Brain Pickings

Dust Serenade: Interactive MIT Installation Honors Sound Science Pioneer


In the latter part of the 1800s, German physicist August Kundt devised an ingenious experiment that allowed him to measure the speed of sound in different gases by visualizing its longitudinal waves through fine lycopodium dust — an idea inspired by another German physicist, Ernst Chladni, who in the late 1700s famously visualized sound in solid materials in his seminal sand figures. (Because, as we’ve learned, all creativity builds on what came before.)

This year, a duo of MIT students, Dietmar Offenhuber and Orkan Telhan, and Austrian sound artist Markus Decker teamed up to reenact Kundt’s acoustic experiment in Dust Serenade — an interactive installation consisting of tubes filled with scraps of words and letters — “cut-up theory,” a play on the empirical bravery that made Kandt revolutionary in an era of theoretical inquiry — which turn into figures of dust as sound waves touch them. Viewers can manipulate the frequency of the sound by swiveling a rod to create different sound harmonies, which in turn reconfigure the text in different ways.

‘Dust Serenade’ intends to remind us the materiality of sound. We invite visitors to rethink about the tension between their theoretical knowledge and the sensory experience.”

The project was funded by MIT’s Council for the Arts and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture. It is currently on exhibition at the rather wonderful MIT Museum until December 24 — do stop by if you get a chance.

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