Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

A poetic essay on the physiological effects of sound through architecture, medicinal sonic traditions, and molecular research from a wide range of cultures around the world. How does sound connect the human and non-human in ways that can stimulate conversations between the two, in order to move different species to a more connected and symbiotic understanding of the tones, rhythms, and messages expressed through their sonic language? This essay will consist of poetry, sound theory, and the mystical and scientific understanding of sound. It is accompanied by an artist conversation between Yussef Agbo-Ola and Sabina Hyoju Ahn, which highlights the complexities and inspirations of how they create sound based on these questions.

Sabina Hyoju Ahn and Yussef Agbo-Ola
Edited by Sabina Hyoju Ahn — Jun 15, 2021

water mutates
birthing ice
through concentration,
becomes sound.

The Architect as Composer

Here I sit looking at a home made of mud in a Nigerian forest. As I watch the sun expand its skin, heat cracks appear on the mud’s surface. A day passes and night presents new light. The moonlight turns the home into a brownish-blue color in contrast to its red clay color during daylight. The home once again welcomes the morning sun with a layer of sweet rain that washes all the heat cracks away from the previous day’s sun-light. By mid-day those cracks appear again, and the cycle repeats itself. For as long as I can remember I have had a deep fascination with how architecture, environments, and music all have similar qualities. Each has a profound connection to form and rhythm. As I think back to my architectural research experiences in different cultures, I can still hear the dynamic orchestras that each culture composes through its architectural structures. To me, these structures seem to sing. They vibrate and express their environmental rhythms through the effects of weather on their outer and inner skins. It is the coldness, or the glue between ice and air that allow the igloo to dance on the white skies of the Arctic, constructed by the Inuits. Or if we look at architecture that animals make, the world of sound, design, and environmental elements once again make music. The birds of paradise in New Guinea are a distinct example of an architect as composer. These birds are masters of music, and compose their architecture using three key elements. The first is their distinct sound, which is used as an important role in creating an atmospheric sonic space that can attach the perfect company into their design. Here they use sound as a form of unseen, yet heard, assemblages of an external atmospheric facade. The mixture of sounds, rhythms, and tones sung by the bird vibrates for many miles, which expands the concept of architecture being a static or non-moving structure. The second is their attention to the organization and arrangement of acute environmental details, such as the clearing of the physical space in which they design to entertain their company. Every broken or damaged leaf is thrown out. Every broken stick or unwanted flower is placed outside their design. Every ant, beetle, vine, or piece of bark that is undesired is taken away from their design. This form of spacious yet minimal design can be rhythmically interrupted by the slightest rain, or wind breeze that destroys, or knocks more debris onto their clean foundation. A constant movement, adaptation, and degree of patience is required from these birds to finally design their space in collaboration with uncertain environmental conditions. This is similar to a musical composition. A giving, taking, waiting, readjusting, and so on. The third and final is a connection to light. For the birds of paradise, there is a reason for every step in the process of composing a physical and sonic architecture. The sound vibrations acted as an external facade. The designing of a minimal interior acted as an internal balance or musical composition with weather. Finally, sunlight allows them to dance. Once the space is clean, sunlight begins to penetrate their architectural space. Once there is enough sunlight, the bird then stands directly in it, and the animal shines the hidden ultraviolet-colored feathers under its neck into the light. This reflection of sunlight on the feathers is highlighted and reflected on the birds’ company, which has just arrived on the nearby trees to watch. This completes the architecture, and allows the composer to begin to uniquely dance in its perfect constructed theater. There is something quite beautiful and poetic about the balance or rhythm that animals and humans have with the natural cycles of nature that we exist within. Every movement, thought, emotion, form, and so on is a form of sound in which makes music when all experienced together. As an architect and artist, I find this very fascinating when I’m designing spatial structures. If everything produces some form of sound through vibration, architecture is then the art of arranging vibration, in collaboration with environmental elements to produce compositions of living music.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

Yussef Agbo-Ola, »Architectural Apparatus / Dancing Bark PAVILION (x).=1011«, Digital C-Print. Copyright Olaniyi Studio

»There is something quite beautiful and poetic about the balance or rhythm that animals and humans have with the natural cycles of nature that we exist within. Every movement, thought, emotion, form, and so on is a form of sound in which makes music when all experienced together.«

Yussef Agbo-Ola: When did you find yourself moving closer to sound as a medium to express your ideas? Is there any other medium in the future that you would like to experiment with beyond sound?

