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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Venus Smiles

Venus Smiles
  • On October 1, 2019



Venus Smiles is an acoustically situated sound sculpture for shared performance by multiple players. Resonating copper tubes, suspended in a tensegrity type structure can be played as a musical instrument by using your hands, a bow or your voice.

The instrument is tuned to the resonant frequencies of the room, sharing its tone via intangible vibrations, specifically designed to amplify acoustic properties of the room in reciprocal acoustic relationship.

The lengths of tube are designed to resonate with sympathetic harmonic frequencies such that musical chords and timbres can be built into the structure.

The transparency of the system allows each performer to communicate musically through expressions and movements while performing. Also, the integral aspect of the tensegrity system enhances the communal music-making: Pressure applied through one persons playing on any side of the system will modulate the tension of the whole. If one person is bowing a string, for instance, another person can change its pitch by pushing a tube or bowing another string.

Venus Smiles makes the world of acoustic resonance in architectural structures accessible to everyone; even people without a musical background can create immersive sounds which communicate in a language beyond words. The musical architecture is tangible and creates novel interactions with sound and space.

‘I […] began to dance to the strange abstracted music, for some reason as beautiful now as Lorraine Drexel‘s wistful eyes. “Did you say it was all over? Carol, it‘s only just beginning. The whole world will be singing.”’ – James Graham Ballard in 1957

Five musical tensegrity systems made of tubes.

Venus Smiles is a creative, practice-derived manifesto addressed to architects, engineers and individuals. The materials that we use to build our houses create sound, and sound communicates in a language without words. Modern designers currently shape the soundscape in a city unknowingly; architectural design as well as the design of musical instruments is detached from the human body. This is an example for soundscape-considering design for the human body. There is a lot to explore in the analog world of sounds. The sculpture can be played from all sides and by multiple players.

The tensegrity design which is tuned to the Tate gallery and the material of the copper tubes which naturally sound in tones that western music names a major dim 7 chord

Each element of the sculpture is based on the resonant frequency of its space, John Hoyland room in Tate Britain.

The floor and the air of the John Hoyland room get excited, they vibrate, when the sound of 36Hz occurs. This frequency is equivalent to the note D1 for a musician and it is a very low note. The base of the sculpture resonates with this same note, but two octaves higher: 144Hz. Sounds which are relating to each other as octaves usually resonate strongly with each other, this means we perceive this tone as louder, stronger and richer.

Our sonic experience in space is designed by architects, who build the resonating bodies of the spaces around us, and by engineers, who invent machines that make sounds and noises in rhythmic patterns in spaces. Individuals, like you and me, also play their part. The sculpture Venus Smiles can be excited through hitting the tubes or bowing and plucking the strings, it is an instrument which can be performed by anyone who enters the room.

Technical Description

Thinking like a luthier, how do we make musical instruments today? Can we use technology as a tool in the urban context to design spaces and devices that make us feel well? In the video below you can see how the frequency that a material resonates to can be calculated and simulated. Here I am using the software, Pure Data. These calculations could be linked to a 3D modelling software to simulate the sound while modelling the 3D sculpture.

The Tactile Experience

‘Venus Smiles’ is an instrument made of copper and brass tubes.

The name Venus Smiles originates from the fictional short story by James Graham Ballard. Originally titled Mobile, it first appeared in 1957. Ballard tells the story of a musical sculpture which is aesthetically unpleasing and whose sound terrifies the inhabitants of a city. Sculpted by a woman, an ‘elegant and autocratic creature, […] intimate of Giacometti and John Cage’, the metal initially sounds like classical music. Later as the sculpture grows, it soon plays fragments of Mendelssohn, closing movements of Grieg‘s Piano Concerto and abstract music, as if a complete orchestra were performing a symphony. Terrified by the sound, the main character, Hamilton, decides to cut the sculpture into pieces and melt down the metal. Later, he realises with horror, that the metal has been recycled and used for new buildings and motor vehicles which now also start to vibrate and create sound.

Venus Smiles at Tate Britain

Visitors playing Venus Smiles in John Hoyland room, Tate Britain           Photo @vibesart

Visitors playing Venus Smiles in John Hoyland room, Tate Britain           Photo @vibesart

Visitors playing Venus Smiles in John Hoyland room, Tate Britain           Photo @vibesart

Visitors playing Venus Smiles in John Hoyland room, Tate Britain             Photo @vibesart