The Musical Tunnels of Stockholm
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cities can always be a little weirder.
By Fiona Zublin
You don’t even hear the voices till you’re halfway through the 750-foot tunnel. Mostly you hear the elderly bearded man playing what looks like a lute with the gusto particular to city buskers in areas where tourists are charmed by city buskers. When you’ve walked far enough past him that the strumming sounds start to fade, that’s when you hear the voices coming from a plastic box affixed to raw mountain stone. Sing to the box, in any pitch you want, and it’ll sing back.
This is Håkan Lidbo’s way of making Stockholm a little friendlier, a little safer, a little weirder. The audio artist, who once released 25 robots bearing signs that read “Help! We are lost” on Stockholm and Uppsala as an experiment, and his colleague Max Björverud have wired five of Stockholm’s tunnels with voice boxes. “Just like a friend,” Lidbo says, “it is singing with you.” When nobody sings to the tunnel, it sings to itself, composing its own melodies based on the notes most commonly sung to it.
Efforts to fact-check what angels really sound like were unsuccessful.
If unaware that the tunnels are going to sing to you, you might think you were having a heavenly visitation, or a weird trip. The tunnels sound like angels (note: efforts to fact-check what angels really sound like were unsuccessful), or like the kind of choir normally described as sounding like angels — several voices in concert, singing high and clear. They are no less high and clear when matching pitch with someone warbling Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” in the service of journalistic investigation, no less enthusiastic when said investigator stops suddenly to avoid further confusing a Swedish cyclist who’s just trying to get home without being sung at by any tunnels or Americans.
One of the aims of the voice boxes is to make overpasses less seedy, less scary. It should be said that despite Sweden’s impressive record with unsettling crime fiction and crime television, the tunnels visited were neither seedy nor scary. One was a little out of the way, but it was brightly lit, had cheerful, colorful tiles and was flanked by lush trees. Stockholm’s record on gun crime isn’t great: Over the past five years, there have been 189 gun-related injuries, double that of Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki combined. (For context, there were 120 shootings in Chicago in the first 10 days of 2016, so Stockholm is not exactly gangland.) And the singing tunnels aren’t superheroes — they won’t prevent you from being mugged. But they might make you feel less alone when walking home at night — which, given that 14 percent of Swedes report feeling lonely, might be an even bigger social good.