Sabina Hyoju Ahn: I think there are some sensations we can perceive better with auditory perception instead of using our eyes to understand visuals.

Yussef: This is true. I agree with you, but I want to know more about how you started to work with sound. Were you into music as a child, or did you just decide one day to try to work with it? Or was it something you studied in school?

Sabina: When I was young I never imagined that I would be an artist or musician. Well, actually, I’m not a musician. I make artworks that are often represented through and with sound. I like doing it. Of course I have loved music since I was young, and played some instruments such as piano and guitar, but I never dreamed of being an artistic musician. I started making sound in 2013 or 2014 by using feedback between old video cameras and speakers. Then I became more interested in making experimental perceptual transformations in 2014 after researching for an M.A. program at Goldsmiths in London. I was interested in transforming the perceptual effects of the visual into sound. This is called sonification, which is achieved by using many computational processes. Once the coding is complete, I then work on adding some kind of physicality in my works. I think physicality is important for human perception; it could be an interface, installation, or instrument, but I liked to transform data into something more tangible, which includes sound. I don’t limit myself to only using sound as a medium. I am open to any medium and actually recently I am very interested in smell; olfactory sensations.

Yussef: As an architect I find myself deeply connected to music and its spatial or rhythmic qualities. Sometimes I can look at a structure and say it has a musical quality, a sense of spatial balance, and harmony that connects to a deep place within myself. Have you ever had a musical experience within a place, only from the spatial qualities and not from the sounds inside it?

Sabina: Can you give me some examples?

Yussef: Well, one would be the light in a space. For example, there is a musical quality of light that reaches or highlights the space at different times of the day. Daylight or night light. Each of these has a different musical feeling or atmosphere. Or you can look at the shapes. Are the corners sharp and angular, or are they rounded, and more curvy in a space? For example, if the windows are all the same, there is a level of rhythm, or symmetry, that makes the wall sing a unique tone. If some windows are smaller or asymmetrical, they will let in more or less light, making the music of the space have a different quality. I’m just curious if a space has ever sung to you, through the visual music embedded within its design or architecture?

Sabina: I have never thought of space in that way, especially in relation to modern buildings such as apartments, the cube-like architecture in urban life. However, when I think about traditional Korean architecture, it has some kind of melody, envelope, tones, and rhythms, depending on time and space. I think this is a very creative way of seeing architecture, but it depends on how trained the viewer’s eye is to hear each melody!

Yussef: We live in a world that is surrounded by a variety of sounds. When mixed together, these sounds make a form of abstract music, or the music of living itself. Is there a difference between the actual vibration of matter which is sound, and the essence of energy which is produced through composing music? From your perspective, what is the difference between sound and music?

Sabina: Music is the language of the sound. Sound is like a noise around you, but to be musical requires learning how to compose the noise. Music is also based on the perception of the listener or species. A

Yussef: You mentioned species: have you ever attempted to make music for another species, or in collaboration with them? If so, what was your design process?

Sabina: I never made music for another species, but maybe I collaborated with them: I work in collaboration with species (bacteria, algae) to make sound. From my perspective this is collaborative, but maybe they don’t actually like me working with them for my art practices! Each of my artistic projects vary, depending on the concept of the work; but in recent years my work has been about trying to measure signals from them and translate this into other perceptual experiences.


