Sounds of the Stacks

Sheffield 17-31 July 2023                                                                                  

Sounds of the Stacks is an installation designed specifically for Western Bank Library’s subterranean Level 2. Drawing on the atmosphere of the space, the work was created using recordings gathered in situ, audio resources available from the library, archival audio from the National Fairground and Circus Archive, and sounds abstracted from the use and organisation of the space.

Level 2 is often very quiet and, due to its size, it can easily feel like one is the only person there. Building on the striking stillness of the place, the installation was designed to be experienced walking through the stacks on your own accompanied by an handheld FM radio.

The work is formed of 3 parts:

Nine sound atmospheres are broadcasted on the 88.1MHz radio frequency from different locations across the floor. Using one of the FM radios provided, the audience is invited to discover each composition while moving through the stacks and exploring the space. Sounds featured in the broadcasts include: recordings of fairground organs from the Jack Wilkinson collection (National Fairground and Circus Archive), book trolleys, empty stacks, voice messages from fairground organ enthusiast Len Pattison (NFCA), cassette tape glitches, electromagnetic sounds of the space, algorithmic walking, sensors clicking, book pages, vents and fans. As the short-range broadcasts overlap and interfere with each other, a thick sonic tapestry of composed sounds and radio noise is created to accompany the musty smell of old books which permeates the level.

Excerpt of FM radio output recorded while walking through the stacks

Set in “the cage” section of the level, two light-activated speakers play a live composition generated from incoming data from the booking system of the University Library. Every time a resource is requested, returned or renewed, its call number is entered into the compositional system as a fixed pitch and a number sequence. The accumulation of pitches generates drones and repetitive micro-rhythms while the number sequences are recited using text-to-speech synthesis. In this way the live composition uses simple mappings of the Dewey Decimal System to create a more complex texture and sonify the networked system which operates behind the scenes at all times.

Live composition excerpts

As one approaches composition n3, sound might be playing from aisle 2 PER 720.5 – 780.5, but it stops as soon as the sensor registers movement, and the light turns on. A chair is placed at the end of the aisle in front of a blue display board with stacks of broken chairs either side of it. They are all the same model: the “675 Chair” by Robin Day. These chairs were chosen as a key part of the interior design of Western Bank Library and, before breaking, they all used to live in the main Reading Room on Level 5 where they enjoyed a grand view of Weston Park. All piled up upon each other, waiting to be repaired to return upstairs, the chairs are now assembled in new poetic and accidental configurations which have informed the composition of this electroacoustic piece. Using sounds of the 675 Chair and electromagnetic interference from the motion sensors which activate the lights, this piece creates a dialogue between the two parts, placing the listener in the middle. To experience the composition, the infrared sensor must be tricked into thinking that no one is there by sitting relatively still for approximately 5 minutes, at which point the light turns off and the piece starts. You can listen to “Robin Day 675” below.

Robin Day 675

Sounds of the Stacks was created with the help and support of the University Library team, WRoCAH and the Music Department.