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Hassan i Sabbah (or Hasan bin Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains – among other variations) assembled, almost singled-handedly, an army of Ismaili assassins in 11th century Iran. The Old Man, the rumor goes, had devised a kind of Global Positioning System, at least a thousand years before his time – using sound.
High atop barren, windswept mountain peaks, in the kiln-like heat of central Asia, the enslaved artisans went to work, carving and stacking and aligning walls, polishing rock surfaces, building resonation chambers, applying tiles, tracking wind storms – and listening.
The music of these valve-houses moved peak to peak, one after the other, across featureless miles, through complex wind instruments built directly into the rocks of unexplored mountains. To support himself during the War, my grandfather, who owned a cabin on the riverine border between New York State and Canada, eventually found work as a translator. This soon led to a career in academia, where he began to teach German and German Literature at a small liberal arts college in the woods north of Albany.
This had the effect that you could hear the house before you saw it, a faint whistle just audible beneath the rustling canopies of trees or sporadic bursts of birdsong.
The house, of course, was destroyed in World War II, at almost the exact time that my grandfather found himself working as a translator, there in New York State, sitting in his riverside cabin, listening to the foghorns of barges, beneath migrating flocks of geese.
In defense of the kingdom during World War I, a large array of sound mirrors was constructed along the coast of England.
Monolithic, concrete, abstract, they have sat derelict ever since in the rainswept, grey coastal void, sprayed with graffiti, often half-destroyed by vandals or prolonged neglect. And yet this project seems rather too humanocentric; the natural acoustic topography of the landscape is already interesting enough without having to whisper to someone in France. What if, for instance, there were a windstorm that blew through every year on the south coast of England, every autumn, say the first two weeks of November: could you build a new series of sound mirrors, exactly mapped and carefully installed, so as to amplify or prolong the sounds of those seasonal storms? Imagine, then, a distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October, in response to northern winds coming down from the Canadian Arctic. People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes. But reimagine these Hollow Hills as engineered by Arup, or even Halliburton, and rebuilt in the 21st century to a design by Zaha Hadid – literal landscape architecture, where the roof is the terrain you walk on. Reimagine the Hollow Hills, that is, as a national project, an engineering-based impulse toward mythology.
You could therefore use architecture, landscape architecture, to directly influence the climate. You could replace Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, with a massive, inland Aeolian Reef, embedding it into the hills of Yorkshire. We will turn the derelict stations of the London Underground into subterranean resonation chambers. The abandoned Tube stations hundreds of feet below London would then emit low drones, recycling stale air into reverb, greeting you sonically as you passed by, filling your Tube carriage with a snatched fragment of music. In any case, “When the sand avalanches, the grains jostle each other at different frequencies, setting up standing waves in the cascading layer, says Douady. All of which, finally, brings us to Ernst Chladni and his Chladni figures, or: architectonic structures appearing in sand due to patterns of acoustic resonance.


The gist of Chladni's experiments involved spreading a thin layer of sand across a vibrating plate, changing the frequency at which the plate vibrated, and then watching the sand as it shivered round, forming regular, highly geometric patterns. But, the rumor goes, at one point he enslaved a team of Tehran’s greatest stone masons, sculptors, and architects, and he sent them, under guard, deep into the desert.
The subtlest breeze could set them off, reverbing through small and twisted chambers, sounds bent and echoed across themselves in low moans and whistles, heavy, endless drones, combinations of notes across all octaves, forming chords. Many travelers through Central Asia still report hearing strange notes blowing on the nighttime wind, and there is more and more speculation that this comes not from radios in distant camps of fellow travelers, but from the still-functioning pipes and chambers of undiscovered mountaintop wind-instruments, singing quietly to themselves in the darkness. German-raised, having come to the States in the 1920s, he found he could put his own native language to work, translating for the US government. There, in his spare time, like some kind of monk, he began to translate the journals of his own great-grandfather – who, it turns out, was childhood friends with Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the great naturalist who mapped the world. Humboldt, in fact, made a number of trips down to our old family home in Bavaria where the two of them took long walks into the wooded hills and beyond, ascending the smaller fore-mountains of the German Alps.
But there was an old manor in the hills, Alexander’s journals explain, that had been built on a site known for its crosswinds that came down and over the mountains from Austria.
They formed a kind of primitive anti-aircraft radar; and so of course were doomed to obsolescence the instant true radar was born. One mirror will be placed in Folkestone, filling a gap in the existing chain of mirrors along the English coast. Or to prolong even the storms themselves, which get trapped amidst all those sound mirrors? Using sound mirrors, this low droning, cliff-created reverb is then carefully echoed back up the chain of monoliths to supply a natural, continuous soundscape for the sleeping residents of nearby towns. These formed a linked subterranean labyrinth of domed chambers, with vaulted halls whorling off beneath the Britannic landscape.
They would therefore act in concert as a wind-trap, or wind-gutter, grabbing hold of hurricanes and tropical storms and slowing them down – even stopping them entirely.
No more hurricane; its winds have disappeared, sucked harmlessly into and dissipated by the Aeolian Reef. It would span the breadth of England, and its sculpted, sunken chambers, full of valves, could alter weather all over the country. These waves reinforce one another, making the layer vibrate like the surface of a loud speaker.
Those patterns depended upon, and were formed in response to, whatever vibration frequency it was that Chladni chose. You could actually guarantee sunshine in the summer, saving garden parties from inevitable drizzly showers; more important, you could make the climate constant, trustworthy, regularized.



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