Akademie Schloss Solitude - Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

Sabina Hyoju Ahn, »Sonomatter«, 2017 Sonomatter is a sound installation and performance that transforms the bioelectrical signal from microorganisms to sound. The work starts with building a Winogradsky Column, making a small ecosystem with mud and water – generating the electric signal with a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), and measuring voltage from microorganisms that are formed in mud. As time proceeds, the microbes will create electricity and eventually die when they lack nutrients. The designed »Bioelectricity-Controlled-Oscillator« circuit consumes the (bioelectrical) energy to control the sound of the oscillator. This process illustrates a circular relationship between life and death, as life and death share the same material (mud). Interaction between organic matter and natural phenomena – such as soil, water, respiration and oxidation, symbiotic relationship in a microcosm – imply poetics in the microbial sphere. The project is thus not only a metaphorical exploration of the interaction between living matter and natural phenomena, but it also explores the domain of energy harvesting and generating clean energy. The audience is invited to experience the sound from real-time microbial data with handmade »bioelectricity-controlled-oscillator« circuits.

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Decay and Growth as Music

Evolution of fungi,
A fruiting body, unseen.
Decomposing fungi, the beat of life,
Interconnecting, to eat death.
Hyphae, a tree root, to speak.
Through this frequency,
one knows many,
one becomes all.


The valley nurtured by the unseen relations, textures, and geometries of the molecular world shapes and carries the beauty in which we experience life and death all around us. It is through a deep introspection as a composer that I have learned to question human perspective and connection to scale in search of an unseen elegance found in infinitesimal architecture. What do we find when we look at the geometric diversity, atmospheric compositions, and structural complexities found in a microscopic world of entropic matter? Using a glass slide as a living and environmentally responsive apparatus, this image composes these elements into visual architectural soliloquies that depict the musical qualities of entropic matter. Life is death, and death is life. All energy exists on a conscious and unconscious plane that simultaneously complements each other. This connecting, and propelling, system allows everything that exists to claim a state of equilibrium when living, decaying, and even in a deceased form. The movements and transformations in nature are all around us, but are many times overlooked because of their distinct speed, color reactions, acute smells, and quiet tactile changes. There is a rhythm in this organic form of systematic subtle metamorphosis.


For example, listen with your eyes.
A tree burns, A stick falls.
For example, listen with your eyes.
A bird born, A nest made.
For example, listen with your eyes.
A sun shines, A tree burns.


Yussef: Being that your practice often uses many forms for recordings of non-human material, do you consider soil to have a voice or a sound that can mutate or change based on the organisms that live within it? If so, based on your experience how do you listen to soil, and what types have the most beautiful sound in your opinion?

Sabina: I don’t know if soil has a voice! I think they are signals. I think soil has its own communication based on its environmental and elemental composition.

Yussef: Can you describe your creative thought process when it comes to the way you choose or compose elements in soil to make different signals?

Sabina: When I was making Winogradsky columns for one of my works, Sonomatter, I collected mud from different places in South Korea, Austria, and the Netherlands. I didn’t analyze the soil samples in a laboratory, but I think the signals were developed from the variety of different bacteria, depending on where the muds came from. I didn’t really intend to change the soil composition, I just wanted to listen to it.

All the soils made different signals, but this is a result of many factors such as sunlight, temperature, and how much organic matter is contained in the mud. Once I was working on making a sound performance with these soil bacteria and I wanted to make dramatic sound changes. I injected 1.2 milliliters of Clorox into the column and instantly the sound changed (dropped) and didn’t get back to normal for a day. However, I decided not to use it this way, because I feel so bad for them.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

Yussef Agbo-Ola, »Entropic Architecture Archive 28xi« [-Mag:33.73nm] Palm Acid Crystal C-Print , 108 x 72 in., 2021, Copyright Olaniyi Studio 2020 This image is a depiction of one drop of Nigerian sea water and acid, which has been frozen in brine and iron mica for 22 days. The frozen mixture was then photographed under a microscope while being magnified 27,000 times what the eye can see while it turned from a solid to liquid. Photographs were only taken within a twelve-minute peri-od of exposure to heat before the mixture evaporated.

