Recap | Sirens Taken for Wonders

Photo “Intersect” by Flickr user Digiart2001.

As the plaintive wail of an ambulance drifted up 2nd Avenue last Friday night, a group of about 30 people at the corner of East 10th Street paused to listen to the siren as it passed by. I had joined a nocturnal urban hunt, an aural field trip through New York City, listening for the sounds of sirens and what they signify. The event was one of a three part series called Sirens Taken for Wonders, a joint program of Performa 09 and the Van Alen Institute. Organized by British artist Paul Elliman, the series took the form of two field trips and a live radio panel discussion on Saturday afternoon. Elliman’s idea is that sirens represent an apparently unambiguous message of stress, alarm, or danger within a city, yet they also contain a range of contradictory meanings when seen from different perspectives. Sirens Taken for Wonders gathered experts and enthusiasts on the field trips and the panel discussion to share these different sonic images of the city.

The field trip began at 10:00pm at the Performa hub in Cooper Square, a temporary storefront gallery space carved out of the new Morphosis building at the Cooper Union. Paul Elliman began the evening’s activities with a brief introduction to the typology of siren sounds and the emergency codes used by the city’s EMS personnel to denote different emergency situations: Code 1 is for an EDP, or Emotionally Disturbed Person. No siren is used, and the lights are used sparingly. Code 7, at the other end of the spectrum, is for severe trauma such as gunshot wound or cardiac arrest. Both siren and lights are at full volume. Daisy Press, an operatic voice coach who developed a series of voice training exercises based upon siren sounds, demonstrated the different siren tones. She later referred me to a New York Times article, written in 2007, in which these tones were described and sampled in audio format.

The leisurely pace of our stroll was interrupted abruptly at the first notice of a siren: a “whale”, so named because of its slow, full range of sound from low pitch to high. Over the next hour and a half, we heard a few “yelps” and “air horns” as well. Towards the end of the tour, we witnessed an ambulance breakdown and the transfer of a patient from one ambulance to another, which triggered a conversation began about the voyeuristic aspect of the endeavor, a topic that was picked up the next day in the panel discussion.

The field trips had really been a warm-up for Saturday’s discussion, which was held at 4pm at the Van Alen Institute. Paul Elliman began the discussion, broadcast live on internet radio, and acted as the moderator. He gave an exhaustive account of the history of sirens – including the literature, music and other art forms they have inspired – and posited them as an iconic, even touristic, characteristic in the popular imagination. The most vivid and poetic description that Elliman referenced came from a South Bronx ambulance driver who described the movement of cars in front of him as a wave that rippled around him: a visual Doppler effect that moved with the siren. From there, urban sonologist Raviv Ganchrow discussed sirens as physical wave phenomena and the urban canyon as a range of reflectance and frequency absorption determined by building material. The sounding of a siren maps or scans the city’s frequency range. The relationship between the city’s built environment and sonic experience brought up the work of Max Neuhaus, who had been hired by New York City in the late 1980s to rethink sirens sounds and emergency codes (PDF) (the same Max Neuhaus whose installation in Times Square was reinterpreted last week and covered here by Veronica Kavass -Ed.). Among Neuhaus’ contentions were that more intelligent sirens would use information about the urban environment to modify their sound. This notion provided a segue to Laura Kurgan’s work at the Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL). Research at the lab included access to the 311 database (see SIDL co-director Sarah Williams’ analysis of 311 complaints here), in which there is no mention of sirens in any neighborhood as a noise complaint. New Yorkers, it seems, complain about a lot of other noises, but never sirens. When Elliman commented that only a few sirens were audible on his walks, and Dr. Bronzaft, Chair of the Noise Committee on the Mayor’s Council on the Environment of New York City, replied that there were probably more sirens in the South Bronx or Brownsville, Kurgan suggested that a map of sirens might correspond to the maps of incarceration Kurgan has researched and produced at the Spatial Information Design Lab. Dr. Bronzaft corroborated that there were no complaints about sirens in the 311 database. Both Kurgan’s and Bronzaft’s work have the potential to affect public policy, and while it was unclear how frequency mapping might be used, the possibilities were apparent to both.

As the afternoon darkened into evening, the lights remained turned off in hopes of inviting the night sounds of sirens into the room. However, as Dr. Bronzaft pointed out, perhaps we should have gathered in the South Bronx for that purpose. The darkened atmosphere did, however, present an ideal setting for a bit of performance art. Lazaro Valiente performed an improvisational piece and described his Police Car Quartet, composed as a public concert with Mexico City police cars. Mr. Valiente’s work brought us out of a policy discussion and back to the central ambiguity that the panel elaborated but never really clarified. In an urban environment in which density and noise are both increasing, what do sirens mean, and how do they convey that message? I’m not sure that I got an answer to that question, but I think that Mr. Elliman would have been disappointed had there been a unanimous conclusion. His work is deeply engaged with ambiguity, and his concept for this event was a wonderful, thoughtful, and intelligent rumination. I left with a much richer appreciation for sirens, and another layer of complexity to add to the texture of New York City.

Panel Discussion Participants:
Paul Elliman: Artist, Moderator
Raviv Gonchow: Sonologist at the Royal Conservatory at the Hague; Design Professor, TU Delft
Lazaro Valiente: Mexico-City based musician, composer of “Police Car Quartet”
Laura Kurgan: Director – Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University
Dr. Arline Bronzaft: Chair of the Noise Committee, Mayor’s Council on the Environment of New York City

Samir S. Shah, AIA is an architect and writer based in New York City. He is a former Fulbright Fellow in Art & Architectural History and has written for various publications, including the Architect’s Newspaper. Samir has taught courses in architecture at the City College of New York and abroad, and is currently principal at Urban Quotient, P.C. , a full-service architecture design firm and research collaborative.