Sunday, February 22, 2009
Spiraling Echoes in City Hall
On Thursday, February 12, there was an opening reception in San Francisco's City Hall for the unveiling of a "sound sculpture" by the locally based and internationally renowned sound artist Bill Fontana.
There are eight highly specialized speakers called transducers mounted around the perimeter of the top of City Hall's rotunda using a technology called echolocation which are beaming a strange cacophony of sounds that include running water, bell alarms, and a variety of bird sounds among others. (For a good description of the piece, click here for an article by Johnny Ray Huston in the Bay Guardian.)
The experience is enhanced if you have a keen sense of hearing like Oliver Luby above or my friend Louisa Spier, both of whom kept saying, "Wow, do you hear that?" to mystified expressions from me and a few other old friends who are half-deaf in one ear or another.
There were speeches from the new head of the Art Commission, Luis Cancel, along with an apologetic speech from Mike Farrah, the head of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, telling us how much Mayor Newsom was moved by the sound sculpture but for reasons we didn't quite catch, he wasn't able to attend. Finally, Bill Fontana gave a short speech but he spoke in a mumble and the acoustics in the rotunda made it impossible to understand a word.
I returned to City Hall the following week to hear what the rotunda sounded like without the opening reception crowd, and it was possible to pick up quite a bit more of the sonic action. I ran into Mike Farrah who had a big grin on his face as he watched me trying to follow the sounds around. "Is this driving the people who work here nuts or do they like it?" I asked him.
"They seem to like it," he told me, "especially the bird sounds which tie into the nest sculptures going up across the street." The sonic installation will be continuing Monday through Friday until May 8th, and it's worth hearing just for the invisible birds from the oversized nests.