What is Distance Music?

Distance Music is an outdoor “meta-composition”, where the composer creates sonic conditions to create a specific musical results for multiple locations within a specific, multi-acre site.  Unique melodies are experienced at every different location due to the various time required for the sounds to cross the distance from the sound sources to each locus. The distance organ, a set of MIDI-to-Telemetry controlled, tuned train horns, was created to be heard across these large distances. Staccato notes from the distance organ, carefully placed throughout the site area, are accompanied by live musicians that are placed in locations where the resulting melodies will be most interesting. The audience moves from each designed locus point to locus point to hear gradual shifts in the melodies’ note orders, as calculated by the composer.

This approach to music opens a new stylistic corridor in mDistance Music Lake Eola 03 Apparatususic that will appeal to a wide audience of people who like new music, new forms of minimalism, Earth Art, geometry and measurement, and natural sciences. Made possible to realize with the distance organ, it appeals to the curious, and those interested in expanding their sensory perceptions. It can be promoted either as a new music concert or as a fun science-based ‘show’ because it makes the science of sound propagation interactive. No one, as far as I know, has ever used geometry and the speed of sound to create music.

A distance music composition begins with a geographic location and the definition of a specific audience walking-path at that site, which may circumscribe the organ locations spread across the locale. Using Google Earth, measurements between all possible train horn placements and architectural features are made, seeking a least common denominator between possible installation points and the walking-path called the “primary interval”. For example, sound requires 125ms to traverse 141 feet (at 70˚F). If 141 feet is found to be a common denominator of installation points and the audience path then 141 feet and 125ms becomes the primary time/space interval. 125ms is also the duration of a 1/16th note in 4/4 meter at 120bpm.


Lake Eola arcs at Primary Intervals and resulting intersection points



Rhythms of 16th notes at 4 Audience Listening points

Each horn is tuned to either C4-D4-Eb4-E4-Gb4-G4-Ab4-A4-Bb4-B4 or D5. When all horns play simultaneously, a unique seven-note melody will reside at every location since each location will have a different set of distance relationships to the horns. Points intersecting the primary interval arcs of 141ft and its multiples (282ft., 423ft., 564ft., etc.) would contain melodies with rhythm sets comprised only of 16th notes and 16th rests. Walking along the path would reveal cycles of gradual irregularity and regularity. Equidistant horns will be heard simultaneously.

At each staccato sounding of the horns, a kind of sonic sculpture would inhabit the concert site’s atmosphere. Audiences explore the invisible aerial sculpture it by moving along the audience path, listening to the gradual permutations in the musical order. The melody freezes it’s order of pitches and rhythms when they stop moving. Those wishing to re-experience a favorite melody could simply revisit the location since the rhythm and order are a function of position that doesn’t change. The acoustic time-space continuum relationship, which has been around us our entire lives, is revealed, as long as the horns continue to repeat the same initial playback sequence.

Why Train Horns??

Traditional instruments can’t produce enough sound to be heard across the distances required to clearly hear delays. We don’t begin to hear two separate sound sources until they are separated by about 50 milliseconds. There are 1000 milliseconds – (ms) per second. Since sound travels at about 1 ft. per ms, the sound sources would need 50 ft. of distance to even hear them as two separate sources. To hear rhythmically significant differences, hundreds of feet between sources would be necessary. But, the sound of most instruments can’t carry for hundreds of feet.

WH30154-1L MODEL KS-1L, SINGLE TONE 261 Hz Air HornElectronic amplification would certainly make longer distances possible. But three serious drawbacks make it impractical: 1. Electrical power of the magnitude necessary would be too heavy if stored in batteries or the lengths of the necessary extension cords would be impractical over so many acres; 2. Electricity is dangerous, especially in the out of doors where it can rain – or in this case around water; and 3. It might require a microphone – which, in the case of this kind of high amplification almost certainly guarantees screeching feedback.

Train horns are the only acoustic instrument designed to be heard over large distances (3 miles). They have the advantage of being extremely rugged and dependable outdoor, all-weather devices, too. And they aren’t powered by electricity! They are powered by gas, usually compressed air. I chose to power them with one of the most powerful potential-energy storage devices available – steel cylinders of high pressure gas (in this case, Nitrogen, N2), each storing 304 cubic feet. That much gas powering each horn would provide several minutes of a single, high SPL (Sound Pressure Level = volume) blast. But Distance Music needs short, articulate, loud toots – not long blasts – because I want each horn to only speak long enough to get to pitch and then stop so the other horns on the site can be heard. I’ve never been able to test how long a single cylinder will last, but it should for 15 to 20 minutes of short duration notes.

