An instrument for a city: An audio project filling one of London’s busiest roads with serene sounds

Paul Milligan speaks to Nick Ryan, the artist responsible for VoiceLine.

When asked to describe his approach to taking on new projects, sound artist Nick Ryan is clear, “Everything I do is about trying to find a new way to either make sound or deliver sound. It’s about revealing hidden, inaudible sound. I love the idea of revealing things that were previously hidden to the ear. I love giving people the ability to read with their ears, because I think that has certain affordances over reading with your eyes.”

Ryan has an impressive and varied portfolio including a project at Tate Britain that allowed visitors to engage with paintings from Tate’s collection using sound, and another that turned a Volkswagen Golf GTI into a responsive musical instrument. His latest project is called The VoiceLine, which is located on the recently pedestrianised stretch of The Strand in central London. The aim was to ’take back’ an area that was notoriously congested with traffic and noise pollution by converting it into an environmentally friendly, culturally inviting space that would appeal to the 14 million people who visit the area each year.

Ryan’s idea was chosen from a shortlist of 15 artists and is the first one to be featured on the site. His first thought was around the idea of infrastructure, “Why shouldn’t we have a piece of audio infrastructure as we do with lighting (lampposts) or seating, and use it to enable us to change the sound of a place, not once every 300 years but every second? We could transform the street using the sound of a rainforest into the sound of a river into the sound of voices.”

His idea encompasses immersive audio and a huge variety of different content to amuse, educate and enthral walkers along the 170-metre curved path. “The curve was the starting point for the project for me,” he says. “The curve is the exact wavelength of the very first radio wave (350 metres), I drew it on the ground and imagine that people could manifest it by listening.”

Ryan’s philosophy in using audio in art projects is reflected in the finished result, “As a sound artist I really love the materiality of things because it’s the opposite to sound. What I’m trying to do with all my work is to make sound tangible. That’s why I’m interested in immersive audio because it’s a sensation that’s manifest, especially if installing sound in public space, it feels quite tactile.”

What were the starting blocks for what sounds (on paper at least) like a very tricky environment for an audio art project? Ryan worked with acoustic engineering company Barrow Happold to figure out aspects such as noise regulation compliance, but also how the sound would overlap from one speaker to the next. “It was very important we created a ribbon of sound, it’s unbroken. And we had to ensure that we calculated the special angles of the speakers themselves, which are in all directions, and then we designed the speaker boxes. We then made sure that the distance you would walk past the speakers, and the distance between each of them means that this experience is continuous.”

One of the first ideas was to embed speakers into the pavement so they would be completely unseen, but because the project is a temporary one, a decision was made to go with something less permanent. Ryan was determined VoiceLine looked and sounded spectacular, so set about designing the speakers (with the help of architect Dayoung Shin) with a clear aesthetic in mind, that of early radio structures, radio towers and radio mics. Ryan also wanted to use light to indicate what the sound was doing, “The rings of light around the speakers have become a really important part of the experience of listening.” In order to accommodate this, the speakers are situated on stands, Ryan explains how the design evolved: “We came up with the idea of the radio tower and the Meat Safe microphone, which is the first microphone ever used in Marconi House (a building on The Strand which was home to radio transmissions in the 1920s), it’s a microphone capsule suspended on a rubber band decoupled
with butter, which resembles a Victorian meat safe. It’s very distinctive look.”

The speaker box is an inverted diamond, and references Art Deco, another important cultural reference for Ryan when designing. Although the speakers look brass, to give it a 1920s feel, they are actually made of powder-coated steel. Because the speakers are outdoor, being constructed of steel gives them a much better chance of withstanding different types of weather. With any outdoor art project, vandalism or misuse also had to be considered in the design says Ryan, “One of the most difficult things is making it all compliant with structural loading. Instead of drilling it into the ground, which would be the easiest solution, we actually use ballast. Each tower is really heavy, over 250kg so you can’t move them. It was quite hard to make them robust and not ugly, because a lot of the regulations end up producing things that are ugly.”

After creating and testing several prototypes, Ryan created a linear sound array featuring 39 L-Acoustics speakers, each located 3.5-metres apart, and powered by ten L-Acoustics amps, each connected to an AVB network where they can be independently controlled.

When it came to the sounds you will hear when walking through VoiceLine, Ryan has taken a hugely varied approach to content, “It does lots of different things. It’s an instrument for a city, all the channels are discrete, they can play the same thing out of every speaker, but that defeats the object of the exercise. Even if it’s the same content, for example, a single voice coming out of all channels, we will still use techniques to remove comb filtering. For example, we would mix that in L-ISA Studio. Very rarely is it the same audio coming out.”

Content ranges from the cast of the Mamma Mia theatre show warming up to a spoken piece called the India Club, which is an interview with 40 different members of staff and customers dining in the India Club restaurant (also situated on The Strand). At other times Ryan is using multi-chan el content, including a recording of humpback whales made in Alaska by scientist Michelle Forney, who put four hydrophones in the Arctic Ocean a kilometre apart and recorded humpback whales. “I’d put those in four speakers at a time so the whole Strand is transformed into this spatial recording about whales, it sounds absolutely amazing,” adds Ryan 
Ryan was keen for VoiceLine not to be overpowering or too brash: “It’s designed to be subtle most of the time, it’s something that you can lean forward to. I wanted it to fit into the landscape.”

The reaction to it so far has been great he adds, “People love it, people do stop and they want to ask questions, and they’re all sorts of different people, there’s tourists and students, and people commuting on the way to work.”

For Ryan this is a small victory for using audio in public art, something he feels is undervalued at present. “Not only is it undervalued, I think it’s misunderstood. In public art, audio is almost non-existent. As an art form, it doesn’t persist, and that’s the beauty of sound, because it relies on us to bring ourselves to it, to make it real as listeners." 

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