from the three categories listed above) from cd and computer, and the live recording+playback of new soundfiles are controlled by various motion and light sensors mounted at different locations in the Klangturm. These sensors also control different playback parameters, such as signal processing, volume, panning and placement (which kugel, which speaker, which microphone, etc). The use of sensors is not to lend an “interactive” element--it is not really even important that people know that their movement or the changing light conditions alter the sound--but rather to impart a process of growth to the installation, whereby the tower “sounds” and the sound within the tower changes over time.