What’s that Sound? Wind Harp Brings Nature’s Music to Campus
September 24, 2012—
In an 1880s sandstone warehouse in Calumet, artist Ashok Agarwal is creating visual and aural beauty. Working in the dark, chilly structure, he is winding strings on the soundboard of an aeolian (wind) harp that will sit near the Memorial Union and Chemical Sciences buildings on Michigan Technological University’s campus.
As he tightens the strings to the long eyebolts at the top and bottom of the soundboard, Agarwal explains that the sound will come from the oscillating of the strings. Claiming he’s a “novice knot person,” he is following diagrams for tying them, tough duty on a 40-degree damp, rainy day with not a space heater in sight.
“Under, over, under, then back through,” he mutters to himself.
He discusses the sound. "It's called Hiljainen. The Finnish word for ‘quietly,’” Agarwal says. “It’s a beautiful word. The sound produced by the harp will be subtle, and I've tried to maintain a visual subtleness as well. The form is inspired by the idea of a flower before it blooms.”
“Subtle” seems an odd description of something that will be 13-feet high. Two huge light-green “petals” frame a soundboard that is wedge-shaped like the Flatiron Building in New York. Its two long sides feature nine strings each, and the broader end has another three. Thin sheets of mahogany cover the wedge beneath the strings.
“I'm grateful for the opportunity to do this. This is the brainchild of Lynn Watson [University gardener],” Agarwal says. “She wanted an Aeolian Harp incorporated into the campus grounds, and Christa Walck [associate provost] helped to create the Friends of the Gardens to raise funds for the project. It has been a collaborative effort. Dave Sladek and his team at Universal Metalworks in Calumet fabricated the piece, and Mark Plichta [MSE professor] and I investigated alternative soundboard materials, including aluminum and carbon fiber."
Agarwal explains that, under correct wind conditions, the harp’s strings resonate at their harmonic modes of vibration, sounding simultaneous overtones. Aeolian harps take many forms and have been constructed around the world at a variety of spatial scales, with differing materials and designs. When proper wind conditions are present, the harp will produce an interplay of overtones at a volume audible to nearby pedestrian traffic. The volume will not be overpowering, and most of the time there will be no sound.
The strings are the same length but differ in diameter. They will respond to different wind speeds. The location on campus—near the famous “wind tunnel”—should guarantee sound.
Agarwal is a building contractor by trade, from upstate New York, but he’d been involved with outdoor metal sculptures previously in Vermont and has created outdoor public art installations in a variety of media. He was contacted by Bill Rose, professor emeritus of geology, to design the boulder garden.
“We installed the stones, and Lynn did the floral landscape around it,” he says.
Without using amplification, Agarwal explains, the length of the strings will affect the volume. “The longer the string, the more will be transferred to the sound board. More volume.”
The designer consulted with German wind harp specialist Uli Wahl to perfect the sound. He started designing it a year ago, using standard materials to keep the cost down.
The sculpture is light green on the outside, slightly darker green on the inside. “Very very unsaturated,” Agarwal says. Nearby, nuts, bolts and washers are painted the lighter shade, as subtle as the color of bones. The soundboard frame is light lavender.
Last weekend Agarwal and Dave and Nick Sladek hoisted the piece with a cherry picker and placed on a large boulder, bolting in it place. It is a beautiful addition to mid-campus, and after some fine tuning by Agarwal, it will sound beautiful, too.
Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.Original URL: http://www.mtu.edu/news/stories/2012/september/story78663.html