Graph plots loudness to distance of a train horn (directly facing listener)

Graph plots loudness to distance of a train horn (directly facing listener)



The Distance Music event at Lake Eola October 25, 2014

The distance organ premiered in 2014 at the well attended “Distance Music at Lake Eola” for Seven Train Horns and Brass Choirs concert in downtown Orlando. Horns were donated by Nathan Manufacturing, powered by nitrogen (N2) gas through seven radio-controlled, solenoid-actuated poppet valves donated by Parker Hannifin’s Pneumatic Division. Funding came from an $8710 Kickstarter and grants of $2500 from the United Arts of Central Florida and $1000 from the Awesome Foundation. This video explains the design of this concert:

In the 22 acre Lake Eola, seven nitrogen powered train horns pitched C,Eb,F,Gb,Ab,Bb and D were each mounted upon a heavy, pedal-powered, 5 seat fiberglass boat shaped as a swan. They were “played” by on/off commands sent through radio signals broadcast from the shore which emanated from a Logic X sequence on a laptop computer. The homebuilt radio broadcaster and 7 receivers at the train horns used an Xbee-PRO DigiMesh 900 using the 902 to 928MHz (ISM) band. They transmitted data at 87kbps – basically offs and ons, to each horn receiver, which was was coded to respond by sending 12 volts to a coil opening a Parker Hannefin Pneumatics N-Poppet solenoid valve when it is addressed in the serial data. The voice communications between the composer, swan boat captains and conductors was provided by a Lectrosonics T4 rented from Tai Audio in Orlando. The conductors received their own, pre-calculated, separate, recorded audio click from the same LogicX sequence that controlled the train horn data. The north ensemble’s click was 0.985 seconds ahead of the south ensemble in the last movement to allow time for the sound to reach the south-shore audience in order to synchronize with the south choir’s beat.


The Distance Music at Lake Eola SWAN BOAT NAVY

Admiral: Rick Horne

David Nielsen
Horn op
28°32’34.87″N 81°22’26.89″W
Jenn Cabral Captain
Paul Tugwell
28°32’36.07″N 81°22’25.80″W
Lourdes Crosby Horn op
Eric Brook
Horn op
28°32’37.79″N 81°22’25.08″W
Chris Lay Captain
Ben Fitzgerald
28°32’41.56″N 81°22’25.93″W
Patterson Bob Horn op
Bob Walker
Horn op
28°32’37.79″N 81°22’21.44″W
Shea Cloutier-Bisbee Captain
Veit Renn
Horn op
28°32’39.22″N 81°22’20.52″W
Charlie Griffin Captain
Joanna Leck
28°32’40.64”N 81°22’17.78″W
Grace Smith Horn op

Musicians (*Orlando Philharmonic)

Conductors Aaron Lefkowitz
Chad Shoopman Trombones Jeff Thomas *
Alexis Ragazzi
Trumpets Lyman Brodie * Chris Steelman
Benoit Glazer Daniel Suarez
Chris King Daniel Woloshin
Aaron Watson Halrold Van Shaik
Nate Smith
Horns Kathy Thomas *  (K.Thomas also booking admin) Will Fisher
Mark Fischer *
Any DiMarco
Aviel Tomar Tubas Bob Carpenter *
Ben Lieser Alex Carpenter
Emily Judd Drew Pritchard
Katie Rudzik Josh Parsons
Kevin Brooks
Kyle Halpin Percussion John Patton*
Robin Sisk Mark Goldberg *



I deliberately composed the accompaniment music for “Distance Music at Lake Eola” to be as mainstream and easy-to-understand-as-possible in order that the real focus be on Distance Organ timing and sounds. The music that came  from my 28 brass and percussionists provided harmonic direction, phrase and melodic interaction, organized into three movements:

Distance Music at Lake Eola I. Fanfare

I. Fanfare 1 minute

Originally composed for the two trumpet sections to play from atop nearby buildings, this movement was designed to 1. properly introduce the beginning of the event in a jubilant, general-audience manner and 2. “teach/introduce” the concept of Distance Music through a demonstration within the music.

distancemusic3shared constant quarter note on an open Perfect 5th interval from two train horns located side by side in the middle of the lake open the piece. The surrounding brass groups develop the idea of the perfect 5th into an antiphonal fanfare during which the swan boats move apart, continuing to play on the beat. From the audience’s perspective, the open 5th dyad from the boats will gradually split into two separated notes outlining the interval; the farther apart the boats become, the more time develops between the two notes. This experience teaches the watching and listening audience the scientific principle primary to Distance Music: that sounds from more distant sources arrive later.

