First invented in 1986 and recently reconstructed for artist-in-residence Tarek Atoui’s spring-season-closing performance WITHIN, the SubBassProtoTon is a walk-in bass generator that allows visitors to physically experience frequencies that are too low for audible perception and to interactively explore sound when it reaches the range of hearing.
The installation is free and open to the public on the EMPAC mezzanine during normal daytime hours throughout the summer.
The SubBassProtoTon (literally, “below-low-first-tone”) was first constructed by EMPAC’s Director Johannes Goebel for a large outdoor art event in Germany. Subsequently the ProtoTon traveled Europe as part of a sound exhibition for children and students, and other versions were built for exhibitions.
Essentially a cubical organ pipe, the instrument consists of a wooden box large enough to comfortably accommodate two or three people. When inside, participants can manipulate a sliding wooden wedge that opens and closes a window at the front of the box. Air is generated by a motorized organ blower outside the box and is channeled towards the wedge where different sounds are created depending on how far the wedge is opened or closed. This oscillating air pressure results in a sonic frequency that moves from the audible human range to below what can be heard, yet can be physically felt.
Although the SubBassProtoTon was used as a musical instrument for Atoui’s WITHIN, the box is more properly understood as a science-museum-style installation that allows visitors to explore some fundamental principles of sound while actually being immersed in the instrument itself. Anyone who interacts with the ProtoTon, regardless of age and musical or scientific aptitude, can come to understand the basic dynamic of sound behind instruments as diverse as the organ, flute, or ocarina, and enjoy the gentle massage that comes from standing inside these instruments’ vibrations.
Johannes Goebel is the founding director of EMPAC. He joined Rensselaer in 2001 to work on the planning of the new building and to build EMPAC’s program and team. Thoughts about arts, science, research, and technology have been important to him since he became involved in computer music at Stanford University in 1977, but thoughts about why, what, and how started much earlier. Johannes Goebel likes to find bridges between thoughts, what we can do with our hands, and what we perceive with our senses.