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In Ethan Rose's 'Hum,' a Human Choir Adds Harmony to the Power Grid's Cold Buzz

Our deeply strange relationship to electricity, manifested with human voices and portable radios.

by Michael Byrne
Jul 13 2014, 1:00pm
Image: substation near Yellowknife, Yukon/WinterCity296/WinterforceMedia

The way that we interact with the power grid here in the industrialized/post-industrial world is such that it might as well just be a property of the earth itself. Take your light bulb and dig it a little hole, like it’s a tomato plant seedling, and watch the light bloom. It’s miraculous. Even standing beneath a buzzing high-voltage transmission tower, it seems just too abstract, as if the tower is more a representation of electricity than the thing itself. To really get it, to live fully with the daunting reality of a power grid serving many hundreds of millions of people with baffling consistency, maybe it takes electrophobia, an irrational fear for an irrational system (in this case: one devised for an unlimited world).

Chicago’s Radius Project is a radio show of sorts—a radio show about radio and the physical reality behind the phenomenon. The most recent Radius epiode focuses on power transmission, and the electromagnetic fields that result. Ethan Rose, a musique concrète-rooted ambient artist that’s done work with source materials ranging from ancient tower bells to snow, was commissioned to produce a a temporary installation of sorts based around Chicago’s Jefferson Substation. The station's step-down transformers—which convert high-transmission voltage to the voltage found in regular household circuits—emit an audible hum at about 60 Hz, somewhere in between a very low B and a very low B-flat. The result is "Hum."

Rose chose to interact with the station's low buzz via the human voice; instead of capturing and manipulating the sound, he harmonized with it. Or, rather, he assembled a choir to harmonize with it, adding additional overtones and, in effect, desynthesizing. The result was then captured and reproduced (live) via small, low-power handhold radios, which site visitors carried around the site with them. The radios in turn became another aspect of the performance as they mediated the relationship between choir vocals and bare electricity. A visitor, coming closer to and then further from the station itself, would experience the choir and the station's hum modulating each other.

"I have been working with voice a bit more in the last few years," Rose told me over the weekend. "I did a larger choral work at City Hall in Portland a few years ago, and, more recently, I was working on a piece with a small choir in a WWII bunker field and prairie reclamation near Joliet, Illinois. So, I’ve had voices on the mind. Positioning singing bodies in relationship to worldly conditions simply seemed like the right thing to do. I love the strangeness of it—I think the coupling of strangeness and beauty is something to aspire to. But I follow my intuition above anything else."

The effect of adding human voices and overtones to the substation hum feels both a move toward mystification, the electrically buzzing first-world soil alluded to above, and toward the lucidity of cold engineering. It's less of a move toward some wholly new understanding of power than it is toward a deeper understanding of the deeply strange relationship we, as the connected, have with electricity.

"I think 'Hum' asks questions as opposed to making explicit statements," Rose said. "'Hum' plays with fundamental forces—the human voice and electric power. It brings these forces into contact and blurs their boundaries. Through an embodied resonance, 'Hum' connects the human body and the audible throb of electricity, evoking the power grid as a construct of human potential.

"One might say that the power grid paradoxically constrains and frees us—'Hum' speaks to the humanness of this apparent predicament," Rose said. "It does this not by denying that duality, but by opening out from it towards elusively beautiful and unusual harmonies. It situates the musical against the worldly. The small against the large. It is sincere and playful. Hopeful and tragic."

Rose noted that the neighborhood where 'Hum' takes place, a pocket just outside of Chicago's Loop district, isn't exactly a crowded urban locale. Most places where the grid becomes exposed in such a brutal (and strangely beautiful) fashion aren't. "[Electrical transformers] are considered noisy and unsightly, all the more reason to bring people to it, to sing with it," Rose said. "Due to the circumstances, we decided to do this piece without permission—a guerrilla approach. About midway through, a security guard came out. I thought he would shut us down, but instead, he was really excited by the project. He started talking with me about overtones, and he just kind of took it all in.  

"I love the way a performance like this can momentarily disrupt our daily lives, revealing a kind of transformative potential," Rose continued. "This security guard shed his security guard identity, sidestepping into some other way of being. One couldn’t hope for a better outcome."

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