Zen Sounds Interview Series 003: China Blue
A conversation about the voice of the Eiffel tower, the acoustics of Saturn's rings and a shock wave leveling a Siberian forest in 1908
I first met China Blue last year, during a course at the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, NY. Founded by the seminal electro-acoustic composer Pauline Oliveros, the institute fosters a community of people interested in Deep Listening, a practice of sonic meditation, mindful bodywork, and interactive performance.
China Blue may be a visual artist first, but sound plays an important role in her installations and sculptures. Her works have been exhibited and reviewed internationally, she has received multiple NASA research grants and lectured in Harvard, Yale, at MIT and Berklee School of Music. Among many other projects, she has worked with her recordings of the Eiffel Tower’s inside, the acoustics of Saturn’s rings and a meteorite shock wave that leveled a Siberian forest 100 years ago.
I spoke to China Blue over Zoom in December 2022.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. First of all, we met at a Deep Listening workshop, so how did you get acquainted with the concept?
I first met Pauline [Oliveros] and [her partner] Ione at their first Deep Listening conference. My husband Seth Horowitz and I were invited to speak, and that’s when we learned about Pauline’s work. Since then though, we’ve lived in Rhode Island and she’s lived in New York, so there wasn’t much contact. But I recently moved within four miles of Ione, about a year and a half ago, so I just reached out. My husband had passed, and I was in this new community, so I wanted to find new friends. That was the beginning of refreshing my relationship with her.
My work has always existed at the intersection of sound, art and science. This past year, I started realizing that the primary component that makes my art come alive begins with listening. What I ended up doing was to discover sounds that are not heard by human ears. And in order to do that, I have to listen very carefully. I was honing in to areas of sound we don’t normally hear. Over the summer, I developed soundwalks to introduce people to that idea, so I wanted to think more deeply about sound and listening, which led me to participating in the Deep Listening intensive workshops.
Do you think the workshops will have an impact on your work?
I’m sure they already have. (laughs) It’s hard to quantify how they have, but I find the connection with movement and dreaming very interesting – not just for me, but as I’m finding other people here in this community, it becomes helpful for them as well. I see this as a strong tool to help others connect with their own personal sense of creativity.
Did you find a connection to the spiritual side of Deep Listening as well?
I have meditated in the past, but I find that the idea of an active meditation, like a walking meditation or a soundwalk, is a style that I can hook into. I think I’ve done that in many moments in my life. And so it was very easy to do during the workshops and I didn’t find it foreign at all.
When I first learned about meditation, it felt like an empty hole that led to nowhere. But once it’s connected with stress and anxiety and the uncertainty in our world today, it can give you a moment of respite. And if you sustain that moment, it becomes two and three, and all of a sudden you’re at the end of the day and you’re going: »Oh, I got through the day.« (laughs) In that way it’s helping me to get through the anxieties of our current world. Just passing that tool on to others, I am finding that a valuable thing to do.
I very much agree with that. So going back to the very beginning, how did you end up becoming a visual artist?
My parents were artists, and all their friends were artists. I was raised in an artistic community, so it’s in my DNA. Their idea of art was a very traditional one where you sit around and make things. So by a very early age, I had already learned how to draw and paint, how to make little sculptures, how to silkscreen. So for me, it made no sense to go to school for that. I thought art school was just the most stupid thing in the world, so at first I avoided it, but eventually I realized how important degrees are. So I got my master’s degree and got settled in New York City and started working there.
That’s when I decided to focus on sound. I’m half Chinese, and in Feng Shui, there’s a component which is sound to energize a space. I found the fundamentals of sound very interesting. Sound is essentially molecules vibrating. I started applying this through the lens of a visual artist.
That is interesting. So did that also lead to you working in music?
Well, my passed husband Seth Horowitz was a scientist, but also a musician and a composer. And I worked with Lance T. Massey, who is the creator of the T-Mobile ringtone. We worked together, composing pieces and creating two albums. One of them was called »Under Voices«, that’s where we recorded the sounds of the Eiffel tower, and the other one is »Cassini’s Dreams«, which is based off the sounds of Saturn’s rings that Seth and I discovered for NASA.
Tell me the story behind that one please.
At the time we were looking at Saturn, [spacecraft] Cassini was doing its research. During Cassini’s tour of Saturn, it was constantly downloading data. We got a hold of that material and waded through the hours and hours of it to see what we could find. It was kind of a fishing expedition. (laughs) So Cassini was capturing events happening in the rings of Saturn.