By the end of the Fanfare, boats reach their primary positions at the end of the fanfare, all seven of which are spaced on the intersects of three sets of virtual concentric circles. The largest set of circles are spaced at intervals of 141ft  from east to west that begin and end with a point near the walking path. Two other radii are centered near the walking path. All four of these points are identified with large signs.

Distance Music at Lake Eola II. Parallax Music

II. Parallax Music

The second movement was to be the “real” Distance Music composition oeuvre,  with all seven horns playing passages consisting of tutti, simultaneous, staccato toots from this primary boat position geometry. Resultant melodies would coalesce into rhythmically unique metric statements at every point on the audience path around Lake Eola; and coalescing into metrically coherent music at the four signed locations. With every step the walking audience takes, the distances between their ears and each horn would change thus resulting in a similar variation in timing due to the constant speed of sound. All seven horns would be heard, but in a different order and timing sequence at every point. The audience could explore the spatial musical fabric by moving backwards, forwards or side to side. Signed positions will manifest into a series of seven syncopated 16th notes at 120bpm (common time), since 141 feet intervals will result a 125ms period.  The melodies, comparing the result from West One to East One would be in exact retrograde of each other, simultaneously. Shore locations at the radii of horn-placement circles would result in a chord. Throughout the movement, the brass provide an accompaniment with changing harmonies and traded melodic fragments.

One of the most interesting experiences will be listening to the music slowly evolve when moving away from or towards a metrically organized (signed) location. Distance music is audible geometry! A sonic sculpture!

These Logic Mockups use actual horn samples in calculated order at 68˙F  from correct direction and amplitude with sequenced brass for each location point:

“II. Parallax” From West One

“II. Parallax” From West Two

“II. Parallax” From East One

“II. Parallax” From East Two

Distance Music at Lake Eola III. Finale cover

III. FinaleDistance Music Lake Eola 06 7 Swans a Sailing

The last movement was composed to ‘show off’ the virtuosity of the Distance Organ in regards to speed. All boats navigated to a new position at a point late in the previous movement, to line up, facing their horns to the southern shore (where most of the audience was supposed to be) from a north central spot on the lake. In this position, the instrument would behave in a traditional mode since all boats were close enough not to create timing differences between them when playing together.  The movement was scored to create a ‘wow’ factor with a fast 6/8 lope and a train horn melody that would be nearly impossible to play by a human being – but possible with the technology and machinery on the lake.

What went wrong at the Lake Eola Premiere?

The Distance Organ pneumatics/mechanicals were successfully tested for one year previous, one radio one month previous, and the remaining seven radios built 3 days prior to the concert. All seven horn apparatus were finally built just hours before the premiere. We ran out of teflon tape halfway through the builds and slow leaking took place. Once arrived, unloaded and moved to the pier, we noticed important wire-to-wire points were forgotten in the complicated build order.

The “Swan Boat Navy” of seven boats and the crew of 14 efficiently navigated their horn apparatuses to predetermined and rehearsed GPS points.  Thirty orchestral musicians showed up in a predetermined parking lot to be shuttled to the nearest location possible at the site, transportation made possible by Full Sail University and were in their seats, music and conductors at the ready, on time. But the principal actor to create the new musical form, the distance organ itself, failed to respond to 90% of the data sent. The radios we designed, built, programmed and tested were not as powerful as advertised.

Distance Music from Tommy Bowe on Vimeo.


The Future of Distance Music

Pribusin Process Controls & Telemetry, located in Muskegon, MI has agreed to develop and construct the radio telemetry equipment for the distance organ. Mike Gertsweiler, president of Pribusin, is personally interested in this project’s success and has generously provided the project with an affordable price. He will offset costs by making modifications to equipment he already supplies to industry. He will also involve Muskegon high school interns from the robotics club that Mr. Gertsweiler actively supports. The devices will have a range of at least one mile, even through wooded terrain and have a response time of 10 ms or less. The distance organ can be expanded with additional train horns with the purchase of more Remote devices.

The new custom telemetry layout for the Distance Organ

The new custom telemetry layout for the Distance Organ

New Controller Telemetry designed and fabricated by Pribusin

Michael Gerstweiler is also a leader in education, the founder and supporter of MARS, the Muskegon Area Robotics Student non-profit organization. Here is Michaels recent TEDx talk “We’re Running Out of Steam” in which he describes the importance of the Arts in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
Next Concerts
As soon as the Telemetry is paid for, tested and delivered I will begin creating Distance Music events. The first will be at Full Sail University. There is a possibility that a Film and Music Festival in Vilnus, Lithuania will commission a Distance Music work this Fall. There is also a possibility that I’ll compose a new piece for downtown Orlando’s Creative City Project 2017 as well.


<br\ />

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *