You too were once an underwater microphone. We all were, listening to the sounds of the outside world while suspended in amniotic fluid, moving within a dark womb. As adults, water sounds often provide an instinctual pleasure.
Despite its technical title, "Cryoacoustic Orb: A Sound Installation," a four-hour performance this weekend by Jonathon Kirk and Lee Weisert at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum, taps directly into this visceral sensation. Imagine a darkened room with a clear plastic sphere of ice sitting on a pedestal in the middle. It is lit from underneath, and an underwater microphone is frozen near its center. You put on wireless headphones and listen to the ice melt.
"The thing I like about the installation is it's totally direct," says Weisert, an assistant professor in UNC's music department. "There's no need for any kind of literature. It's just a dark room with a glowing, Stanley Kubrick kind of object—it reminds me of the monolith [from 2001: A Space Odyssey]. People just come in, and they're caught in the tractor beam."
On Sunday, the orb will be removed from a hyper-cold walk-in freezer and set up in the museum. During the course of an afternoon, its contents should melt about halfway, aided by a heat lamp mounted inside its base. The sounds shift dramatically over that span: The ice cracks. Trapped air bubbles escape. The liquid-to-ice ratio warps the sphere's internal acoustics. The most tumultuous sounds occur at the very beginning of the installation, when the heat from the pedestal first hits the hard-frozen ice. Weisert likens the splintering sounds to the systemic cacophony of Karlheinz Stockhausen or the electronic disarray of Japanese noise pioneer Merzbow. As the bubbles worm their way out of holes, they produce an ascending glissando, not unlike active digestion.
"It normalizes into this very soothing, consistent, guttural and granular texture. You don't get too many outliers," Weisert explains. "It's just a nice ambient texture. You still do get the occasional outburst, but they take on this whole different character because they're so isolated and unexpected."
Weisert and Kirk met as graduate students at Northwestern University, where they discovered shared interests in electronic music, field recordings, environmental sounds and site-specific art. Under the name Portable Acoustic Modification Laboratory, their first collaborative sound installation involved submerged hydrophones—the microphones that television shows about marine life use—in a pond on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. Called "The Argus Project," the installation included sensors that measured light and temperature changes in the water. Those variations electronically affected the sound that the pond produced.
The leftover hydrophones got the pair thinking, Weisert remembers: "We liked the surreal, bizarre quality of having your head frozen inside a block of ice—what that would sound like."
Influenced by field recordings of Antarctic ice floes and the work of acoustic ecologist David Dunn, who has recorded underwater sounds as well as beetles inside trees, Weisert and Kirk began experimenting with the orb. The Ackland orb measures 14 inches in diameter and is made of polycarbonate, which is flexible enough to withstand the expansion and contraction of water as it changes states. But initially, they didn't get it right.
"The first one was glass. It ended horribly—nearly took off a toe," Weisert winces. "Then we moved to acrylic, a hard plastic. It had the same problem but it wasn't as dramatic."
With this iteration, all of the drama remains within the orb. Whether you get there early to hear the fireworks or come in later for the womb sounds, you might not want to take the headphones off.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sounding the thaw."