One of an occasional series of reports on the work of Living World, by Keiichiro Fujisaki

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Born 1963. Design journalist. Contributes articles on topics such as design and architecture to numerous magazines. blog

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Music for airports

Earth Clock Report 2: Sound Design

by Keiichiro Fujisaki, design journalist

The sounds for the Earth Clock minute and hour time signals were created by musician Kimitaka Matsumae (above, photographed during construction work). Says Matsumae, “I have an emotional attachment to airport music.” The reason for this attachment is Matsumae’s affection for Music for Airports, the 1978 album by Brian Eno, who first introduced the world to the ambient music genre.

“Airports are places through which lots of people pass. Ambient music was presented as music that could be ignored, music that didn’t draw attention to itself, music that blended in with background noise such as general hustle and bustle and the sounds of knives and forks, and was something I had a strong interest in. In composing the music for Earth Clock, I considered how to come up with something that created the same impression on people who happened to be passing regardless of which segment they heard out of a long passage.”

At Kobe Airport (photographed February 2006)

Eno’s ambient music consisted of pleasant melodies played at a leisurely pace. But this job involved creating time signals.

Music of one sound every minute

“In musical terms, one sound every minute equates to a tempo of 1. In rock the tempo is usually 120 or 130, and in drum’n'base it’s 160. Terms like a tempo of 120 or a tempo of 130 are used based on the number of beats that occur in the space of a minute, and so a time signal of one sound every minute could be interpreted as a tempo of 1. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a sound playing for a single bar of one second followed by 59 bars of rest.”

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Matsumae in the lobby checking the acoustics prior to the opening

Initially, consideration was given to assigning a different tone color to each of the 59 minute time signals. Matsumae created around 100 different sounds, and designer Senya Nemoto designed 60 clock faces to match the mood of each sound.

However, the idea of making all 60 sounds different changed during the process of actually choosing the sounds at Kobe Airport. Matsumae, the two Living World representatives, and designer Senya Nemoto chose the sounds that would be used by actually taking speakers and computers onto the site and playing some 100 different sounds.

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Playing and assigning scores to over 100 pre-prepared sounds

The four exchanged opinions on which sounds seemed right and which ones didn’t before narrowing down the number to between 20 and 30, and then to three. Ultimately, it was decided that a way would be found to use a single sound for all 60 time signals by changing the pitch and thereby altering its tone color.

“The onset of a note is called the attack, and for alarms and other sounds designed to make people pay attention, notes with attacks that commence suddenly are best. However, because this was a time signal that sounds once every 60 seconds, a noise that sounds suddenly would surprise people and sound harsh. So we turned it into a sound that builds up naturally and slowly, and gradually fades out. However, this would make it difficult to tell precisely when the minute passed. So we considered turning it into a sound that built up gradually, then had a clear defining point so that people would know the time, then gradually faded away again. We spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of tone color that would suit a sound with a slow attack and a definite peak.”

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If listened to sped up, would it be a beautiful melody? “Whether or not it’s beautiful is a separate issue. For example, most Japanese nursery songs employ only five or so intervals, and some even repeat the same intervals over and over again. In this case, although there is a melody of sorts, we were more concerned with setting the amplitude of each sound compared with the sound before in such a way that the intervals sounded random.”

The tone color of the hour time signals is the same as that of the minute time signals. The hour time signal consists of a short melody lasting around five seconds.

Earth Clock hour time signalSound design: Kimitaka Matsumae

However, the minute time signal sounds once and then doesn’t sound again until 50 seconds later, by which time people will have forgotten what it sounded like. People are unable to put these sounds together inside their heads to form a melody. Can this sort of thing really be called music? Are they just sounds? Or are they really music?

Sound design is spatial design

“Synthesizers are important to me when it comes to making music. As far as synthesizers are concerned, sounds are like any other kind of music. On a musical score, it’s impossible to express the full range of tone colors. Imagine, for example, you have a piece of music in which the note do is played for a minute. Well, you can’t write on the score whether the sound is joyous or scary, or express the various alterations you can achieve using a synthesizer. With a synthesizer, it’s only once you express how the notes sound in space that they take shape as music.”

So is sound design the same as spatial design? Might the approximately 50 second gap between the minute time signals be interpreted as a piece of silent music like John Cage’s 4′ 33″? The hustle and bustle before and after the minute time signal is different every time. One could describe it as music that changes every minute.

Sounds that change daily and sounds that are repeated daily color the departure lobby space. The sounds that emanate from Earth Clock add an easy rhythm to the boarding announcements, the chimes, the sounds of people talking and their footsteps, transforming the space of the airport itself into a single piece of music.
(Keiichiro Fujisaki)

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LW’s Nishimura and Kimitaka Matsumae compare sounds (late 2005, prior to installing the screen)

From Living World:
Living World also worked with Kimitaka Matsumae on the production of COLORS at Yokohama’s Minatomirai Station and Projection Table at Uchida Yoko.

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