When Marco Polo crossed the Gobi desert in the 13th century, he heard strange sounds, which he attributed to spirits of demons that would “fill the air with sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums.” It’s true that some deserts do sing—even boom and burp—but contrary to what the young Venetian believed, there aren’t supernatural beings behind the dune songs, rather it’s the vibrations of the grains of sand slowing avalanching down the slopes.
Now, reports Claire Voon in Hyperallergic, Amsterdam-based artist Lotte Geeven is working on a machine that will make the sounds of the singing deserts more accessible, so those who want to experience the phenomenon won’t have to trek all the way to the Mojave or the Sahara for a listen.
As Geeven explains on her website for the project, she is collecting various acoustic sands from around the world, which she will put into containers with revolving blades to spin the sand and replicate those eerie desert tones. Geeven won’t be gathering all that sand herself, of course. For anyone who finds themselves near one of the world’s singing dunes, she’s posted an open call on her website: gather sand and send it in to be included in the project.
Not just any sand will create such tones, the grains must be round, contain silica, and be a particular size—between 0.1 and 0.5 mm in diameter to enable them to be blown. There are around 35 known places in the world where this music is regularly heard.
To develop her “sand machine,” Geeven worked with two physicists, Pascal Hersen and Stéphane Douady, who have dedicated themselves toward the study of the singing sands.
Years ago, Douady (who refers to his field of research as “poetic physical science”) was leading an international group of researchers to study the formation of crescent-shaped dunes when the team accidentally set off an avalanche in Morocco.
The event produced a 100-decibel sound, explains Jennifer Ouellett in Gizmodo, which the team realized they could recreate by sliding down the dunes. Later, they successfully reproduced the sound in the lab using a donut-shaped sandbox.
To get the sand she needs, Geeven has started reaching out to strangers via social media, seeking out people who live near these special deserts. Though she admits to “feeling like a stalker at first,” according to Voon at Hyperallergic, she has connected with a lot of people who shared her interest in the sands. Many have also shared with her their own traditional stories about what makes the dunes sing.
While Geeven hasn’t received any samples just yet from her open call, she’s already had a handful of people tell her they will send sand. All so-called sand-finders will have their names included on the installation, which will be shown next spring in the Netherlands.