Yussef: During one of our conversations we spoke about how environmental elements (temperature, smell, time of day) all have an effect on the ways the listener (human) perceives sound. Do these environmental factors also have an impact on the sound itself, via the way the sound waves can fluctuate when exposed to different environmental parameters etc?

Sabina: I think all sound will vibrate differently if our environmental condition changes. Sound is a very physical phenomenon, so how we hear it depends on interactions with physical surroundings. For example, in the universe, there is no gravity, air, water, or temperature. All of these conditions make it a very different place from Earth. So we hear things differently in outer space, and our perception sense will be confused if we try to compare the two sonic vibrations.

Yussef: Well, yes, but because sound in the universe is different, and maybe not understood fully, I now see Earth’s sound in a more concentrated and unique way. This would mean that any sound created on Earth would not sound the same anywhere else in the universe. It’s almost like the Earth itself is limited to the sounds it can hold or harmonizes with. What do you think about the idea that sound continues to vibrate endlessly? For example when you throw a rock in a pond, the ripples of the sound of the rock hitting the water gets bigger and bigger. At some point they stop at the shore, even if the ripples have become invisible. Do you think that the sound, or music made on Earth, can escape Earth’s atmosphere and therefore become universal sound?

Sabina: You are so poetic! I think sound will vanish at some point. Maybe ultrasonic frequency could travel outside of the Earth.

Yussef: What is ultrasonic frequency?

Sabina: Ultrasonic sound is very high frequency, which is higher than 20 kHz. Some research says that human ears can detect frequency between 20 Hz to 20 kHz. If you are an infant or very young, you might hear more, but most adults barely hear more than 16 kHz.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

Sabina Hyoju Ahn, »Sonomatter«, 2017. This image is a Winogradsky column fermented for four months. A Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) model is implanted in this column to measure electrical energy from soil bacteria in the Winogradsky Column. In the project Sonomatter, soil bacterial activity demon-strates the self-regulation between different kinds of bacterial growth based in anaerobic zone and aerobic zone. The whole fermentation process in the mud shows a significant amount of life activities that can illustrate a prosperity of the microscopic world.

The Art of Listening to the Mental Ecology

If you are asked to listen, what does this imply? Does it imply that you have control over what you hear? If the speaker is speech itself, then is the listener also the speaker, or the essence of sound, through listening? What is the geometry of this exchange in relation to listening, or observing? Listening connects us to all sound. We cannot close our ears. They were designed to be open from birth, even if sound does not penetrate them. Meaning that listening can be interrupted without the intention of the listener, by the very nature of the design of the ears. They are meant to hear everything within their sonic awareness. What is listening? What is hearing? These are two words, but what do they mean? Can we explore this as writer and reader, as we both become the sound of reading? If we listen, does this imply that we know or have understood something? Meaning that if we hear something, one does not need to know what it is as the sound heard implies that only a sonic sensation, or ear recording, has occurred. As with listening, this is unclear, as one normally says, »I’m listening« and when asked »to what,« one could say, to »nothing.« So what is listening, if it’s possible to hear »nothing?« What is hearing when what is heard doesn’t necessarily mean it was listened to? Does listening also connect to choice? To say one is listening insinuates that there is attention to some form of vibration to the ears. Can one listen through the cells of the skin? Can one listen through the bumps on the tongue? Is one listening now? Can you hear the sound of the cracks of electricity in one’s frontal lobe while reading? Do you hear the beating of the heart, or the motion of heat? The more you have read, the more you have listened to what was mentally heard while hearing what is read through reading. What do you listen to while you hear? To question the art of listening.


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Yussef: Sound has been considered to be formless, or an essence that one can experience through the experience of emotion. As a composer, do you ever question this idea? Do you see sound as a solid form of expression or do you also consider it to be formless?

