‘BEEFing Up’ Portland Square’s Subterranean Vibrations

1 portland square

This geophone ( a spiked microphone SM24) was picking up vibrations from under Portland Square.

Portland Square subterranean vibrations (listen with headphones)

The louder sounds heard are those of feet walking near the geophone. The softer sound is the ‘growl’ of the city and vibrations (audible and inaudible) from kilometres away in all directions.

Here in the new buildings of BEEF (Bristol Experimental Expanded Film) and on the day of the Launch of this new venture, several artists showed evidence of some of their experimental processes. Being new to Portland Square I read Bette. R. Burke’s book of the square’s long history and her recollections of living in this very building for over 40 years – Cinderella Square: A History of Portland Square. Listening under ground was my own initial exploration of the place.


3 front of building

The visitors to the Launch came through the front door and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The geophone cable however went up the front of the building and through a 2nd floor window.

5 in 2nd floor

Taking the vibrations live into the building via the cable could bring the experience of outside (and underneath the ground outside) to the inside of the building. Vibrations were being picked up from directly under the square and from down underneath the city, amplified with a preamp close to the geophone, run up the wall into the building (2nd floor window) along the corridor, into one of our new studio spaces, into an amp and subsequently into a couple of transducers placed on a table and chair.

6 in to the studio

The visitors were invited to come in and sit at the table experiencing the vibrations from the transducers, through the seat of the chair and the surface of the table.

8 instructions

They jumped when the transducer on the table rattled loudly, especially when someone walked along the pavement close to the geophone.

9 transducers on furniture

The power of the 3000W amp (Buttkicker) and transducers designed for extreme effect (Buttkicker) created some loud thumps along with the burr of the rattling lower frequencies. It was fed back to me that these oddly spaced and random occurrences seemed,

“… like the messages received in a séance.”

After having read so recently the book about Portland Square’s history, I couldn’t help thinking of the vibrations made by countless feet and indeed hooves over the centuries, impacting on the paving stones, cobbles and tracks around the square. Those times, though easy to imagine amongst the Georgian buildings of the square, seemed as transient and changeable as the nearby and new re generation (Cabots Circus!) of the city.

On the day of BEEF’s Launch, mixed with the experiences of the subterranean vibrations of the current activity of the city, the experience of the underlying vibrations of the deeper ground and strata, continued beneath as it has done for millions of years. The time frame I had been considering of a few hundred years, from the building of Portland Square to the present, was a mere instant in comparison.

Ground Box – sound from beneath

Ground Box

Ground Box – a 22inch cone subwoofer in a constructed wood box attached to a 1000W amp

In the cellar

Directly under the streets of bath, a geophone (spiked microphone) was rammed into a damp cellar floor, and connected to the subwoofer in the gallery.

The road over the cellar

The pavement and road directly over the cellar (seen above).

Visitors said:
“We went right UNDER the road to explore the space …”
“Ugh…. Spooky, dark, damp, drippy”
“Is that the real sound?”
“Scarey! – I’m not going down there!”
“It showed it was the real place and not a replica of the space.”

Sounds from the subwoofer

The different artworks were curated by Magaret Goddell for Resonances at Fringe Arts Bath (FaB) June 2014

The geophone (in the cellar) picked up vibrations caused by both the localised man made impact on the fabric of the city of Bath and the natural vibration from seismic activity coming from distances in all directions and kilometres deep down.

You could also hear the footsteps and louder buskers from directly overhead.

The geophone, designed to pick up low frequency sound through the ground, connected us to vibrations that have been brought about by impact from activity in the city to the surface of the ground, also vibration travelling long distances through the ground, from directly down towards the core, and across the continents.


Sketch outline of geophone workings

SM24 – 10 – 240Hz frequency range

The sound would have been travelling approximately
– Speed of sound in the ground (depending on ground type) = 5,000 – 13,000 meters per second
This is much faster than the sound travelling in air.
– Speed of sound in the air (depending on the air quality) = 343meters per second

I am interested in sound as a material and research into low frequency sound and vibration has led me to look at how we perceive these elemental signals in places that are familiar to us like our own cars and houses and the way these experiences works with our imagination.

The same geophone working in conjunction with a car amp and 12 inch sub – can be seen on this clip:

This year at FaB 2015 – look out for Seeing Sound From Inside Out, curated by Lewis Riley