The soundscape of the heart

Charlotte Parallel

We know our heartbeat intimately. We can feel it through our skin and fingers as the internal pulsing of blood, muscles contracting and expanding in a rhythm that is our own. To hear our sinus rhythm ‘outside’ our body is quite an unusual experience, but this was the basis of my participatory sound-works show, Waves and bodies in waves in bodies.

I am interested in sound as a means of directing attention to the active forces of a place, especially the ways in which, through our capacity as a transducer, we exist in a continuum of, and specific concentration within, the electromagnetic field. Transduction is defined as the transformation of one energy state to another. Transduction occurs in everything, from our human ear to plants to viruses to our cellphones, articulating a field of relations between one thing and another. Adrian Mackenzie describes this field of relations as a “knotting together of commodities, signs, diagrams, stories, practices, concepts, human and non-human bodies, images and places.”[1]

Waves and bodies in waves in bodies was my final project in a winter residency at Dunedin’s Blue Oyster Art Project Space. Thanks to AD Instruments I had access to a cardio microphone and accompanying monitoring and recording programme. The cardio microphone, which is also a transducer, converts heart sounds (mechanical vibrations) into electrical signals via an electric (condenser) microphone device. Visitors to the gallery were invited to record their heartbeat in the knowledge it would then be added to an accumulative sound work in the front gallery. Finally, the participant could leave their email to receive the sound file of their heartbeat.

Here’s how one participant reacted:

I had a peculiar reaction to hearing my own heartbeat. It was exciting, but tinged with an uncanny sensation—almost like an out-of-body experience. In a weird way, I felt as if I was listening to something forbidden, and the longer I listened, the more unsettled I became. I was very surprised by my own response, not least of all because it was entirely visceral and therefore beyond my control. I did not have the same reaction when I listened to the heartbeats in the gallery space.”

The length of time for each heartbeat was entirely dependent on how long the person decided to record it for. Nonetheless, there was always a point where the heartbeats would sync together creating a kind of galloping intensity of sound. I wonder when standing in the space, listening through our bodies and membranes, could this influence our own heart? A kind of sympathetic resonance? Curiously it was poignant in the opposite way, where each heartbeat would drop away until the last one faded out, leaving the listener and their body within the ‘empty space’.

For myself, listening to participant’s heartbeats or sinus rhythm was a unique and generous experience. I had not anticipated how precious these sounds would feel and the level of care and responsibility that came with listening and editing each heartbeat. The files were edited to remove noise but not altered per se and later installed to a soundboard and corresponding button activated by the next listener. Being privy to the heartbeats of others  was like overhearing the life force.


[1] Adrian Mackenzie, “Transduction: invention, innovation and collective life’,” 2015.

Charlotte Parallel (MFA Otago Polytechnic School of Art, 2016) is a practicing artist in the fields of sculpture, sound installation, collaboration and performance, often choosing to respond to site in a temporal way. She has been exhibiting within New Zealand consistently over the last 13 years and internationally since 2010.

Her participatory sound-work show, Waves and bodies in waves in bodies, took place at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, Dunedin, 9 July 2016 – 30 July 2016

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