The sounds of CERN

Sound artist Bill Fontana recorded his first soundscapes at CERN on a 4-day induction visit preceding his residency


Water falls from the ATLAS cooling tower over a 24-channel recording of the sounds of CERN machines by sound artist Bill Fontana (Video: Bill Fontana)

"All sound is music," says sound artist Bill Fontana, who will be joining CERN as artist-in-residence this summer. In this spirit of audio adventure he strove to get his hands – or rather ears – dirty on his a 4-day introduction to CERN last week, where he scoured the laboratory for clicks, whirrs, whistles and the other noises that make up the CERN soundscape.

Fontana is a recent winner of the 2013 Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN award. The visit marks the first stage of his residency, which will begin on 4 July with a lecture at the Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN.

Fontana visited the proton source, where under the watchful eyes of physicist Detlev Küchler, protons begin their 27-kilometre journey around the ring of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The sound artist tuned into the proton source using audio equipment and accelerometers and then broadcast the sounds of the machine. Küchler was visibly moved as he heard for the first time the inner heartbeat of the machine he has cared for over years.  

No less moved were the electrical engineers at POPs (Power for the PS) - the new power system that will feed the magnets on the Proton Synchrotron. The engineers could not stop grinning as they heard the unique machine that they had helped to create come to life through sound. Other locations such as Linac 4, the Antimatter Hall and the NA61 experimental hall also became sound sources, as did the cooling towers outside ATLAS detector, which provide the visuals to Fontana's piece above.

“The visit to CERN was inspiring and renewing. It put me back in touch with myself," says Fontana. "Being at CERN and having these conversations and then intensely listening and recording was like going on a spiritual retreat."

On his train journey to Paris where he is working on miking up the Eiffel Tower, Fontana mixed together 24 tracks of audio he recorded at CERN and sent it to us. Think of it as a musical experiment, he says. It shows the sounds – and shapes – of his residency to come.