A Report from the Event
In February 2014 as part of the sonic arts festival Liquid Architecture, I took a minivan with 11 people in it out to a field in Geelong. I instructed the nine participants to stand in a field facing north and listen. Some of them closed their eyes. From that direction you could dimly hear generic hard rock floating across the field and after a while, much louder, you could hear an aircraft taking off.
This trip was a work of art, one that I had modelled on the sound walks of R. Murray Schafer, sightseeing excursions for the ears.
The aircraft, an FA 18 fighter plane taking off from Avalon airport which was invisible over a small rise, as it moved away from us the sound of its engines grew quieter but instead of continuing on its way it doubled back and picked up speed. Coming in very low and not far from where we were standing it roared overhead and broke the sound barrier.
The sound was immense, our whole party dropped to the ground, many screamed involuntarily, it made my ears ring even though we were all wearing ear plugs, we could hear car alarms in the parking lot of the airport and then cheering from the airfield.
When something breaks the sound barrier, it isn’t to do with how loud it is, it’s simply that it travels so quickly that it catches up to its own sound and from ones own vantage point all the sound arrives at once, whether it is loud like a plane or quiet like a whip moving through air it makes a boom or a crack. And it always sounds like it’s right overhead.
I had discovered that the Avalon Air Show always began with one of the latest fighter jets “buzzing” the crowd and breaking the sound barrier. I wanted my group to experience this phenomenon without knowing before hand what they would experience. And I also wanted the remove the experience from the spectacle of militarism that permeates the air show. Later that day fighter planes would simulate the bombing of ground forces for the entertainment of the crowd. I wanted my group to divorce as much as possible the sound from its origin, allowing it to an acousmatic existence. I wanted all the sensations to arrive at once.
As an experience the tour was a success but as a document it was a complete failure. Firstly the sound recorder was set very low, so low that you cant hear anything in the recording that is until the sonic boom clips the recording completely creating another kind of silence. Secondly my videographer had managed to drop to the floor with the rest of us, missing the aircraft passing overhead. In the video the plane is moving so fast that it’s barely discernable in the frame before he hits the dirt.
My project was intended to provide the experience of this phenomenon to a small audience; it wasn’t intended to exist as documentation really. But the work has now been transmitted in a different way, as rumour, and it has arrived back to me in several forms. Sometimes the location is different, sometimes I chartered the plane, a couple of times the work was related to me as being to work of another artist and once someone had heard it from someone who had claimed to be there but they were not one of the 11 people I took.
The phenomenon of the sonic boom had sent out ripples as rumours, changing from sonic propagation to another, existing like many artworks as a story artists tell to each other and residing in the imagination more effectively than in a gallery.
Nathan Gray, 2017