A distorted kazoo from Belarus. A gentle three-chord keyboard progression from France. A throaty growl from Brazil. These different sounds from distant parts of the world could hardly be more different. And yet they have come together to form an airy, experimental soundscape made possible through artificial intelligence and the great diversity of the world.
This global global mix of music and noise is Sound of the Earth: Chapter 3, an art project developed by Yuri Suzuki, a London-based sound artist and partner in design firm Pentagram. Developed in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture for 23. Triennale Milano International ExhibitionThe project is now on display in the form of a 13-foot-tall black geodesic sphere with around 300 speakers that record sounds sent by thousands of people from around the world.
Suzuki says the project is an exploration of the power of artificial intelligence to find similarities in sound coming from completely different places, and to challenge the way we experience cultures that are foreign to our own.
Processed through an algorithm, the submitted sounds are compiled into an ever-evolving ambient soundscape. At the Triennale in Milan, where the artwork is on display until December, the resulting composition is played out of the sphere. Sounds repeat and then fade, and then new sounds are added to the mix.
Lacking any discernible melody, the overall composition is in a constant state of change. Although matte black and devoid of geographic information, the sphere represents the Earth, and each individual sound is played through a speaker corresponding to the location of its submission.
“People are really used to stereo channels or the mono speaker experience. But when you have a multi-channel experience it’s actually quite fresh, says Suzuki. “With 300 speakers, it’s almost unpredictable where it’s coming from. It’s a little creepy, but it’s still pretty interesting.”
Visitors to the project’s website can record and upload their own audio to the growing pool. Using machine learning provided through Google’s Artists + Machine Intelligence grant, each submitted sound is processed and connected to others with similar sonic characteristics so they can flow together cohesively.
“Based on the categorization, it is to create compositions. So every time you open the site, the AI creates completely new compositions, Suzuki says, adding, “I’m interested in creating a democratic way to create a soundtrack of the world.”
The result is a mostly pleasant ambient background sound, but the contributions can also reflect the messiness of democracy. There are claps, clicks, drones and wails. One person submitted the gentle sound of birdsong. Another decided to submit the audio of himself burping.
Sound of the Earth: Chapter 3 is part of a series of projects Suzuki has been working on since 2005. He started by collecting and sharing sounds he recorded during his travels around the world. “Bigger cities like New York or Tokyo or London have completely different soundscapes,” he says.
The first chapter of the project was a 30-minute collection of sound and music from different countries that Suzuki compiled and pressed into a spherical disc. The second iteration, displayed at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2019, consisted of another black dome-like shape that played user-submitted sounds from different parts of the dome.
This last version is the most intricate, with sounds interwoven and the soundscape shaped entirely by what is sent in. During the first week of operation, the site received more than 500 submissions, with a wide variety of sound signatures. “Some sound is quite mellow, some sound is more aggressive,” says Suzuki.
He notes that the collection of submitted sounds is growing, and he hopes the website will continue to function as a sort of global sound archive, with new compositions being made possible with each submission. It can also be a way of erasing the spatial and geographical boundaries that separate people.
“The world today is less and less connected,” says Suzuki. Unifying sounds from people around the world, he says, is one way to rebuild those connections. “It’s my naive dream.”