Womb to Tomb

RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne © 2013

Background

Womb To Tomb is a series of modular site-specific sound installations involving a spatial distribution of multiple drum kit parts. The kits are disassembled into discrete components and generate sound by 'performing themselves' with the aid of small hidden motors. The kits are divided into 4 'zones' - (i) cymbals/hi-hats, (ii) snares, (iii) rack-toms, and (iv) floor-toms/bass-drums. These groupings are are located in 4 separate spaces. The audience moves through the 4 spaces, experiencing a tonal wash of each frequency group - highs, mids and lows. Each version of the installation series is a response to the acoustic environment within which the drum kits are installed.

The intended sensation is for the audience to be in front of a 'musical performance' but which clearly is being automated. The fast pulsing of the motorised mallets on multiple drum parts creates a randomised yet distinctive series of overloaded textures: the cymbals recall foaming ocean waves and sizzling fry pans; the snares and toms mimic a swarm of busking drummers gone mad; and the bass drums evoke ominous thunder rolls.

The first version of Womb To Tomb is commissioned for Liquid Architecture 14: Sonic City. The drum kits have been installed along a wide 50 metre corridor in the RMIT Design Hub. This version of Womb To Tomb attenuates the mechanised drumming into soft tonal washes so as to match the ambient city noise discernible through the large windows which line the 8th floor corridor and grant the visitor a panoramic vista of the north end of Melbourne CBD.

Credits

Concept, design & installation - Philip Brophy
Engineering advice: Anthony Kitchener
Assistance - Dave Brown, Rebecca Manger
Liquid Architecture curator - Philip Samartzis, Kristen Sharp
Interns - Darius Kedros, Vincent Dwyer

2013

LIQUID ARCHITECTURE 14: SONIC CITY - RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne

RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne © 2013

Overview

Womb To Tomb employs drums as a means of generating 'noise' within a public space. Not only are drums and cymbals 'impure' and 'overloaded' in their pitch and tonality as compared to other instruments, but the drum kit is essentially an amalgamated machine for generating a broader frequency specturm that most other instruments (from the rumbling bass drum to the hissing cymbals). Across centuries of ritualistic and militaristic application, drums have been shaped to regiment time, synchronise movement, impact human behaviour and assault sensory consciousness. Maybe more than any other instrument, drums belie this duality of design as musical instruments and 'extra-musical' instruments. In this sense, drum kits are ultimately 'noise makers' in the tradition of the the Italian Futurist Marionetti's Minotaur.

Womb To Tomb repurposes the drum kit with this in mind, and is interested in applying its 'extra-musical' power and 'noise-making' energy within a sound-art installation. To this end, the drum kit is used as a 'noise maker' to reflect or enact how sound and noise defines a typical cityscape. The title Womb To Tomb reflects the elemental reincarnative aspects of how sound moves through the body, how we experience sound throughout our lives, and how the city's life-span also bears a similar trajectory, which in turn is reflected in the ebbs and flows and frequency changes in its soundscape.

In terms a sound sculpture, Womb To Tomb has 2 key aims: (i) to investigate ways in which musical performative sensibilities can be parlayed into a sculptural installation; and (ii) to advocate a more immersive and activated experience in the installation space and its site within a public environment, be it indoors in building corridors or outdoors in carparks. The project merges conceptual perspectives (how does sound and music circulate in the public urban space) with artistic outcomes (the designed configuration of the auto-playing drum kits' parts).By virtue of its installation format, it enables a longer duration for encountering the work by the public, plus it uses that time frame to effect a dialogue between its aural apparition and the actual sound of the city. In a sense, the humming/rumbling/chattering drums and cymbals become part of the very soundscape from which the project takes its inspiration. This feedback loop of perceptual analysis and artistic production is rooted in a sensory observation of the city environment.

The inspiration for these aims comes from, among other things, the saturation of 'musical noise' which is now part of the sound of the city, with its unending parade of buskers, hawkers, store-front PA systems and unmedicated singers - even the spluttering hiss from iPod earbuds on trains and trams – plus of course the ceaseless jackhammers and cement trucks which signify the city’s capacity to be continually engaged in rebuilding itself. The deconstructed drums of Womb To Tomb represent the quaking vibrating rhythms to this fractal mass of musical sound dispersed throughout the city, manifest as a series of interlocking sheets and drones of timbrel noise.

RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne © 2013

Technical

Assemblage

The design logic behind the assemblage of the drums was to use only the components of the drums, and not use additional stands or brackets to affix the drums in any way. In a sense, the 're-assembled' kits should appear not as modified with additional parts, but as reversioned from existing parts. Thus, the drum kit parts were first disassembled in order to work out a means by which the individual parts could stand by themselves, ready to be activated to make sound. This entailed laying all the drum heads on the floor, resting at a 45º angle with one lip touching the floor. Brackets, rods and legs were all inverted to arrange the drum heads this way, and all bottom drum heads were removed to allow the drums to resonate directly onto the floor. The hi-hats, cymbals and snares were left on their existing stands. All drum parts are kept no higher than waist height, so that visitors to the installation can relate to the drum parts at this lower position, rather than raised on stands or plinths.

Two types of motors are used: 12 volt @ 8100 rpm for the floor toms and bass drums, and 12 volt @ 6500 rpm for everything else. Connected to the spindle rod of each motor are cable ties. Some cable ties have small nails attached to their tips (to accentuate the metallic edge of the cymbals and hi-hats); others have cotton buds affixed (for the rack toms and snares, to soften the loud transients on their skins); and others have small cubes of acoustic foam molded to form soft mallets (for the floor toms and bass drums, to create a sustained rumbling effect). A range of chemical laboratory stands, boss-head clamps and retort grips were then chosen for holding the small motors in position under the cymbals and inside the drum heads. They're not completely hidden, but they are contained within each drum/cymbal's territory. All the drums heads are clear, so the motors are visible within each drum. The overall visual effect is like the drums have been laid out on the floor, disconnected from their integrated 'drum kit' design, but the semi-hidden/internalised motors give the sense that the drums have come to life and are playing by themselves.

Each 'zone' of the disassembled drum parts - (i) cymbals/hi-hats, (ii) snares, (iii) rack-toms, and (iv) floor-toms/bass-drums - has its group of motors connected to a switchable power supply, with a range of 2-11 volts. When the power supply units are only running at 2 volts, a soft wall of noise is generated by all 3 disassembled kits running. When the power supply units are only running at 4 volts, the noise floor is drastically increased, as all the motors are spinning double-time and causing the nails/buds/foam-mallets to strike the skins and cymbals with even greater force. These switchable power supply units allow for a range of decibel levels suited to the acoustics of each space in which the kits are installed.

RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne © 2013

Installation

The choice of small motors and stands/clamps most importantly allows for shaping the drum sounds through mechanical/material means, rather than electronic/programmed means. Due to the design and arrangement of the motors affixed to their clamps and stands, the timbre and density of each individual drum sound can be vastly modified simply by shifting the stand closer to the skin/cymbal centre, or closer to its periphery. Plus, the retort clamp allows for the spinning motor to be placed on an axis that increases the velocity with which the nail/bud/foam-mallet strikes the skin/cymbal surface. Ultimately, the arrangement of these motors in relation to the drum parts entails a series of decisions and responses like actually playing the drums: how hard, how soft, which angle, which implement, how continual, etc. The installation of the drum kits on-site mostly entails these factors, so as to mesh and balance the overall 'noise-scape' with the ambient noise-floor of the installed space.