Natural Car Alarms

I'm a great believer in misunderstandings as fruitful starting points for ideas. Moments of confusion produce an expansive mental space where a vast and reckless type of creative thinking becomes possible. Eventually, a clue restores the proper context, tethering me to what's really going on, delineating and determining what I should be understanding about things. When things make sense again, it's actually a bit disappointing.

Natural Car Alarms was the result of a misunderstanding. While on an artist's residency in Trinidad, I traveled to a small coastal town called Grande Riviere for a few days. Giant leatherback turtles would come up onto the beaches at night to lay their eggs. There was also an incredible amount of butterfly and bird life. I climbed up steep, narrow paths with a guide one day into a remote area of the rain forest, thick with vegetation that surrounded and disoriented me. While we stopped to take a breather, I suddenly heard a very familiar sound: a car alarm. I listened for a long time before things snapped back into context and I realized that it was, in fact, a bird. I tried to stay with both interpretations for as long as I could, and I also made a mental note to remember the error for later.

All of this would lead to Natural Car Alarms: a flock of three cars, each outfitted with a different alarm modeled on the ubiquitous six-tone siren so common in New York City, but composed of bird calls. The Macauley Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology helped me find bird calls from their vast archive of animal sounds; I sent them a recording of a screaming car alarm on my street and a few weeks later I had a CD of bird contenders in hand.

The choices were tough. I wanted the sounds to balance the shockingly alarm-like with the distinctly bird-like. Almost as important was mimicking the pattern of swooping cries and punctuated honks of the familiar car alarm. I wanted my alarms to be as loud, intrusive, obnoxious, and surprising as commercial car alarms—this was not about sonic beautification. And ideally, I wanted to replicate some of the ambiguity I had experienced in the forest, where the urban and the natural were suddenly very continuous.

Alarm 1

Alarm 2

Alarm 3

All alarms at once

Click here to watch the video.

All Things Considered (you can hear the alarms here too)

Studio 360

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