Volume 78 / Number 20 - October 15 - 21, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower
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Ear to the earth 2008:
Music, Multimedia, Sound Art, EcologyThrough October 25

Andrea Polli

Cloud Car: A participatory installation with misty smoke enveloping a car. Visitors receive environmental tips and can sit inside the car. Premieres October 18 at Eyebeam.

Izzi Ramkissoon

New York Big Fritz: A composition of sounds documenting 24-hours in Times Square.

Listening in

Electronic musicians take a pulse of urban life

By Stacey Coburn

Honking car horns, ringing sirens and pounding drills at construction sites will be some of the sounds celebrated and explored at this year’s Ear to the Earth Festival. The festival, which is in its third year, will focus on urban sounds, with a concentration on New York City. As the home base for the festival’s organizer, the Electronic Music Foundation, it seemed like a natural focus, said organizer and president Joel Chadabe.

The two weeks of installations, public forums and concerts running October 9-25 are just the beginning of what Chadabe hopes will be an expansive archival of urban sounds throughout the world by artists and citizens alike.

“If you’re grandchildren ask you, ‘What did New York sound like in the days of the internal combustion engine?’ we’ll have something for them to listen to,” Chadabe said.

Technology has been the driving force in the change of New York City sounds and also provides the means for documenting it. Cell phone conversations, groups of tourists chatting and even couples fighting were captured in a project commissioned for the festival, New York Big Fritz. The title comes from the binaural headphones used in the project.

Chadabe and several other New York University music technology faculty members Agnieszka Roginska, Paul Geluso and Robert Rowe composed sounds from a 24-hour period in Times Square.

Izzi Ramkissoon, a graduate student at NYU who sat in Times Square to record the raw material used in the piece, said the experience forced him to listen when he normally wouldn’t. He said he was surprised to see how much change there was in one spot over time. For example, when they first set their equipment down, a giant stage was set up nearby. It was deconstructed before one of their hour-long recording sessions was over.

“It changed its entire personality in a matter of seconds,” Ramkissoon said.

People naturally filter out sounds and focus on something in particular, like a conversation, rather than hearing all the noises around them. When they listen to a recording or make their own environmental sound composition, their awareness is heightened, and they’re surprised and compelled by what they hear, Chadabe said.

“Most of us live in a continual state of partial attention. These concerts will focus attention,” Chadabe said. “By listening to the world, we’re also listening to the state of the world.”

Chadabe and the other artists involved in Ear to the Earth hope that heightened awareness and changed perception translates into an improved treatment of the environment.

A Ford Taurus enveloped in smoky mist special effects will be parked outside Eyebeam at 540 West 21st Street in the installation Cloud Car, by artist Andrea Polli and her husband Chuck Varga on October 18. Visitors receive a fact sheet with tips on how to reduce fuel emissions such as inflating tires, changing air filters once a month and telecommuting once a week. The installation will also be set up outside the New York Hall of Science in Queens on October 25.

Polli, who is a professor at Hunter College and co-chair of the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology, is also moderating a public forum on urban noise October 15 at Judson Church at 7 p.m. Prior to the forum at 6 p.m., visitors can also take free sound walks through the city and hear how different the architecture of buildings affects sound. After the forum, objects collected on the sound walks will be placed into a box, and used in a concert that evening.

“What we do is very tied with community organizing, urban planning and environmental issues,” Polli said. “It’s not just about music and electronic music.”

The festival includes several electronic musical pieces inspired by the environment, including premieres of “Trilogy of the Americas,” by Francisco Lopez on October 10, “Brooklyn Bridge,” by Alvin Currin on October 18, several new pieces by Matthew Burtner on October 21 and the New York premiere of John Cage’s work, “Lecture on the Weather” to close the festival on October 24 and 25.

In addition to “Cloud Car,” other installations were also commissioned by the festival. October 17, Miya Masaika’s “Quest for Minetta Creek: The Search for the Last Living Natural Stream of Water in Lower Manhattan,” a new work by Marina Rosenfeld and “Eros-Ion,” by Michael Shumacher and Nisi Jacobs will debut at Judson Church.

“Eros-Ion,” a video and sound installation that will surround the visitor with sound on eight channels and sight with two screens of images, is inspired by the artists’ recent relocation to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Jacobs said she and Shumacher were inspired by the area — homes with backyards, a view of the river and abandoned lots that had nature breaking through the cracks. The piece becomes more musical as it goes on, and is meant to convey regeneration.

“It comes from a sense that the environment is precious,” Jacobs said. “But when you look at an abandoned lot in an industrial city, it’s not just something to plow into. Old factories could be renovated, not just removed.”

For a full listing of events, reservations or ticket information, visit eartothearth.org or call 888-749-9998.

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