But what are these sounds? What is happening there?
Good question! It’s hard to imagine what’s occurring there. First of all, the rings are primarily based on ice particles. They can range in size from tiny to big boulders of ice. Each particle has its own gravitational field, so they’re moving in these massive fields which are rotating around Saturn. But of course, they’re not so stable, so they’re always bouncing against each other, so what you hear is basically the noise of ice particles smashing against each other. You can imagine the sound of ice in a glass or a cup, something like that. That’s the most obvious component.
Then, in the rings, some areas are Saturn’s moons. So you have this moon surrounded again by ice particles, and they create a wave that goes in a curve shape, above and below the sphere. When they change motion, there’s a change in sound – there’s a sonic event that occurs.
That’s so fascinating. But how did you actually start working with NASA?
Well, Seth was doing some research at the Ames Research facility in California. Fortunately, as his wife, I was invited to come along. So we went to a place called the Vertical Gun. It’s housed in what’s basically an old garage. It’s a nine-meter long barrel and it shoots into this massive round steel container. They were researching what happens when meteorites impact a surface. Like, what would happen to people on earth if the meteorite was made of iron or ice. I was watching this like a fly on the wall, and in a casual moment, I said to the Principal Investigator, »I wonder what it sounds like.« And he said, »In the fifty years of its existence, nobody has ever researched its sound!« Next thing I knew, I had my own project.
And you ended up getting three NASA grants in total.
Yes. It was truly exciting to introduce the idea of sound to NASA. They never thought of putting recording devices on their spacecrafts, because we’re such visual creatures. Only recently, they started doing that and now, if you go to the NASA website, there are all these space sounds to listen to. I’m glad I made that introduction.
Last year, a data sonification of a black hole went viral. What did you think about that one?
Like everybody, I was excited. Being able to listen to things that we thought did not have sound is illuminating, but it also reminds us that we do have ears and they can go in places that we normally never imagined going.
There’s that forest-leveling shockwave that you recorded at the Vertical Gun. Please speak more on that as well.
Well, it is called the Tunguska event and it happened in 1908. Nobody knows exactly what caused it, but it was a massive explosion. The theory is that a meteorite almost hit, and it caused a shockwave that leveled a huge forest in Siberia. Because the sound was so enormous, and because you’re dealing with a people in a very remote area not connected with society, some of them went crazy because they just couldn’t comprehend it.
What we decided to do was mimick the event at the Vertical Gun. We put little toothpicks in the pit to see what would happen, and to see the pattern of the fall of the trees. What I was mostly interested in was to make a recording of it. I’m still sitting on it. If I were to reproduce it in an installation, it would be so horrific. Even if you reproduced it at one hundredth of the original volume, nobody would want to go into the room. I still remember that gut-wrenching sound.
Can we talk about the Eiffel tower? You were the first person to record its sounds from the inside.
It was another one of these events that started out as a casual inquiry. Seth and I were walking down the street on the left bank [of the river Seine in Paris], and I saw the Eiffel tower. I’d been in Paris a couple of times before, but I’ve never been to the tower, just because it’s such a touristy thing to do. And I looked up and saw the tower and, again, I said: »I wonder what it sounds like.« He said: »Well, that’s an interesting idea.«
A lot of times, these ideas come into your head, and then they go away, because they’re just too big or too random. But back at home, I thought: What would happen if I listened to it – the idea – and followed that cue? Sort of like Pauline’s daydreaming. So I started to see if it was possible. I was shocked to find it was. I took a team there. We had access to the whole structure, from the very basement to the pinnacle. We had a tour guide that took us everywhere and found places he thought were most interesting for us to go to, that tourists weren’t allowed to go.
We brought a combination of vibrational sensors and binaural microphones, and the idea was to capture as much as we could while we were there. We even taped sensors onto the legs of the Eiffel tower. It was 9 o’clock in the morning when Seth was doing that. The security team guys were having their meeting for the day just below where he was. The team leader suddenly looked up and saw him on top of the footing, taping something to the Eiffel tower.
Oh my god. That doesn’t look good.
You know, everywhere it says: »Do not climb on the tower!« It’s very specific. So here he is, climbing and taping stuff on, and the guy is strapped with a semi-automatic gun. Seth’s French was really bad, but I did give everybody a copy of the authorization, just in case something happened. So he sticks out his hand and says: »J’ai les papiers! J’ai les papiers!« (laughs) And I went running after the manager that had just dropped us off there. He then explained to the security guy what we were doing. Weh!
