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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

The Audiophiles: Take A 'Listen' To The World Around You At The Exploratorium

The Bicycle Wheel Harp at the “Sound – Hearing” exhibit at the SF Exploratorium. Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium
The Bicycle Wheel Harp at the “Sound – Hearing” exhibit at the SF Exploratorium. Photo courtesy of the Exploratorium

For this segment of “Audiophiles,“ where we talk with the most creative minds working in sound, we want you to close your eyes and imagine you've walked into a diner.

You go up to the jukebox, throw in your quarter and pick a random song. It sounds like a pretty cool song, but listen closely...

PAMELA WINFREY: I'm sure we've all had days like that, haven't we?

Okay, so this is clearly not a regular jukebox, and we're not in a diner. The woman you just heard is…

WINFREY: Pamela Whinfrey and I'm senior artist here at the Exploratorium.

That’s right, the Exploratorium, that’s actually where I’ve taken you. Pamela designed this strange jukebox for an exhibition here called “Listen.” It's where you can explore all the facets of how we interact with the world through sound. Like with a normal, old jukebox…

WINFREY: But then we put in stuff that you would never hear in a million years. And what you realize in jukeboxes is that you hear the same stuff all the time. Here, you have probably never heard this stuff. It just shows you how rich and varied the musical experience can be.

Pamela worked with a whole team of scientists and artists to design this exhibition. There are booths where you can share your favorite sound memories, see what a sound wave looks like, and play with rhythm on a ton of musical instruments. And the man who brought this all together?

THOMAS HUMPHREY: My name is Thomas Humphrey and I'm senior scientist at the Exploratorium.

Thomas told me it all started with a simple concept.

HUMPHREY: Attentive listening. To be an attentive listener, what is it like to really listen to something?

To really listen to something – that’s what I wanted to explore, so I asked Thomas to take me on a little tour of the exhibition to see what kinds of things you can discover through your ears.

HUMPHREY: I think I'd like to go off and listen to some confusing sounds to begin with. CASTRO: Sounds great.

I soon find out that Tom isn't kidding when he says confusing….

HUMPHREY: Can you hear that? CASTRO: Yeah, I can hear that.

This warehouse of gadgets and gizmos is like a virtual library of sounds. Some of them are musical … some kind of irritating.

HUMPHREY: That's a colossally irritating sound… CASTRO: Yeah, it's pretty irritating.

And, as he said, totally confusing … like a jumbled reading of “Little Red Riding Hood”...

CASTRO: No way! There is no way that I would know what this is about.

Some sounds you make yourself...

HUMPHREY: This is something – whoa, you can really hear when I talk in there, you can hear my voice! You can’t avoid having that happen. This is a really, really long tube. It’s made from galvanized metal. It stretches from where we are on the mezzanine of the Exploratorium up into the rafters and it goes about 180 feet, so it’s very, very long. And there are some cool things that happen. For example, if I just clap into it… There are some things you can tell about that. One is that something comes back and there is a discernible amount of time it takes to come back and the other is that the sound that goes in and what comes out do not sound the same. The one that goes in is my clap, like this, and the one that goes back goes NEAOW! – like that. CASTRO: Why? Why is that? HUMPHREY: A sound like a clap that lasts for a very short period of time actually has many, many frequencies. And those frequencies – there’s a whole broad band of them – they travel up and down the tube with different speeds, so the high frequencies come back first, and the low frequencies come back later and so it goes AEUUWM, from high to low when it comes back.

The spirit of this exhibition – and really, the whole museum – is to play with what Tom Humphrey calls your "perceptual mechanisms."

HUMPHREY: One of the ways that we find out how our perceptual mechanisms work, like hearing and taste and smell and all of that, is when we discover ways to make them not work so well. If we kind of confuse them, like with optical illusions or auditory illusions – that gives us inroads into understanding how does that system really work. That system wasn’t so good for this, right? I got fooled in some ways.

The exhibit that most blew my mind was one called SoundBite. It consists of a metal rod sticking out of a box. You actually bite down on this rod, while plugging your ears, and then, all of a sudden…

SETH SAMUEL: I hear hip hop … with my teeth! I didn't know that I could listen to things with my teeth, but apparently that's exactly what I can do. I'm going to do it again.

That's Seth Samuel, one of the engineers at Crosscurrents. He joined me and a bunch of other KALW folks on a volunteer appreciation outing to the Exploratorium.

ALI BUDNER: That is so wild, wow. It feels like when people talk about having radio receptors in their brain where they can pick up radio signals from outer space!

Your Call producer Ali Budner was also there, and even though she and Seth liked the SoundBite exhibit, another one called Out Quiet Yourself is what really caught our group's attention.

CASTRO: All right, can you describe what's happening here, Ali? BUDNER: So there's a narrow booth and there's gravel lining the floor...

And there are sensors measuring the sound you produce. The idea is to walk as lightly and quietly as possible, so the sensors don’t feel you. The lower your score, the better. Ali goes first.

BUDNER: Here goes…

Ali gets a 12.9, which looks pretty good after Seth scores a 64.5.  But it’s not as good as reporter Erica Mu's 6.5. Then, engineer Chris Hoff steps up.

CHRIS HOFF: I'll get at least 6.4.

Chris always wins. Every game.

GREG GHEORGHIU: A 0.7. CASTRO: Why?! HOFF: That's what I'm talking about! Once again, I win!

Way to go, Chris.

So, there was one exhibit left to check out: The Jam Room.

CASTRO: All right, this is what a KALW jam session sounds like. Who’s starting it off?

This room is full of xylophones and marimbas that are set up to play a pentatonic scale. That means there are five notes on each of these instruments and there is no combination of those notes that would sound bad to our ear. I'll let Tom Humphrey explain.

HUMPHREY: What’s wonderful about the pentatonic scale is that you can’t make a mistake in terms of the sound. I’m just going to randomly play this thing, I’m going to use two mallets. I’m going to play two bars, then play two different ones and two different ones. So that sounds okay, right?

The Listen exhibition at San Francisco’s Exploratorium brings the beauty of sound into focus. And, as Tom says, without paying attention to that sense, you’re missing out on a lot of what the world has to offer.

HUMPHREY: Any of those gerunds like listening, seeing, smelling, and tasting – they are the way that we begin our relationship with the world. It all begins that way. You want to relate with the world somehow; it’s between two people, or it’s between you and the sunset, or whatever. There is some kind of observational thing that is going on and that’s just the beginning. If you don't do that, if you are sort of insensate, and you don't observe the world and don’t take it in, you portably aren't going to go very far.

This story originally aired on June 2, 2011