With a UO instructor's help, a 9/11 memorial offers solace in sound

Inside the Tower of Voices

On Sept. 11, 2001, 40 heroic crew members and passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 thwarted the plans of terrorists who tried to fly their hijacked jetliner into the White House.

To memorialize them, the Tower of Voices, a 93-foot-tall tower featuring 40 chimes — one chime for each individual who perished that day — was dedicated last year at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, site where Flight 93 went down.

But another tragedy also shaped the story. In 2017, Sam Pellman, a music professor at Hamilton College in New York, who was tasked to create the pitch design for the chimes in the Tower of Voices memorial, was struck and killed in a bicycle accident. And that’s where Jon Bellona, a UO audio production instructor in the School of Music and Dance came in.

Pellman was Bellona’s advisor and mentor when he attended Hamilton in 2003 as an undergraduate. Pellman’s wife, Colleen, reached out to Bellona and his high school and Hamilton classmate, Ben Salzman, for help.

Although Pellman had completed the final pitch design before he died, questions remained from the architects and news outlets, who required additional information.

“We went through his hard drives to make sure that the architects had the final design,” Bellona said.

Using Pellman’s files, they were able to piece together his final versions of pitch design and acoustic model simulations. They also interviewed the architectural firm, Paul Murdoch Architects, who oversaw the memorial design process, and then addressed the Kyma International Sound Symposium on Pellman’s pitch design and the acoustic models he used.

“Our involvement was sharing his contribution and process with the public,” Bellona said, “and we updated Sam’s acoustic model to accurately reflect what one could expect to hear when they visit the memorial in Shanksville today.”

Listen to the Tower of Voices chimes

As one of the first memorials in the world to feature sound, the chimes push sound to the forefront of remembrance. It is also Pellman’s lasting legacy.

According to Bellona, to set the somber and reflective tone of the memorial, Pellman’s pitch design comprises intonations based on whole-number ratios, a technique called equal temperament. When two notes are played together they can either be consonant, which are pleasing and agreeable tones, or dissonant, tones that cause tension or a desire to be resolved.

“The way in which Sam set up these relationships between the 40 chimes provides a unique voice to each of the 40 crew members and passengers of Flight 93. There is a physical embodiment of the people who died,” he said. “When the wind blows it’ll either hit one chime or multiple chimes, which connote through consonants these relationships of the serenity and nobility of the site, but also other chimes in these relationships that have a little bit of dissonance, which speaks to the tragedy of the flight.”

The memorial also speaks to the loss of Bellona’s friend and mentor, whom he credits for inspiring and encouraging him to go into sound and installation arts, which eventually led him to the UO as an audio production instructor. He teaches courses in digital audio techniques, audio recording, data sonification and audio effects theory and design.

Tower of Voices

Emphasis is often placed on the visual aspects of art, but sound can be equally poignant as an art form. Bellona’s courses draw not only music students but also journalism majors learning to use sound and audio as a narrative in storytelling and business students with an interest in music or the music industry who want to learn how audio and sound can be applied to different modes of production.

“It’s not just about what we see in TV, film and the music industry,” he said, “it’s trying to get students to ask questions and think about how they can implement sound in new ways with technology as well as becoming better listeners, and how can we listen more deeply to the world around us.”

Bellona is also involved as a sound artist in Harmonic Laboratory, a local mixed-media art collective that works to find ways to leverage art and technology as a way to inspire and create community. One of many projects was City Synth, a collaboration with the South Eugene High School robotics team and the city of Eugene, which turned Eugene into a musical instrument by allowing users to trigger actual synthesizers placed throughout the city.

His current project, “Wildfire,” funded by the UO Center for Environmental Futures and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation summer faculty research grant, will be installed at the Barrett Art Gallery at Utica College in New York. A 48-foot-long speaker array will play back a wave of fire sounds at speeds of actual wildfires for people to experience what a wildfire really sounds like.

As for the Tower of Voices memorial in Pennsylvania, which was officially dedicated on 9/11 last year, Bellona has not yet had the opportunity to visit the site, but he said it was gratifying to play a small role in his professor’s last work.

“I’m extremely proud of him and his pinnacle work and to see that come to fruition,” he said. “It’s amazing to know that his voice, if you will, is included in a sound. You can hear him through his own work.”

—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications