Sound Effect's Gabriel Spitzer spoke with phonographer and sound artist Chris DeLaurenti about his journey into the tunnels beneath Washington's mothballed nuclear power plant.
I would like you to try and picture this landscape: You’re about halfway between Olympia and Aberdeen, and it’s a moonlit night, and rising up against low hills are these two ghostly profiles. It’s the telltale grey shapes of nuclear cooling towers, abandoned for decades. So there’s a chain-link fence that somebody has pulled up, and you kind of shimmy underneath that, and you make your way to this kind of portal into the derelict tunnels beneath Washington’s mothballed nuclear power plant. Now, first you’ve got to climb up over this dirt mound in front of the entrance, and then you slide down on your belly into the darkness. It’s black and wet and creepy, but you go down there with no light – no flashlight, nothing – because you’re not really planning to use your eyes. You are using your ears. That’s what phonographer Chris DeLaurenti did to make his 44-minute recording, “To the Cooling Tower, Satsop.” I caught up with him, and I asked him how he got so interested in listening.
Well, for me I got into recording as a teenager. My grandfather, Peter DeLaurenti died in the 1980s and when he passed away I inherited a veritable Noah’s Ark of instruments. And in that pile of stuff was a tape deck.
Did you think originally you were going to be a musician, or did you think you were going to be a recordist, or an engineer of some kind?
Actually, I wanted to get as far away from music and the music business as possible. My father was a professional musician across five decades and his father before him rented out musical instruments to school bands, which is why he had so many instruments. He actually started an accordion school in Renton in the 1930s.
Did I hear you right – an accordion school?
There are photos courtesy of the Renton Historical Society of my grandfather holding a baton and you have a small army of kids all seated in chairs and they all have accordions.
You wanted to flee from that world? That was a world that didn’t have allure for you?
Well, my late father – God rest his soul – once said, “There is no middle class in the music business.” And I saw this up close, and he spent so much time hustling for gigs and doing odd musical jobs in places that he called “filthy saloons.” So I thought, wow, I don’t really want to be a part of that because it’s such a hard life. But, here I am. I got lured back into it, and I was lured back into it through a love of music and sound and music technology.
Tell me one of the transformative experiences you had listening to sound.
One certainly transformative experience while listening was when I went to the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle on November 30, 1999. I brought my recording deck and stereo microphones and what I heard was tremendous. I heard what R. Murray Schafer calls a "somniferous garden of sound." There were protester chants. There was drumming from the Infernal Noise Brigade, police announcements — an incredible, incredible and rich polyphony ricocheting through the canyons of our city streets that to me realized that they don’t only do symphonies in Benaroya Hall; there are symphonies also right out here on the street.
You also do a lot of recordings of people and human activity, but you also do recordings in spaces that tell a story. Can you talk about what attracted you to a space like Satsop? Maybe you could first-off remind us what that place is.
Well, Satsop actually is the shuttered nuclear power plant in Elma, Washington. There are two cooling towers there, one of which is 75 percent complete and the other which is an empty shell. So I’m very attracted to spaces that have an unusual acoustic signature. And when we think of nuclear power, we think of cooling towers. There is no better metaphor for nuclear power than seeing these giant funnels that reach out to the sky almost 500 feet tall, belching steam.
So these cooling towers have fascinating acoustic signatures. There’s a kind of very reflective, skittering echo that literally cycles and circles up the walls as you make sound inside the cooling tower. Nearby the cooling tower are a couple of tunnels. Lots of folks have been to the cooling tower and clapped their hands and made sound and performed, and I’ve done that with the Seattle Phonographer’s Union – but the tunnels, which are close by and actually connect to the reactor and deliver water to cool the reactor core, really haven’t been explored too much, mainly because they’ve been covered up with dirt for a good many years and only every now and again are they exposed.
To me, once I started, I walked inside those tunnels I heard two remarkable things: a remarkable hum that just seemed to build, and build, and build like a giant chord played by an orchestra. The second sound was this tremendous slap-back echo. You would stumble, or fall, which I did quite a bit of because it was wet and moist, and you would hear the echo return – not one-a-thousand, two-a-thousand — not five seconds, but sometimes ten, fifteen seconds later. And it would come back to you as this chalky wash that sounded nothing like the sound you originally made but you know that that’s actually the sound you made, albeit delayed by ten, 15, 20 seconds.
What was your concept for this recording? What was the story you were hoping it would tell?
Well, when I went to explore the tunnel, actually, I had no idea that it would or could be an album of any kind. I simply wanted to go on a journey and listen. And ultimately that’s what a lot of my albums are, is that I – I want to use listening as a form of inquiry. What’s here? Why are we hearing what we’re hearing now? So, one night I drove down and decided well I’m going to go inside the tunnel, and I mounted tiny microphones about the size of a tooth, one on each side of my head located a couple inches above my ears to try and duplicate or capture what my ears would hear. And I began walking into the gullet of the tunnel – no flashlight, just listening with my ears.
Why did you go in without a flashlight if you were, after all, just recording audio?
I’m very interested in echolocation, which is what bats do. I thought that if I walked very carefully, and very quietly, and if I listened very attentively, I could echolocate my way through the tunnel and try and see the tunnel with my ears.
Some of these sounds really are very mysterious. Some of them sound like the low-down track in a sci-fi movie. Some of them sound vaguely industrial. Some of them sound alien. It’s just completely divorced from what – I don’t know what any of those things are. What are they?
I can guess. The tunnel, which is a fairly long tube – I actually can’t give you a length in feet or meters because I walked so slowly and I wasn’t looking – but for me what I think what is fascinating is that the sounds are unknown. And this is where we get to imagine and we get to try and understand what things are. It’s possible to get hung up like, “Wow, I don’t know what that keening drone is.” But if you hear something poetic, mysterious – perhaps beautiful and you’re willing to go along for the ride, well that’s when I succeed as an artist to try and lead you and to join me in unusual of acoustic spaces. So certainly a lot of it is mysterious.
You went in without a flashlight. There’s very little natural light in there. What did it look like to your eyes?
For the first 20 to 30 feet there is starlight; there is moonlight where you can see the outline of the tunnel, which is about 12 feet wide – 12 feet in diameter, I should say. And my first time in the tunnel I noticed a pool of water in the tunnel ahead of me, and maybe it was about 10 feet ahead of me, and I thought, “Oh well, I’m wearing pants and shoes that I don’t care about, so I’ll just kind of wade through and continue.” And it turned out that this pool of water was actually a kind of catch – you know, like in a sink? Well here in the tunnel, I found myself stepping into this pool and I was moving very slowly and I realized, “Oh, I’m actually sliding!” and so I just kept sliding, and sliding, and sliding. And then I thought to myself, “How deep could this thing be?” It took me about 20 to 30 seconds I think where I got all the way up to my chest. Now I’m 6-foot-4, and as I was sinking into this muddy water I was able to hold my deck and hoist it aloft. So I’m holding my deck above the water – I’m up basically chest-deep, up to my chin. Gradually, slowly, I just stated sloshing my way out.
When you’re recording in a space like that – an unused and kind of derelict space, or a demonstration or a protest, or some kind of experimental music – is there something you’re after? Is there something you’re searching for that you hope to capture some day?
I’m looking for sounds that are alive. I want sounds that are worth hearing again, and I want sounds that are with sharing with other people, that folks might have missed and that hopefully I can record them, capture them, share them with people who want to hear interesting things.
Chris DeLaurenti is a phonographer and a sound artist based in Seattle and also in Virginia. You can listen to the entire Satsop album as well as his other works on his website, http://delaurenti.net/.