Landing in London: Elena Baturina talks about the BE OPEN Sound Portal

By Mark Sheerin | 21 September 2012
Colour photo of Nelson's column seen through the skylight of a temporary structure
High fidelity: view of Nelson's Column from inside the Sound Portal© Thomas Graham-Arup
London Design Festival: BE OPEN Sound Portal, Trafalgar Square, until September 23 2012

Could aliens save the planet? This is a question which visitors to the BE OPEN Sound Portal might have found themselves pondering as they listened to a distinctly extra-terrestrial composition by Ivan Pavlov.

It would not have helped that the surroundings are a mysterious black cylinder which has, more or less overnight, landed in Trafalgar Square.

The meshlike white walls inside are as bright as those on any Hollywood spacecraft and a nine channel ambisonic sound system ensures there is no getting away from Pavlov’s strange choral piece, in a language no one appears to recognise.

But aliens are not responsible. The structure was developed by design firm Arup. The music has been curated by Sound and Music. And financial backing comes from the Russian based BE OPEN Foundation, a Creative Think Tank set up by the Russian billionaire and former owner of construction giant Inteco, Elena Baturina.

According to Baturina, what the Sound Portal sets out to achieve is "a very interesting attempt to find a new area of design, and to try to study and learn about the sounds that surround us.”

“This problem is especially important in big cities,” she continues, “because the cacophony of city sounds surrounding us make us more aggressive and more nervous.” Strange to say that the alien songs were indeed quite calming.

Colour photo of a mysterious black structure in Trafalgar Square
"Cacophony": the BE OPEN Sound Portal and the public.© all rights reserved. Courtesy Theresa Simon & Partners Ltd
Further musicians in residence at the Sound Portal include Nathaniel Robin Mann, Jo Thomas, Jana Winderen and, perhaps most exciting of all for British audiences, Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher.

“We attempted to show the multitude of sound design in the world,” says Baturina. “Some musicians use electronic sounds; some use the sound of nature. So these are layers and layers of sound design which we would like to present in London.”

She goes on to explain the portal will stay in the British capital: it is soon to be gifted to Chelsea College of Design, helping students with their own sound research. Education, she says, is a sphere close to her heart, and BE OPEN will provide Chelsea with visiting speakers and offer opportunities to the best young minds.

“I consider London one of the main cities that promotes design,” she says of her involvement in the 2012 London Design Festival. “And it's not by accident that sound design was developed in London, because in the 20th century, English music and London music was the most prominent in the world.”

Given a strong presence at Design Miami/Basel and Milan design week earlier in the year, BE OPEN seems a fitting testimony to the founder’s passion for new ideas and forms.

“The main thing that I find interesting in design is the possibility to change the world around us,” she says with conviction. “If a person is surrounded by beautiful things, by a beautiful environment, inside this person becomes better.”

Despite appearances, the sound portal has not come from outer space to save the world, but it has come from far enough away to make for an enlightening experience in central London, one set of ears at a time.
  • Open 8.30am-10pm. Admission free.

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