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“Sonic Runway” Lights Up San Jose at the Speed of Sound


Hannah Frishberg | December 20, 2017
Robert Jensen and Warren Trezevant’s musically illuminated archway converts noise into a dazzling light show.

For senses so closely linked in our synapses, sight and sound are decidedly separate. Synesthetes — the majority left-handed people who experience a sensory crossover of hearing and vision called synesthesia — are very rare; most humans experience noise and light independently of one another.

Through art, however, most anything is possible. Inspired by the desert’s otherworldly impact on the speed of sound, two visual artists created an immersive experience combining the two senses. Their 432-foot-long Sonic Runway, described on their website as a “light-art installation that converts audio signals into a pattern of lights that shoots down a corridor of arches at the speed of sound,” is currently installed in front of San Jose’s City Hall, one of the first such installations in a new Playa-to-Paseo initiative between the City of San Jose and Burning Man.

“The playa is a particularly interesting environment for sound,” co-creator Robert Jensen recalls of the creation’s inception at Burning Man in 2002. He and Warren Trezevant were part of a dance camp at the edge of the festival when Jensen saw a woman ride past a DJ booth on a bike and begin dancing. “She was an excellent dancer but was noticeably behind the beat,” Jensen recalls, noting that she wasn’t off due to a personal lack of rhythm, but “because of the speed of sound.”

The following year, Jensen and Trezevant brought a corridor of 16 steel pyramids topped with strobe lights out to the playa and connected it to a DJ booth so it would send flashes out into the desert in sync with the sound. “You could see each wave of sound going out,” Jensen remembers. “No matter where you stood, you could see each beat coming toward you.”

The duo has been tweaking and upgrading the Runway ever since. The technology behind the piece has become increasingly complex, leading to the current incarnation in San Jose. This isn’t the piece’s first trip beyond the playa: It’s also been installed in China and London. “Bringing it everywhere has been epic,” Trezevant says, noting that each installation “has asked something new of the experience and our learning of how to present it to people.”

For the Runway’s San Jose iteration, Jensen and Trezevant didn’t just upgrade the piece technologically — doubling the number of LEDs for increased brightness, as well as developing new patterns in the frequencies — they also adapted it for longevity in a civic arena. “This install is intended to be up for a couple of months, so it needs to be a lot more durable,” Jensen says. Indeed, the experience will be on display through January 2018, with nightly viewings from 5 p.m. to midnight.

Jensen and Trezevant see their project as not just spreading light and sound waves, but also as a fun, educational experience born from the intersection of art and technology. It’s an experimental lesson in humans’ emotional response to seeing music transmuted into light. “There’s something particularly satisfying about anticipating what’s happening in the music,” Jensen says. “If you’re standing at the far end of the runway, you can see the beat coming to you.”

Even to a cynic, the Runway is neat: a technological creation virtually fusing two basic aspects of our perceived world, in real time, through a light show produced by glowing arches. To those who see it as more than an immersive experience, it’s a bright and exciting educational tool displaying the theory of relativity with music and color. For musicians, it gives a different kind of insight: Once, Jensen says, an opera singer sang on the Runway and the vibrato in her voice was visible. And Trezevant remembers a drummer playing an older version of the Runway and realizing that his kick drum triggered the strobe lights. The added visual element of their music provided an innovative understanding to both performers: They didn’t just have the ability to sound good, their sounds could look good too.

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All images courtesy of Robert Jensen and Warren Trezevant

Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite, writer, photographer, and the current Editor-in-Chief of Brokelyn. She’s working on a book about the many of lives of the Gowanus Batcave. Her spirit animal is the F train.


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