Turning Sandstone Into Music
Story by Elaine Elliott & Sarah Anne Perry
The ancient boulders of the Rocktown labyrinth have long inspired climbers to
manifest creativity through movement. Now their sandstone has been brought to
life through music.
Tim Hinck had walked these corridors many times, seeking out and conquering
projects. One day, though, his mission changed. This past winter, Tim sought to bring
Southern rock to the forefront of his next composition. He would soon perform at
the Southeastern Climbers Coalition 25th anniversary event, and he wanted the
piece to sound like sandstone.
Tim photographed the Croc Block, Lab Rats, and Comet boulders, all of which bore
unique iron striations resembling steep contours on a topographic map. Back in his
studio, he translated each boulder’s iron bands to musical pitches. To do this, he
overlaid each image and “measured the ratio of the distances between the striations
and the differences between the points at which they change direction.”
“If you zoom in or zoom out of the striation, you’d have bigger or smaller variations
of pitch, so the scale is infinite,” explains Hinck. “I tried to find the one that sounded
the most like recognizable music.”
The most musical striation is the start hold of Standard Deviation (V6). This popular
problem on the Comet boulder begins on a series of iron crimp rails and ends with a
dyno move at the top.
“The Comet boulder striation was able to give more extremes,” Hinck explains,
“because the pitches were so exaggerated from high to low.”
Hinck, a Chattanooga classical pianist and composer, is known for performing in
“weird spaces,” he says — like rooftops, garages, and outdoor settings. He moved to
town shortly before the Tennessee Bouldering Authority, Chattanooga’s first
climbing gym, opened 18 years ago. He bought a membership right away and has
been climbing ever since — so it made sense when the SCC asked Hinck to play at
the 25th anniversary party.
“A traditional classical piano didn’t seem like it fit for an event like that,” Hinck says.
“And I’ve always been trying to find a way to tie in creation of sound to physical
form and bringing it back to the geology of the places we go to often.”
While staying true to his classical roots, Hinck based his composition on the rock
SCC members hold dear. The composition’s first nine notes are derived from the
Rocktown iron band. Hinck arranged the rest of the piece around that basic melody,
repeating the initial sounds within the bass line.
Hinck's Teraforma II performance begins with an almost ominous tone (influenced by the sandstone) before shifting to a sprightly, upbeat nature. Each note as captivating as the last.
The song is an example aleatoric, or “chance,” music. In chance music, the
composer leaves some elements of a piece unplanned and up to chance. This means
the completed work does not fully emerge until the moment it is performed.
“I totally didn’t know what it would sound like — that’s part of the fun,” Hinck says.
“For this, you put it on paper first, and then you see what it sounds like — it’s the
opposite of what I normally do.”
Southern sandstone is particularly conducive to creating chance music, Hinck says,
because its iron striations flow in connected lines. This linearity translates better to
manuscript paper than the erratic color blotches borne by other rock types.
Climbers embrace our own sort of aleatory. Standing before a new climb, we gaze at
crack systems, bolt lines, rubber streaks, and chalk. We plan carefully, accounting
for every variable and mentally rehearsing the beta.
Still, it isn’t until shoe meets stone that a route reveals itself. At that point, our only
choice is to listen to the rock.