That particular recording was the best to me. We were able to capture the vibrations from the very base to the top of the Eiffel tower and back again, the full surface of the structure. Gustave Eiffel was a scientist, and I felt that was in the spirit of his work. What we captured were mainly the sounds of the wind and the rain being filtered by the iron of the structure, and that was her voice that day. But also we could hear the voices of the tourists and the elevators that moved along the edge, going up and down. We could hear it all.
Would you classify the Saturn or Eiffel tower recordings as music, or is it something entirely different?
To make them into music, one would have to do something with them. Our idea of music today is not just a raw recording. Even if there’s a bit more tolerance these days, if I took the recording of the voices I was just describing, without any editing, without any filtering, maybe a few people would be interested, but not many.
This year I listened to some raw storm recordings by Australian ambient musician Lawrence English (»Viento«), which are mainly just 40 minutes of extreme weather noises. I found it quite exciting. But I was asking myself – is this actually music, as it’s presented as such?
Since we did that work, there has been a resurgence of ambient and drone music. But I play primarily in the visual art realm, and at least here in the United States, there is no opportunity to present something like that. And I’ve been hesitant to present my work in the musical realm, just because I’ve never identified as a musician, but clearly something has happened to push me into that category.
I suspect that music is what we want it to be, in the end. There’s a market-driven form of music, where a song has to be three minutes or less and have certain characteristics. But drones and environmental recordings are getting more interesting to certain audiences as well.
Huge numbers of people listen to rain sounds or other white noise playlists on streaming services.
But bear in mind, I think these are being driven by a lot of health-based articles on how to calm your anxieties by listening to white noise. Especially in New York City, when the world is filled noise, I know many people that can’t sleep without a white noise player in the room. I think that has introduced a lot of people to listening to sounds that don’t have a melodic or harmonic component to it. Maybe it’s prepared people to be open to the idea of listening to the world around us in a way.
In your visual art, you’ve worked with other nature sounds, like cricket calls or firefly signals. Can you speak more about these projects?
Of course! Let’s start with the simplest one, the crickets. At the time, I was building a lot of my own electronics. My »8 Bit Crickets« are really cute little electronic devices. I thought it would be interesting to create a field of them, so I built 50 and had them in a massive field at a festival in Tokyo. I added sensors, because crickets make their calls at night. The sensors would activate them when the light was low, so they would turn on and off at their own time. They were very individualistic. I also included a little flashlight, so you could gig with your own cricket. (laughs) I put them in a little electronically designed cage. In ancient Japan, they traditionally kept crickets in bamboo cages. It was sort of an electronic version of that.
For the fireflies, I created a massive array of LED’s that were designed to turn on and off based on a firefly signaling pattern. In New England, the fireflies have a distinct pattern – they’re two seconds on, and then two seconds off. The point is for the males to signal the females, saying, »Hey babe, I’m over here. Come visit me.« I converted that into LED’s signaling which in itself was a super complex process, because each LED was being controlled individually, and that was long before circuits that could do that. I built the circuit, wired it and then draped it onto these two massive trees. All these blue LED’s were going on and off all over the trees.
Seth was also experimenting with 3D printing, so we printed a little firefly, and I put a LED in its butt. (laughs) I put it on a little post and in a little dome, and I wired it, so you could turn it on and off. They were really cute. There was also a sound component to it – in the trees, there were speakers, and I converted the light pattern into a sound pattern. I worked with Seth and Lance to compose it a little bit, so it sounded really pretty.
I’ve often heard about people converting musical patterns to light signals, but not the other way around.
It seemed to me like a very logical thing to do. It’s an algorithm, you know?
Any new works that you will show and exhibit soon?
I will have a show in May 2023, focusing on the sounds we discovered in Saturn’s rings, and one of the elements in that show is the Saturn Walk. That is a public soundwalk based on a hexagonal labyrinth. The reason for that is that there’s this interesting wind pattern occuring on the Northern pole of Saturn that’s actually hexagonal. Nobody understands why, but there it is. I worked with Lance again on this, and we created a piece designed to meditate on the sounds in Saturn’s rings, as a meditational soundwalk. I’ll also be doing temporary and permanent exhibitions in the Upstate New York area.
For more information, please visit China Blue’s website.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze