The Sound of Sirens

Durham is quickly becoming a BIG city. Construction cranes loom over the skyline, driving detours abound and there is a huge hole downtown awaiting our first skyscraper. Statisticians tell us that, on average, 28 people move to Durham…every day! One of the sonic artifacts of urban growth is a daily deluge of emergency sirens. And each citizen’s relationship to sirens can be complicated – one person’s “help is on the way” is another person’s “run before we get caught.” But however you may feel about sirens, the sound elicits a visceral response in most folks.

Jim Kellough came up with the idea that “ibod” should create a sound painting based on sirens. We started off imitating those cool European police sirens that make me think of foreign films. Eleanor got really good at playing those on the melodica. I did some research about sirens and discovered a web site with recordings of sirens from many different parts of the world. According to the website, if you listen closely you can determine “who” is coming along with the siren: a perfect fourth interval is police, a perfect fifth interval is an ambulance and a whole tone is a fire truck. This discovery gave us the basic sound palette for the piece.

I picked some unusual voices from the Ableton fold and created a scape based on the intervals of sirens. My cohorts found interesting extended techniques on their instruments. It was fun to experiment and show off what our instruments can do. Jim’s digital horn calls out a wailing glissando or the squonk of the firetruck’s horn. Susanne discovered this was the perfect place for her piercing Balinese flute. We decided to play with dynamics like the Doppler effect where the sirens come in close and then recede into the distance. Here is a short sample of a recent rainy day recording of the piece:

I particularly love this piece because the cohorts can really carry it without too much soundscape support. As a matter of a fact, they start the piece and the scape comes in later. And every time we play, it is different and fun! I plan to add some vocal sirens eventually.

ibod will create The Sound of Sirens at PROMPTS: Imperative this Saturday, September 3rd at The Carrack Gallery. The event starts at 7 pm. The Carracks new location is 947 E. Main Street in Durham.

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