Tonschleuse (Sound Gateway)

by Sibin Vassilev, part of the exhibition “The German Language” at
German Historical Museum Berlin, 14.01.2009 - 03.05.2009

“The Sound Gateway” is an acoustic intervention that acts as the entryway into the exhibition “The German Language”. It is here that the visitor is sensitized to the phenomenon of language and simultaneously guided into the exhibition space. 16 loudspeakers are mounted in the tunnel-like entryway designed by Michael Hoffer. They are attached along the right and left interior of the tunnel in two rows of four mounted parallel to one another. This arrangement allows sounds to be directed through the space. The loudspeakers generate bursts of sound in a sound sequence guiding visitors from the tunnel entrance to the start of the exhibition.

The composition is made up solely of phonetic material taken from speech recordings from various multimedia projects carried out in the Department of Historical Linguistics at the Humboldt University in Berlin. The phonetic collages composed of this material and that emit bursts sound throughout the gateway focus on various dimensions of natural language:

• The internal structure of speech: elements of speech with different level of complexity can be heard (single sounds, syllables, words, phrases and sentences)

• The historical dimension of language: the collages contain linguistic snippets of German as it was spoken throughout the ages (Old High German, Middle High German, Early New High German, New High German)

• The synchronic diversity of language: various regional versions of contemporary German can be heard along with speech material from around the world

These three dimensions are linked to one another as follows: the first sound burst combines elementary noises produced when sounds are articulated (for instance, when breathing in and out, when the mouth is opened or closed or when the tongue is moved), i.e. with concrete phonetic realizations of phonemes, i.e. vowels and consonants as they are used in German and other natural languages. The sound burst that follows contains words and word fragments that represent the oldest linguistic periods of the Germans (Old High German, Old Saxon and Latin). The third sound burst is dominated by more complex units such as linked words and phrases taken from Middle High German / Early New High German texts. Finally, the fourth sound burst contains entire sentences - in various German dialects or in other world languages. All these phonetic fragments that are used in the sound collages originate from scientific writings or literary works that deal directly with the phenomenon of language or create associations to the concept of language. The sound collage thus experiences a semantization in relation to language as an object of curiosity and scientific research.

The sound design plays an important role: it makes it possible to establish a certain kind of dramatic effect and place the individual sound segments in a harmonious relationship to one another. For example, linguistically more complex sound bursts also have a broader frequency spectrum. Various vowels isolated from the speech flow and played in sequence form a musical melodic structures, sounds and syllables can merge to become words. Musical rhythmic structures determine in part the composition derived from the length of a human breath.

The burst-like sound movements are superimposed over one another and are spatially designed in various variations. The palette ranges from linear to rotating sound movements between the speakers. Crescendos and decrescendos and increases and decreases in the speed of the sound bursts determine the dynamic progression of the composition in time. The visitor experiences the composition kinesthetically and has a dual function as a resonance body – on the one hand, his body absorbs the sound waves and, on the other, he is encouraged to reflect on the phenomenon of language.

Sibin Vassilev


Sibin Vassilev
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 9
10178 Berlin

Phone: 0049 30 24 04 58 60