Friday, August 5, 2011

Environmental Sounds

If you grow up in a city, you accept traffic noise as part of life. Go to the country for a weekend, and the quiet is unsettling. Same is true in reverse. I grew up in a quiet part of a mid-sized town. First time I slept in New York City, my hotel room was too close to the street.

My home town (Kenosha, Wisconsin) is right on the west side of Lake Michigan. My childhood home was one block away from the lake shore, and less than a mile away from a lighthouse in the harbor. I could see the red flashing light through my bedroom window. The low vibrating hum of the fog horn as vivid to my memory as the photographs in my scrapbooks.

When I moved to Bethlehem, I was encouraged to learn about the Bethlehem Steel plant. I've read a few books on the company, seen hundreds of historic photographs of the blast furnaces and plant workers, watched a couple of documentary films, and heard musical pieces written in homage to the legacy of the people who worked in the Steel.

Tonight, there was a ceremony celebrating a new $250,000 sculptural installation near the former Steel blast furnaces. One minute prior to the inaugural lighting, there was a planned sound of the steam ship whistle that was sounded to announce shift changes at the plant for many years. The former steam ship whistle was taken from the French Luxury liner SS Normandie when it caught fire and sank in the New York Harbor in 1942 while being recommissioned as a troop ship.

The shift changing whistle had to be loud enough to cut through the noise of the production and layers of protective gear for those closest to the heat. That sound should have deafened all of those standing close to the blast furnaces tonight. I was hoping the speaker system would be good enough to replicate not only the sound, but the vibrations of that historic piece of life in Bethlehem. Thinking on it now, it's probably better that the real thing wasn't there. It would have really hurt to be that close.

I hope the soon to be built Visitors Center on the SteelStacks site will have this recording on a some signage with a button to push for the sound. I think a little interactive piece will keep the memory alive in some small way.

But what the recording will not be able to capture is the vibrations in your bones, and the lingering echo of the sound over distance. Splashing against South Mountain, or hanging heavy in summertime humidity, sound gets in you and around you. I would love to see the reaction of some old retired steelworkers as they hear this recording. I'll bet their faces would flood with memory at the tone.

I know mine does every time I go back to the Flicker link above. And my mind immediately floods with other sounds, smells, visions and feelings of my youth. Amazing what a simple sound can trigger.

#49 of 90in90 for #LUBlogTribe

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