Reports of mysterious hums continue to emerge in the media. There are the old standard hums such the Taos Hum in New Mexico which has been being reported for over twenty years and still remains sourceless. There is the Windsor Hum in Windsor Ontario, across the river from Detroit, which has been under investigation for almost two years now. The source of this one is assumed to be the manufacturing area of downriver Detroit known as Zug Island. However, due to the cooperate interests of those involved, the investigation by the government in the city of Detroit ended as soon as it led them to the doorstep of the island. So officially, it too remains sourceless. Most recently there have been a rash of reports in Ireland that describe the sound as a low rumbling that appears at inconsistent intervals. It has reportedly been recorded, which is rare for a hum, but the frequency is so low that it is difficult to determine the distance from which the sound is originating. A common theme surrounding many hums that are reported is that the people feel them more than they hear them. What they describe is as much a physical sensation as a hearing one. This also adds to the difficulty in collecting recorded evidence of the noises. In one case, a video crew was attempting to document a mysterious hum outside of Brighton in the UK and after several minutes of silent, concentrated listening, they thought for sure that they had heard it on their headsets. Unfortunately, it turned out that what they had heard was the functioning of the camera that was recording them, not the mysterious hum that they were there to collect.
But this got me thinking about different types of hums that have been introduced into our environment and where they come from. I’m also intrigued by the idea that the noises are reportedly just as physical and they are audible. When officially categorizing noise within a community such as in a standard noise ordinance there tend to be two major factors in identifying a sound as an official noise violation. The first is the decibel level of the unwanted sound. Certain levels are allowable but there is a threshold that, once crossed, makes that sound a violation of noise ordinance. Second to the decibel level, yet often directly connected, is the source of the sound. So, for example, a bar inside the city limits cannot exceed 95db after a certain time of night. This identifies a limit to the level of the sound and a source. These two pieces of information make filing reports about mysterious hums difficult. With the hums being felt yet barely audible, if a recording is difficult to achieve, than so is a decibel reading. Even more important, however, is the identification of the source. This is probably the key aspect in that these hums are mysterious because attempts at identifying a reasonable source aren’t successful. Although the officials in Michigan refuse to investigate the industrial manufacturing practices on Zug Island for fear of economic repercussions, the fact that the Windsor Hum has been traced to this location is rare within the development of mysterious hums.
The largest discussions around these hums are attempts at identifying a source for the noise. Once a source for a noise like this is defined, then people can form real opinions about it. If it’s from nearby military activity, one group will ask for consideration while others will claim a patriotic duty to cope. If it’s from a commercial or manufacturing source, a camp will develop that asks for limitation and consideration while another will claim that the noise is necessary to create jobs and save the economy. Once the cause of the noise is determined, people can then formulate their true feelings about the issue. Until then, it reads like a combination of curiosity and frustration. Another recent example from Clintonville, WI is described as being a series of underground mysterious booms as apposed to a mysterious hum. The noise bursts have occurred at night and are violent enough to wake people from their sleep and even, reportedly rattle pictures hanging on the wall. Again, no source has been identified but there were enough calls into the emergency responders that city officials have worked to rule out things like the underground gas and electrical systems. Similar to other mysterious and un-sourced noises, the speculation of what the sounds could be or mean have been wild and covered everything from the Earth’s electromagnetic field and secrete military operations to alien activity.
As people living in communities, we produce a great deal of noise. As an industrialized manufacturing society, we also produce and consume a lot of things that produce a lot of noise. Part of what I find so fascinating about all the activity surrounding mysterious hums is that it is another indicator of unconsidered consequences within the audio ecology of our surroundings. For example, we want climate controlled interior spaces. Achieving this results in the introduction of large, fan-based HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units that sit outside humming away at all hours of the day and night. We put so much noise into our environment and the sourceless-ness of a mysterious hum becomes the tipping point of absolute frustration. This has led me to explore the use and manipulation of other industrial hums to make new listening experiences by rendering the sourced materials sourceless through a variety of techniques. Investigating the noise and vibrations created by this type of climate control infrastructure is just one of the reasons why I created the Hum Collector and eventually, the Hum Listener.
The work also investigates the potential for collecting and listening to noises that are as much felt as they are heard. Through the creation of portable Listening Instruments such as the Hum Collector and the Hum Listener, these vibration are made audible. A different layer of the urban soundscape is transformed into a real-time performance for the listener. These aren’t sounds to be blocked out. They aren’t vibrations to be ignored. Instead, they are layer of understanding that needs to be considered as we make progress into the future. What is the difference between an industrial persistent sound that we can identify verses one that we cannot accurately determine a source for? Does the source of the sound matter that much to our listening experience with that sound? Or, similar to Pierre Schaeffer’s ideas of the Sonorous Object, what if we don’t concern ourselves with attempts to identify a source and give the noise meaning in that way. I understand this would be key to elimination but what if we assume elimination isn’t a possibility? What happens if we begin to consider this noise a new natural? A new bird call or wave crashing. A new thunderstorm or whale song? Instead of wind storms and bison herds we have massive exhaust fans and train cars. A cell phone waiting lot becomes a mechanical aviary. A mysterious hum is an elusive occurrence that is difficult to not only locate but identify. As they become more and more common – and potentially more and more accepted – investigations into new types of listening experiences developed from and inspired by these unintended outcomes could transform our relationship to this different space within our sonic environment.