John Kelly of Springfield, Pennsylvania

John Kelly

Currently Senior Technical Specialist at Swarthmore College

I build scientific research equipment and apparatuses used in the laboratory, the classroom and out in the field.  It’s interesting and challenging work because scientists often want to do something that no one has done before

Since launching How to Listen to Machines, I have received a range of interesting recordings of machinery from listeners -- washing machines, jackhammers, radiators...

One particular recording was rather unusual. For one, it was over a half hour long. It was also recorded decades ago.

On March 28th, 1984, John Kelly did something a bit different on his way to work. He brought a cassette recorder with him to his carpentry shop at the University of Pennsylvania. Walking from one machine to the next, John documented their sounds -- an ensemble richly detailed, beautiful, and at times eerie. 

After listening start to finish, I emailed John a few questions so that readers could learn a bit more about the nature of his work.


People don't ordinarily bring a recorder with them to work and document the sounds of their everyday work environment. What gave you the idea to record the sounds of your shop?

The first clue I had that ambient sounds could be interesting was around 1973 when I was standing at an outdoor barbecue watching a musician friend grill hamburgers.  This friend, who along with me was in his early twenties, began taking music lessons at age six and was gifted with perfect pitch.  I witnessed this on a few occasions and knew he had a keen auditory sensibility.  He was staring intently at the grille and then began commenting on the sound of the sizzling burgers.  I had been paying no mind to that at all but after he brought it to my attention, I found the syncopated pops made by the frying grease enrapturing.

About this time I first listened to John Cage in a Music History class.  It must have affected me because later that day, while driving my Kelly Green 1957 Chevy in the rain, I became transfixed by the steady thump of the windshield wipers, the rain drops in counterpoint tapping the car’s roof and the occasional Doppler effect of the swish of passing cars.

At some point before I made the work sounds recording, I heard an interview with composer R. Murray Schafer and began reading his book, "The Tuning of the World", a discourse on the soundscapes of both undisturbed nature of times past and the industrialized environment of the present.  That increased my awareness of the sounds I encountered everyday and, for some reason, I wanted to capture some of those sounds so I’d have an acoustic record of what I heard almost daily.

Describe your shop for us. What kinds of machines are we listening to?

This shop was about 25’ x 30’ in the basement of the thick walled old building. The machines included a table saw, band saw, milling machine, drill press, floor mounted belt sander, etc.  There was also a separate room for electronics work but the equipment in use there might only generate a faint hum. The building’s mechanical room contained many motors, pumps, fans, pipes, etc.

What are some ways you would typically use these machines during your workday?

I build scientific research equipment and apparatuses used in the laboratory, the classroom and out in the field.  It’s interesting and challenging work because scientists often want to do something that no one has done before.  And because of this, there’s no off-the-shelf apparatus available to do it.  So they ask me to build something that will accomplish what they want to do.  I’ve built a true-to-life-sized dinosaur nasal cavity for a researcher who had the idea that if he had a facsimile of a dinosaur nasal cavity modeled after the bone structure of the actual beast and he blew into it, as if it were a trumpet, it would make a howl that would be very much like the sound the real dinosaur made millions of years ago.  He gave me the dimensions he arrived at by measuring the skull of a dinosaur, an Apatosaurus I think it was, and I fashioned the model of PVC pipe cut and glued together in various curves and diameters.  When he tried it, it made a hell of a hooting sound.

I still do this type of work and recently constructed an acoustic tractor beam which a professor wants to use to capture and levitate hummingbird urine.  Not surprisingly, it’s pretty difficult to catch urine from a peeing hummingbird but if the tractor beam is positioned under a feeder it may be possible to capture a few drops and keep them levitated in mid-air so they can be retrieved for later analysis.  The tractor beam can levitate rather light objects using many individual sources of acoustic waves, banks of which are both in phase and out of phase with each other and focused to create a point in space where they converge with enough sonic pressure to levitate an object.  The device can levitate light objects and is being tested in the field right now with the knowledge that it will need more power to fully achieve the desired results.

So, the work is interesting.

Your shop sounds solitary, as if you spent most of your days working only in the company of these machines. Did this solitude cause you to listen to machines differently, or were you always attuned to the sounds of machinery?

You’re right about my shop being solitary, and because I arrived for work earlier than everyone else, I began the day in a large, uninhabited 19th-century building.  Somehow the building’s advanced age made the empty halls seem especially quiet, even solemnly still.  Every sound seemed amplified.  Even the wooden floorboards creaked disturbingly.  And in this cocoon of silence the sound of my machines was familiar and comforting.

When I listen to your shop I hear music. But maybe that's just because I'm a musician. Do you have a musical background? 

Yes, I often listen to music while I work so there may be music heard at times in the background.  I’m a self-taught amateur musician.  I’ve listened to and loved music since I was a child before I could even read.  And because I couldn’t read the titles of records, I asked my father to make stars on the labels of my favorite records so I could identify them.  One of my very favorite 45 rpm records had a silver label with a blue ink star.  It was Tiger Rag played by the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  Those two words, Tiger Rag, were the first two words I learned to read.

You recorded this March 28th, 1984. What was it like to listen to this 33 years later? Was it difficult trying to reconstruct what machines you were hearing as you listened?

Yes, it may have been the first time I listened to the recording since 1984. I was surprised and intrigued by a few sounds which I had difficulty identifying.  But I also immediately recognized most others even though I hadn’t thought of them since that time.