Sabina: It depends on how we define form! What is the definition of form?

Yussef: I believe the forms in music are what stimulate emotion in the listener. Why do you think different music provokes different emotions? I think emotions also have a form. It’s beautiful to see the combination of musical form and emotional form. I think they work in parallel. They can be enhanced or contradicted based on the perceptual sensitivity of the listener or composer.

Sabina: Do you think vision has a form? Does smell have a form? I don’t know if sound has a form or is formless. I think it could be both. It depends on the perspective of the listening.

Yussef: Because our main sense of perception is regarded as sight, do you think vision distracts us from seeing the spatial form of music?

Sabina: It can depend on many factors, such as age, gender, species.

Yussef: I once went for a walk in the desert. It was the type of walk that one prepares for with an enthusiasm for the experience of listening to silence. Normally we consider the desert to be a silent place, but this is not true. There was a spatial musical gradient or form that I heard in the silence. Similar to the movement of air brushing against the sand. This sound required a certain type of very attentive listening. Have you had any experiences like this, where you were required to listen deeply? From your perspective, what is the difference between listening and hearing environmental sound?

Sabina: When I am staying in my studio alone, or some places where I can be alone, and usually in the night, I hear this kind of spatial silence. Sometimes, if the place is too quiet, I feel like my ears hurt more than when I’m in noisy places. I think listening is picking up certain sounds I am looking for, or what I know already. When I’m listening, I can find some kind of information, or pattern, based on my experiences and knowledge. However, environmental sound is not really heard by ears unless we pay direct attention to it.

Yussef: This is very interesting. Can you explain what it feels like when your ears hurt while listening in silence? What is that sensation like?

Sabina: Maybe my ears are too used to listening to noises in urban life. I remember that when I stayed in a temple on a mountain: it was too quiet because usually monks go to bed at around 9 pm. In the night, I couldn’t hear anything that I usually listen to in the city and I felt like my ears hurt from the silence. Maybe the wavelengths in the mountains were very low, like infrasound, and what I hear everyday is tuned in the wavelength higher than 60~100hz?

Yussef: Some yogis say that there is no such thing as silence. Being that even the breath of inhalation has a rhythm, or tone, and therefore we can never experience a complete silence? Do you agree with this?

Sabina: I don’t understand what you mean. Can you explain more about this?

Yussef: In my opinion I believe that internally there is always the music of the mind and body that the human listens to. Something like the sounds of digestion, thoughts, and the musical forms of emotional movements. When we breathe in and exhale out, just listen to the rhythm. Sometimes when I’m observing myself, I can feel the music of this rhythm, similar to dance. For example, when you have an insight or a creative idea and you begin to »move« or »dance« toward it mentally, I believe the mind and body are then dancing or making music together. It’s like being in a creative flow. The mind is the conductor, and the body becomes the violin that makes the sound that produces the music that the world will experience. This is internal music. A form of living music that every person makes all the time. One of the most beautiful things in life is to find internal musical harmony with others. When we say a relationship is positive and beautiful, I believe we are really saying that the music in which we are both creating internally is in harmony. When we say a relationship is negative I believe what we are saying is that our internal music is disharmonic. What do you think about this from your perspective?

Sabina: Hmm … I have read a paper about Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It says that every organ has a different sound/frequency. For example, the liver sounds like »Do.« The heart sounds like »Mi.« And they use this in the process of finding the cure. I don’t agree with this 100 percent, but in Korean, we say that the body (human and non-human) is a small universe (소우주). It means, the whole universe is in our body. Our body is like a miniature of our universe. Somehow I agree with this. In a scientific view, an example would be an internet network system similar to a human’s neural network. Indeed, the human body makes sound even if I want it to. Our heart beats all the time, regularly or irregularly; otherwise, it’s death. So I think all life forms have their own movements, and moving things makes sound regardless of its size, how big or small. If I can hear my internal sound deeply and truly, I would be a Buddha who can understand our universe from the other world, to this world, and beyond.

