Life in Cobar was a delicate thing until the arrival of the Silver Tank. In the vast, red-dirt hinterland of Australia, over 400 miles northwest of the shores of Sydney, rainwater is scarce. For thousands of years, the nomadic Aboriginal Ngiyampaa people excelled at the art of survival by creating natural rock reservoirs. But after European settlers discovered copper and gold in the area in the 1870s, enough water was needed to sustain a booming mining town. Reservoirs were dug. Water was trained in from afar. Then, in 1901, a 33-foot-high steel water tank painted silver, hence its nickname, was erected about a mile outside of town. While the threat of drought remained (and remains to this day), it turned dusty Cobar, a freckle at the edge of the Outback, into something of a desert oasis.
Nowadays, Cobar pipes in its water from the Burrendong Dam, about 233 miles east, and the tank, whose silver finish long ago succumbed to rust and graffiti, is empty of water. It has, however, been filled with something new — music. On April 2, after two decades of work, it will be officially reborn as the Cobar Sound Chapel, an audacious sound-art collaboration between Georges Lentz, one of Australia’s leading contemporary composers, and Glenn Murcutt, an Australian Pritzker Prize-winning architect. For his reimagining of the roofless tank, Murcutt installed an approximately 16-foot cube within its cylindrical space, in which Lentz’s “String Quartet(s)” (2000-21), a 24-hour-long classical-meets-electronica work, will play on loop via a quadraphonic sound system. Inside the chamber is a concrete bench that seats up to four, from which one can look out through the ceiling’s gold-rimmed oculus. Morning, noon and night, then, the otherworldly sonic stream will reverberate throughout the concrete booth and spill out into the sky that inspired it. The artists’ hope is that their work will prompt visitors to meditate on our place in the universe. “There is a mysterious element to our existence that we ignore at our own peril,” says Lentz, 56. “By turning to something higher than ourselves, we realize we are just this tiny thing in this vast scheme.”
Lentz has been consumed by questions of cosmology and spirituality ever since he was a child. Born in Echternach, a small town in Luxembourg that formed around a seventh-century abbey, he grew up attending classical music festivals and stargazing with his dad. Later, he studied music in Hanover, Germany. While riding the train to university in the fall of 1988, he happened upon a story in the German science magazine Geo about the creation of the universe. It threw the tininess of humanity into sharp relief for him, and he fell into a depression that left him sleepless for weeks. “It felt like an abyss you look into and go, ‘Wah!’” he says.
Ever since, Lentz has devoted his entire body of work to exploring the questions of the cosmos, transforming his initial fear into a quest for contemplation, one that only intensified following his 1990 move to Australia and exposure to the Outback’s ocean of sky. Both a continuation and culmination of his work, “String Quartet(s)” began as an attempt to translate that sky into a score. To do so, he collaborated with the Noise, an experimental string quartet that’s based in Sydney. They used a range of techniques; to mirror a starry night, for example, the musicians invoked the pointillism of the contemporary Aboriginal painter Kathleen Petyarre, plucking their bows at the top of their instruments to create contained bits of sound. “If you repeat that,” says Oliver Miller, the Noise’s cellist and a technical and creative adviser to the chapel, “it converges into a galactic formation where you get a cluster of the Milky Way.”
They ended up with about six hours’ worth of music, which, through digital editing, Lentz expanded into a 24-hour, techno-infused soundscape of terror, wonder and reverence. Taking inspiration from Gerhard Richter, he layered recorded sounds as if they were in a palimpsest. In one track I sampled, a curtain of piercing strings gave the impression of a dust storm haunting the horizon. In another, I fell into a reverie as the strings receded into shiny, ethereal dots, ringing as if in an empty basement. I listened from atop a hill in Connecticut, but to hear the music inside the chapel would be an experience of an entirely different magnitude.
Around 2000, Lentz began dreaming of a music box amid a copper landscape, a place where his music could live alongside its muse. But it wasn’t until he played a concert in Cobar in 2008 that he considered the town as a potential site. He pitched the idea to the Cobar Shire Council, which later proposed the hilltop bearing the tank, suggesting it be demolished to make room. “Absolutely not!” Lentz said. Soon after, he called Murcutt, 85, who is celebrated for hand-drawn, landscape-specific designs inspired by Australian vernacular architecture, such as farmhouses and shearing sheds. “You’d have to be mad to be doing something like this,” Murcutt remembers thinking. “But it’s also extraordinary.”
Murcutt has always been drawn to the desert, whose sparseness resonates with the Aboriginal mantra — touch the earth lightly — by which he tries to abide. In keeping with that idea, he set out to design, largely thanks to governmental funding, a simple, solar-powered chapel that would unify sound, site and atmosphere. Two large slabs of concrete mark the entrance outside. Inside, the cubic space (which is slightly slanted to optimize acoustics) is stark, just like the desert itself. In the four corners of the ceiling, sunlight streams through windows of Russian blue glass painted by the local Aboriginal artist Sharron Ohlsen, who also employs pointillism in her work. And, over the course of each day, an ellipse of light traverses the floor and concrete walls, which were cast in corrugated iron formwork and act as sound diffusers. Music booms from a speaker in each wall, enveloping listeners, Miller says, as if they were “moving within a cosmic nebula or swimming within a school of deep-sea jellyfish.”
And so, over a century after arriving in town, the Silver Tank — which promises to put Cobar on the cultural map, especially as the chapel will play host to an annual string quartet festival sponsored by Manuka Resources, a local mine — once again provides something essential. For anyone who spends time inside, it offers a sanctuary for contemplating existential questions that, particularly in the age of the pandemic, haunt us so acutely. And while the piece may not provide answers, it is also a comforting reminder that, even in a vast, seemingly empty expanse, there can still be music.