Stadsmuziek/ Citymusic: a sonification of buildings by Akko Goldenbeld

Citymusic is an installation by Dutch artist and designer Akko Goldenbeld. It sonifies the heights of buildings in Eindhoven and Amsterdam using a piano and a city map on a roll that plays the piano keys, a bit like a pianola. Akko was kind enough to answer a few questions to explain how the installation works.

The installation

Akko was interested to hear how a city sounds. He made a three-dimensional map of the city of Eindhoven and put it on a cylinder. That cylinder is turned around and when a building comes up, it will lift up a hammer. The higher the building, the higher it will be lifted. Then, when the building ‘ends’ and an open space appears, the hammer will fall on the piano key and play a note. The result is a melodic landscape.

Data used

The data were provided by the city services of Eindhoven in the form of a GIS-file (GIS stand for Geographic Information System) which contains the outlines of every building in the city. Akko then used Bing maps and a ruler to estimate the heights of the buildings and scaled them. He then cut wood in different thickness to create the different heights and subsequently saw the buildings on the east-west line to bend them over the roll. In the second version, where he sonifies Amsterdam, the work was a bit easier as many buildings were available as models in Sketchup so he could simply copy the height data.

Because the map is on a roll, the melody starts again when it reaches the end of the map. The map is moving from the North to the South side of the city. The east-West axis is mapped to the piano keyboard so that buildings at the Eastside will trigger low notes and buildings at etc Westside will trigger high notes. The speed of playing depends on who turns the wheel. Akko has usually played the wheel himself but designed a coin-operated system for people to play as well. However, he prefers to play it himself because sometimes people tend to turn it the wrong way.
Playing mechanism
A building lifts up a hammer, depending on the height: the higher the building, the higher it will be lifted up. When an open space appears, the hammer will fall down on the piano key and play a note. The higher the building, the louder the note. The playing mechanism stands apart from the piano so it can be mounted in front of different pianos.
Variations and playing the installation
The installation was premiered at the Milan Design fair in 2011, Since then, Akko has designed two variations of the installation: one using the map of Eindhoven and a second one using a map of Amsterdam for the Dutch TV show Vrije Geluiden (the video of the Amsterdam version is below). Whereas Eindhoven sounds quite chaotic, the map of Amsterdam seems to be more structures in an interview with  De Groene Amsterdammer, Akko says that because of the canals the streets that run perpendicular to them, there is a clear structure present. Strong diagonal lines create many descending melodies and the water, which does not trigger notes, creates peace in the composition.
Future plans
The installation is now stored at his workshop but Akko is looking if it is possible to make the rolls easier and cheaper (for example using 3D printing or CNC-milling) so he can have different rolls next to each other. With more and more GIS data becoming available, it will This will make the installation more interesting than just one melody.
About Akko Goldenbeld

Akko Goldenbeld is a designer based in Eindhoven and has is own design studio.

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