Samuel Pellman’s Tower of Voices

By Jon Bellona and Ben Salzman. (Note: This post is a part of a presentation with Ben Salzman at the 2018 Kyma International Sound Symposium in Santa Cruz, CA.)
[Above photo: Nancy L. Ford]

On Music faculty at Hamilton College since 1979, Samuel Pellman devoted his life to making music with students and turning them onto art. I was happily one of those students. After all, it was Sam who led me to pursue my graduate degree in Music. I’ve since earned my Music doctorate and had the opportunity to catch up with Sam at a few Kyma conferences over the past few years.

Sam was a sturdy mentor and friend, and one I knew I could bounce any idea or question off of. He was just someone I counted on being there when I could use a little help. Tragically, all that changed in November 2017 when Sam was struck and killed while out riding his bike. As previous students, Ben (H’14) and I (H’03) look back and see there is much to be gained from Sam’s work, his presence, and his joie de vivre. Sam’s ideas are woven into the sonic fabric of Kyma. Sam may have been at times quiet and his voice soft, but his work remains a powerful force in the sonic arts. His pitch design for Flight 93 National Memorial (Tower of Voices) sonically embodies the dead in a way that pushes sound to the forefront of remembrance. The National Memorial is one of the first in the country to embrace sound as its defining factor. Sam also developed digital interactive sound installations in the 80s and 90s when MIDI and digital sensors were first coming on line. And Sam’s music hoists micro-tonality and its mathematical roots of equal temperament to the aural top, creating interesting and complex structures amidst electronic synthesis techniques. We will discuss the threads in Sam’s work, especially those using Kyma, and how these threads intertwine with his ultimate work, Tower of Voices.

This webpage contains embedded links that jump to the musical or cultural reference. We encourage you to listen, click, and read along with us as we talk about Sam Pellman and his work. Feel free to skip to the bottom for videos and links.

///// Sam at the Kyma International Sound Symposium (KISS) /////

Over the last eight years, Sam presented work at KISS five times: 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017. Sam grew up an organist; he regularly performed at the Clinton United Methodist Church and during the convocation ceremonies at Hamilton College. Yet, much of Sam’s work at Kyma conferences were interspersed with whole-number ratios and micro-tonal temperaments. Sam compositionally split the twelve divisions of the octave as much as he performed within their boundaries. For example, Sam’s various Peculiar Galaxies, which are part of his Selected Galaxies (KISS 2012; Ravello Records 7912), uses pitches “based on a dorian scale, tuned in 5-limit just-intonation, that is friendly to both quartal and tertian harmonies (i.e., harmonies built of fourths or thirds, respectively)” (Pellman 2012a; 2012b; 2012c).

The Selected Galaxies album also includes Selected Cosmos (KISS 2014), which is a two-tone sonification of human DNA (as reported by the Human Genome Project) using Kyma. Sam supports these two sequences of pitch and timbre by drone timbres, whose pitches are Shepard-filtered tones, “54 octaves above the sound emitted by an active galactic nucleus in the Perseus Cluster.” (Pellman 2015).

///// Tower of Voices /////

Sam’s ultimate work, and perhaps the one which will become his most memorable, is his pitch design for Tower of Voices. Tower of Voices is a visual and audible reminder of the heroism of the 40 passengers and crew of United Flight 93 that was hijacked and crashed in Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001. According to the National Park Service, “there are no other chime structures like this in the world” (NPS 2018). The Tower is 93 feet tall with 40 chimes measuring from 59 1/4″ to 97 7/16″ with walls “designed to optimize air flow… to reach the interior chime chamber” (ibid). Sam’s pitch design of the forty chimes “allows the sound produced by individual chimes to be musically compatible with the sound produced by the other chimes in the Tower. The intent is to create a set of forty tones (voices) that can connote through consonance the serenity and nobility of the site while also through dissonance recalling the event that consecrated the site” (ibid). While Sam designed the frequencies of the forty chimes, the chimes were built by Gregg Payne, an artist based in Chico, CA.

The Tower of Voices has eight columns with five chimes in each column. Sam indicated in his files preferences for particular groupings of chimes and he collected them horizontally. For tuning the chimes, Sam based his work on whole-number ratios. “The tuning ratios indicate the frequencies of the chimes relative to a middle-C of 264 hz. The chimes are tuned according to a system of just intonation, based on whole-number ratios” (Pellman 2017). Sam went through five versions of his tuning system before settling on the final system, as shown below in Table 1. Each cell in Table 1 depicts the pitch, frequency, and whole-number ratio (in relation to C=264hz) of each chime tone.

Table 1. Tower of Voices Pitch Design

C pitch
264 hz
1/1 ratio
E
330hz
5/4
E
334
81/64
F#
372
45/32
G
396
3/2
B
495
15/8
B
501
243/128
C
528
2/1
D
149
9/16
G
198
3/4
D
293
10/9
D
297
9/8
E
330
5/4
F#
367
25/18
F#
372
45/32
G
396
3/2
G
198
3/4
E
330
5/4
E
334
81/64
F#
372
9/8
G
396
3/2
B
495
15/8
B
501
243/128
C
528
2/1
C
264
1/1
D
297
9/8
E
330
5/4
E
334
81/64
G
396
3/2
B
495
15/8
C
528
2/1
C
535
81/40
C
264
1/1
C
267
81/80
D
293
10/9
E
330
5/4
E
334
81/64
F#
367
25/18
F#
372
45/32
G
396
3/2

Sam created several sonic prototypes/models throughout the build. Aluminum chimes were recorded in Tuzigoot, AZ, which Sam then used for modeling the sound of the forty chimes. One of the most striking auralizations is his October 2016 prototype built using Kyma, and which is still available on the National Park Service website for Tower of Voices. That same prototype can also be heard below.

Inside Kyma, Sam used multiple Sample Sounds played through a single MIDIVoice object that was triggered using a custom Max/MSP patch (sending MIDI note on/off messages). Sam’s model uses a lot of memory, and his Kyma’s Multigrid model is only able to playback on a Paca(rana). To optimize playback on just a Paca, we leveraged the MIDIVoice Sound script, and in turn, we were able to keep all the ratios in a single script array, referencing a single 264hz audio sample.

While the Tower of Voices model doesn’t represent Sam’s final pitch design, Sam did create a final auralization before his death based on his final v05.1 tuning design. For his aural model, Sam relied on a custom Max/MSP patch playing back buffers of five audio files at various speeds (read frequencies). The model runs by generating random timing bangs, where each bang selects a new number from a Coll object (an array list of pitch ratios and audio file names). The output of the Coll object first selects the appropriate audio sample to playback and then alters the sample playback speed based upon the pitch ratio. A final bang plays back the audio file. The use of a poly~ object in the patch allows multiple chimes to be played back simultaneously.

Sam never made a Kyma version of his latest tuning design, and since one can hear digital artifacts in the Max/MSP model, we decided to merge Sam’s tuning design inside Kyma. We wanted to hear the tuning design with the same high fidelity that Kyma delivers. Using our optimized Kyma Sound of a single MIDIVoice Sound script, we took Sam’s v05.1 tuning design and input these ratios into the script’s pitch array. The result is all at once beautiful and all Sam. We recorded a short bit of Sam’s final tuning design using Kyma, which can be heard in the audio player immediately below.

Sam’s compositional work is a by-product of his tireless passion for students and ideas, collaborative learning and theoretical concepts, and the intersection of science and the arts. Sam’s upbeat ethics, positive attitude, and dedication to the hope and optimism of the arts to construct meaningful dialogue has helped create a catalog of meaningful works. We know Sam will live on in the memory of the Tower of Voices, where each and every time a chime is rung remembering those who lost their lives on Flight 93, his ideas sound out across the valley of Shanksville, PA.

///// More About Sam /////

Sam Pellman studied with David Cope, Karel Husa, and Robert Palmer.  Sam was co-director of the Studio for Transmedia Arts and Related Studies at Hamilton College and oversaw the development of Hamilton’s multi-million dollar Kennedy Center for Theatre and the Studio Arts. Sam served as Associate Dean of the Faculty, Posse mentor, and was recipient of Hamilton College’s 2015 Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award. Sam’s work can be heard on Innova and Ravello Record labels, and found at: http://academics.hamilton.edu/music/spellman/MfS/MfS.htm

///// Selections of Sam’s work /////


Peculiar Galaxies: UGC4881 from Samuel Pellman.


KISS2014 — Selected Cosmos: Sounds of Life, Samuel Pellman from Symbolic Sound.

///// References /////

///// Additional Links /////

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