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This Is What Chernobyl, The West Bank and Your Ears Sound Like

I asked Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard about his obsession with the sounds of spaces—and almost had an orgasm.

'Through the Wall' Installation at the Israeli West Bank barrier. Photo by Jacob Kirkegaard. 2013.

The human body is capable of a lot of weird, freaky stuff that makes living more or less entertaining. We know this. However, did you know that your ears – yes, those ‘ol things on the side of your head – can almost give you an orgasm? I definitely didn’t—but that all changed one night last December when I biked to Jacob Kirkegaard’s Valby apartment to listen to his sound compositions.


For the past few years, the Danish sound artist and musician has been toying with the machinery of the human ear—creating compositions that trigger your ear to make its own specific sounds. Off the bat – or if you wanna be a sceptical dick about it - it all sounds obliquely experimental. However, when Kirkegaard played me those compositions, I physically felt why those specific sounds matter beyond the niche field of sound art. I became acutely aware of just how furiously my organism was working to register each miniscule shift in tone, pitch or harmony. It almost felt like, well, an orgasm: it was electrifying, overwhelming and almost unparalleled in its visceral intimacy—and all that from an audio file flowing through a set of regular speakers in a small room.

“This one time, I got an amazing email from a woman who had seen my exhibition in Spain,” Kirkegaard recalls, chuckling. “She emailed me the next day and described how she felt… and it kind of sounded like she’d had an orgasm. She wasn’t hitting on me or anything, she just wanted to share the experience.”

Photo of 'Labyrinthitis'—one of the orgasm-inducing projects in question. Installation at the Medical Museion in Denmark. Photo by Jacob Kirkegaard. 2007.

So how does this miracle eargasm work? To begin explaining it, Kirkegaard made me think of a piano. “The hair cells in your ears are like piano strings,” he explains. “They vibrate when sound comes into the ear. When I speak and depending on how high or low the tone is, different hair cells respond.” Kirkegaard sends two specific tones into your ear to make your hair cells move in a particular way—a way that makes them actually produce their own sound. So when you hear Kirkegaard’s compositions, not only are you hearing the sound of frequencies entering your ear—you’re also hearing and feeling the sound your own ear makes in response, too. It’s this combination of sounds that triggers the intense, sensory experience that makes you feel all high, tingly and blissful. “When you listen like that, the world just opens up to you,” Kirkegaard remarks.


It takes a hefty dose of equal parts integrity and obsession to find endless stimulation in the weird little sounds our ears make—or as Jacob describes it, “an insatiable curiosity about the vibrations of things.” So insatiable is his curiosity, in fact, that he consistently ventures to places most people are apprehensive or even afraid of in pursuit of their unique vibrations and sounds. For example, he’s been to the West Bank, recording the vibrations of the walls Israel built to define its borders to Palestine. “I’m not interested in having a political agenda,” Kirkegaard is quick to add, “but I could be interested in a place like that because I’m terrified or because I find it mysterious.” He’s also recorded ice melting in Greenland for Denmark’s Louisiana Museum—“not to raise alarm bells about global warming”, Kirkegaard points out, “but because it’s a way to perceive and listen to what’s happening instead of just looking at photos or numbers. That’s much more of a sensory experience.”

Photo taken for 'Aion' Work—recorded and filmed in four abandoned spaces inside the exclusion zone around the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Photo by Jacob Kirkegaard. 2005.

Yet perhaps the most radical of sound journeys was Kirkegaard‘s venture to Chernobyl in 2005—immersing himself in the thick fog of radiation and ruins to record and unearth the secret layers of sound slumbering within. “I think Chernobyl was always part of my memory because I was eleven in 1986. I remember seeing the footage of this swept city,” he elaborates. “Chernobyl I found very mysterious. Of course I’m also scared of radiation and am against it, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to tell you what to feel. It’s about listening to the world without being judgmental about it and letting spaces speak. I want to create a platform where you can sense without having to form an opinion about it.”


Creating a platform is one thing, but executing it on the global scale that Kirkegaard is referring to? That’s a luxury he can afford thanks to the robust career he’s built himself. Although you may have heard some of his recent musical works – like his collaboration with Danish experimental electronic pioneer Else Marie Pade, who sadly passed away this week – most of his career is centered in the art sphere. He’s currently doing an artist residency at Oxford University, which follows years of solo shows in major cities exhibiting with cultural leviathans like New York’s MoMA. Even in Denmark, Kirkegaard had a solo show at the Danish Museum of Contemporary Art and was the only sound artist The Louisana Museum ever commissioned to create a new piece.

Photo taken for Eldfjall Composition—recordings of subtle volcanic vibrations in the earth in Iceland. Photo by Jacob Kirkegaard. 2005.

Sure, perhaps that track record is due to curators and museumfolks salivating over the thought of sublime and sensational sounds of the West Bank filling up their white cubes—but mostly, it has to do with Kirkegaard’s unbiased fascination with sound in any place or situation.

“I think it’s interesting when a boring space has an interesting sound,” he tells me. “Most things are interesting, after all. You know what they say—you have to be a boring person to be bored. It would be interesting to tell a painter to paint the most boring landscape he can find, for example. I think revealing the aspect of surprise is very important.”


The human ear is not radiation in Chernobyl or volcanoes rumbling in Iceland. In comparison, it is precisely that boring space that Kirkegaard is talking about—so the apparently orgasm-inducing effect you get from zeroing in on that banality is testament to his statement. If you’re still sceptical, you can see for yourself right now. If you’re wearing headphones, don’t listen to the composition below just yet—earbuds can’t distinguish the tones. If you have loudspeakers around, turn them on. Listen to the composition below. Use good loudspeakers. Tilt your head slowly as you do it. Spin it faster. Hold it still. Chances are, you’ll feel at least some of that mesmerizing effect that made it possible for Kirkegaard to make the intimidating and obscure world of sound art more accessible. According to Kirkegaard, though, it apparently wasn’t even that hard to do in the first place.

“Human beings aren’t robots, so I believe that what I am doing is based around a core interest in listening,” Kirkegaard explains. “Say, if I want to tell you a story, I could tell it to you in all sorts of different ways. I could juggle for you. I could tell it in different languages. I could use the houses outside as metaphors… but it doesn’t really matter because the story is essential. So when I talk about my work, I talk very much about just listening and how I believe there’s something behind the immediate sound of things.”

With all this talk of frequencies and sound waves, it’s easy to feel like the whole thing is a scientific mouthful—which makes you forget the innate simplicity in Kirkegaard’s work. This isn’t some experimental attempt at creating a dramatic new genre of avant-garde music or art, just for the sake of it. Instead, it’s the exploration of the simplest and most accessible of things—our ability to listen and perceive the world. Even if it wasn't orgasmic, that in itself is pretty damn cool.

Nagaras #1
Photo series related to 'Sabulation'—video and sound recordings of the ‘Singing Sands’ in the deserts of Oman, one of the few places in the world where the shifting sand dunes emit deep tones. Photo by Jacob Kirkegaard. 2010.