Organ of Corti opens at the City of London Festival

Helen Wallace tests the £50,000 'acoustic device' that offers new ways of listening… perhaps.

It won the prestigious PRS New Music Award, worth £50,000, music’s very own ‘Turner Prize’. It’s a centrepiece of the City of London Festival. It’s meant to transform the way we listen.

The Organ of Corti consists of a group of four-metre high transparent cylinders (the 'sonic crystal') on a wooden base. Apparently this structure, designed by Liminal, 'absorbs the predominant frequencies from the location in which it is situated and plays them back attenuated and enhanced without the addition of new sounds… thus the instrument may be seen to sculpt quotidian noises into a composition that questions one’s notion of musicality and indeed the evolution of music itself'.

I don’t like where this is going…

Resolutely open-minded, I go to Carter Lane Gardens and stand – in the rain, as it happens – beside the Organ of Corti, awash with a cacophony of ‘quotidian noises’: buses, cars, heavy drilling and an ambulance.

Stepping eagerly into the sonic crystal, I await ‘the reinvigoration of a changed familiarity’.

And I wait…

Because all I can hear in the sonic crystal is: buses, cars, heavy drilling – and that ambulance, now departing. I step out again. There’s not even the whistling sound one might expect from the wind blowing across bottles. The Organ of Corti has not opened up ‘a portal to sonic domains that have thus far remained veiled.’ There’s nothing. Zero. As the brochure says, it’s ‘a radical departure from the conventions of music creation.’ Quite.

The nice man from the City of London Festival standing nearby is apologetic. ‘Er, no, you can’t hear anything really. I’m afraid it’s too noisy.’ Ah, so my listening experience is being interrupted by – er – the ‘quotidian noises’ around me. But weren’t they meant to be food itself to the blessed organ?

The Nice Man explains that it works better with ‘quieter, more constant ambient noises’. Sadly, the trickling of a stream is not available on Ludgate Hill. He assures me he has heard it process a river ‘and it sort of made a hissing noise’. When pressed, he admits he heard this on a sound file. He hasn’t actually stood between the pipes and heard anything at all.

Two earnest Germans arrive on bikes. They step inside. They step out. They look bemused. ‘But it sounds the same as on the street!’ says one. The Nice Man is at hand to reassure: ‘It’s not working very well today’.
‘Is it meant to be a single, stationary sound wave?’ asks the German.
‘Er, yes,’ says the Nice Man, hopefully. Satisfied, the Germans depart. I ponder the single, stationary sound wave. This has to be the biggest wind-up I’ve ever encountered in a quarter of a century of dealing with ‘cutting-edge new music’.

Of course, the PRS New Music prize has form: the last winning entry, The Fragmented Orchestra, buzzed sounds between 24 locations across Britain to imitate the activity of neurons in the brain. Another winner was Score for a Hole in the Ground.

I’d love to say it had become a contemporary classic – but can’t. If a large proportion of the money for this ‘New Music’ Award hadn’t come from the earnings of struggling composers (yes, do you remember them? Those eccentric types who actually make real music up in their heads?) the whole thing might be rather amusing. The devastating fact is, it did.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine