Ever since man put a price on time, Timepieces have been judged for their horological or decorative values, but rarely for their aural experience, that is, until the much recent rise of the quartz movement. Ask any watch aficionado today about their mechanical collection, and they won’t fail to mention the sound and feeling they get when they wind up their mechanical watch.
With this in mind, I recently had a conversation with Douglas Repetto, the creator of the Sine Clock, a sound sculpture that keeps time with sound by encoding it in a set of sine waves:
Wrist: Your clock reminds me of how important sound is to the mechanical watch experience.
Douglas: I can understand that. There’s still something marvelous about the complexity of a mechanical watch mechanism. It seems so unlikely to work!
Wrist: Would you describe in detail how your clock works for our readers?
Douglas: It’s fairly simple. There are three sounds, low, medium, and high. Each one is pulsing at a certain speed.
The low pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one minute, the medium pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one hour, and the high pulsing goes from slow to fast to slow over the course of one day, so if you sit and listen to the low sound for a minute, you’ll hear its pulse slowly speed up for thirty seconds, then slow down for another thirty seconds. Then it starts again.
Because the speed of each pulse is constantly changing, each moment in the day has a distinct set of pulse speeds.
Technically it works perfectly…but in human terms, it’s difficult to actually tell the time. It’s easy to hear the passing of a minute. But for an hour or a day it’s not really possible to tell precisely what time it is.
But that’s okay, I was thinking more of the way we tell what time of day it is by the position of the sun in the sky or the passing of a train or some other environmental clue. After listening for awhile you get a feeling for the sound at different times of day, but you’re never going to really be able to say “It’s 3:37pm!”
Wrist: How intrusive is it compared to the tick of a watch?
Douglas: It turns out to be a pretty soothing sound. There’s one in a group show in a gallery right now here in New York, and the gallery people were a bit worried at first that the sound would be overwhelming or distracting, but really it’s a very quiet, calm sound.
Wrist: How did you first come up with the concept?
Douglas: Almost all of my artwork involves physical or biological cycles, systems, or phenomena of one sort or another. I find natural systems endlessly compelling, and in my works I often try to find ways of making those systems more easily perceivable.
I also tend to work with sound, so I was thinking about our perception of time and started imagining different ways of marking the passage of time with sound. Sine Clock was the result.
The Hardware version of Sine Clock
Wrist: Are you pursuing a commercial version of it? You mentioned there is an edition of six? Are these available for purchase?
Douglas: Yes, I’m selling them as a limited edition of artworks. So I’m not commercializing it in the sense of making them in a factory and selling them in stores…but the six are for sale for $900 each. Well five, since one’s already taken.
[Editor: You can also download the software version of the Sine Clock here.]
Wrist: What is your opinion on the future of timekeeping?
Douglas:Timekeeping technology is ubiquitous, and I think it’s a natural urge for people to play with ways of making it more interesting. And the history of clocks and watches is closely related to the story of technology in the last several hundred years. I doubt that there will be a radical change in how we tell time on a practical level; I think clocks on the wall and on our wrists and in our cell phones are here to stay…but I do think that people will continue to come up with novel ways of representing the passage of time. They may not be practical, but hopefully they’ll be compelling! One of the coolest things I’ve seen recently is a passive _digital_ sundial that you attach to a window!