Yussef: Beautifully stated, »So I think all life forms have their own movements, and moving things makes sound regardless of their size, how big or small.« What about nonliving or non-moving? There seems to be an aspect of sound that also exists, or comes into existence, in stillness or non-movement. I agree with your statement above, but would like to also speak about sound from a frozen or nonmoving perspective. An example of this would be color? Even if a wall is static, and not moving, its color gives it a certain sound in its stillness. What do you think about this?

Sabina: When you feel the color of the wall making sound, isn’t it totally based on your personal experience? Or mind, imagination, patterns stimulating your brain? If you can think of music from a color, it can be synesthesia. Non-living objects also make sound through wind, rain, or human, along with many other factors. But if you think about what the non-living objects consist of, from a very microscopic level, for instance, there are many small creatures that live on the surface of a rock such as bacteria and moss. If you look into them even more, from a nanoscopic level such as atoms, electrons, particles, etc, everything is constantly moving.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Perceptual Mutation as Environmental Sonic Chemistry

Sabina Hyoju Ahn, »kHz«, 2017. »kHz« explores the relationship between life and sound and explains how sound waves affect the microorganisms’ environment. I use inaudible frequency as a physical phe-nomenon rather than an audible frequency. In this work, bioluminescent algae, P.fusiformis visualize frequencies higher than 28 kHz, which cannot be perceived by human ears. When the frequency of inaudible sound penetrates through the biolumines-cent algae, each cell visualizes the inaudible sound by glowing itself. At the same time, the moment of shining also means the death of the cells. This is because the ultrasonic waves travel through the water, which contains the plankton, and the frequency works like a sonic weapon, easily breaking the cells.

Yussef: Let’s do a mental sound experiment: I have sonic combinations that I would like you to choose from. Try to visualize and listen to each element in your mind and choose which sound you like best out of the pair. Based on your selection I will compose a poetic architectural interpretation of a musical mental ecology space. Are you up to it?

Sabina: Yes, let’s try it out.

Ocean algae or pink air?
Pink air

Cough or sneeze?

Your liver or your lungs?

Black or brown?

Blue wall spotted with seashells or gray wall spotted with dried plant roots?
Blue wall spotted with seashells

A jungle’s laughter or a mountain’s voice?
A mountain’s voice

Running or swimming?

Ice or fire?

Three eyes or eagle wings?
Eagle wings

Decayed apples or decayed peaches?
Decayed peaches

Snake skin or fish scales?
Snake skin

Volcanic lava or volcanic ash?
Volcanic ash

Internal or external?

Like or as?

Strings or percussion?

A lemon covered in dust or a whale covered in oil?
A whale covered in oil

Sound signals from living matter or sound signals from dead matter?
Sound signals from dead matter

Orange juice or cranberry juice?
Cranberry juice

Listening to a hurricane or listening to a tornado?
Listening to a tornado


Poetic architectural mental sound space.


From volcanic ash, eagle wings sneeze fire.

Listening to internal sound,
a tornado signals, air percussion.

Blue snake skin spotted seashells, covered brown cranberry juice walls.

Dead matter with a mountain’s voice,
decayed peaches, like a pink whale lung in oil.

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Yussef Agbo-Ola is the founder and creative director at Olaniyi Studio. His multidisciplinary artistic practice creates interpretations of natural energy systems through interactive experiments. These experiments focus on depicting the multilayered connections between an array of sensory environments.

Sabina Hyjou Ahn is an artist engaging with various media represented through auditory perception, tactile sense, visual elements, and a mixture of digital and analog technology. Her research seeks to find hidden rules and patterns in natural elements and multilayered relationships between human and non-human sentient beings by translating imperceptible data in natural elements into different perceptual experiences. Her website is:

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