An East River Park Sound Walk in New York
My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
The sound of the city. It is so much a part of those who live there that we tend to stop taking note of it. The noise, the random sounds of traffic passing, and the birds who seem to sing much more loudly in an urban environment so that they can be heard over the loud, ambient rumble.
The East River Park is a public park on the lower east side of New York. It is walking distance from where I live in the East Village. There are efforts underway to demolish the existing park sometime in the coming years in order to build barriers and fortify the adjacent neighborhoods against oncoming floods due to climate change. This occurred to people during Super Storm Sandy, which showed that the area’s resilience against rising sea levels was inadequate. At that time, the rising water surge all the way over to Avenue B where basements were flooded and vehicles parked on the streets were literally shoved along by the action of flood waters. But changing the park into a fortification has its’ critics. At this point in time, the plan is still being negotiated.
Which got me to thinking about the East River Park. If it is transformed into a concrete barrier against flooding, it will no longer be a sanctuary for the locals, their pets, and mother nature. Gone will be the ball fields, soccer fields, tennis courts tucked away just before the Williamsburg Bridge. No longer could one go there to enjoy the sounds of water lapping into one of several manmade inlets made to tame the waves of passing ferries. No more folks from nearby Chinatown practicing Tai Chi and exercising. No more people walking their dogs, no more people. So, I thought I needed to capture the experience of the East River Park by doing a sound walk.
In late June, I did just that. I made a single recording, about 35 minutes long, with a handheld audio recorder as I walked to the park and followed a path around it to the far southern end where the park meets the Williamsburg Bridge. You can hear the elevated trains adding to the racket several times during this recording, but especially near the end when I pass by the bridge. You will hear all of the sound mentioned above and more. Nature’s mix of sounds, such as people walking, exercising, playing tennis while the elevated train passes by on the Williamsburg Bridge and the random sound of passing cars on the FDR Freeway are all as they occurred without any editing. The clapping sounds heard twice are those of an Asian Man exercising. I passed him twice as I circled around the tennis court area.
Once home, I took the recording of the sound walk and rerecorded it twice by playing it through a transducer, a technique I learned while working with John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein on an installation a group of us created based on David Tudor’s rainforest. I tried to transducer attached to a variety of objects and settled on an antique gasoline container and a gallon ceramic pickling crock. I recorded those two instances in entirety and then mixed them with the unadulterated recording for the audio sandwich presented here. the only editing I did was to remove spots of incidental noise such as my fiddling with the recorder's wind shield. The three works are synced-up but each mode of playback selectively filters out certain sounds and substitutes other sonorities that are characters of the resonating materials through which they are played. This sound walk is about 35 minutes long.
That very same weekend, I found a used record that spoke to me in a sort of opposite of the urban-sounds-kind-of-way. It is called “The Swamp in June” and consists of a field recording of a swamp. This charming disc also includes instructions, from 1964, as to how to make a proper field recording. The LP was recorded in Joe Ranger’s swamp in North Pomfret, Vermont by Peter Kilham. The liner notes describe the sounds as follows:
“On this recording you will hear the sounds of swamp citizens ranging from the buzzing of flies through the pained groaning of pickerel frogs to the mewing of baby beavers in their lodge, and the startling splashes of their parents. Birds provide the melody in the background, while insects add rhythm and continuity. The narrator identifies the sounds, and comments on swamp life on one side of the record. The bizarre swamp chorus is heard alone on the reverse side.”
At less than ten minutes into the swamp recording, I also played side one of the Record Club of America Stereo Systems Test Record from 1974, providing reference tones, white noise, frequency sweeps and a cartridge tracking check. These sounds are all electronic and so should be distinguishable from the swamp.
An East River Park Sound Walk in New York
1. East River Park Sound Walk, New York City, June 26, 2021. The sound of a single recording made while circling the park. It is heard simultaneously on three tracks: 1) the unadulterated recording; 2) the recording played through a transducer and an antique gasoline can; and 3) the recording played through a transducer and a one-gallon ceramic preservation crock. Each of the versions has its own character of sound that highlights different frequency bands.
2. Peter Kilham and Alfred L. Hawkes, Side 2 of The Swamp In June (1964 Droll Yankees Inc.). Monophonic LP. Recording by Peter Kilham, narration (side 1) by Alfred L. Hawkes. Recorded on Joe Ranger's swamp, North Pomfret, Vermont. From the liner notes: “On this recording you will hear the sounds of swamp citizens ranging from the buzzing of flies through the pained groaning of pickerel frogs to the mewing of baby beavers in their lodge, and the startling splashes of their parents. Birds provide the melody in the background, while insects add rhythm and continuity. The narrator identifies the sounds, and comments on swamp life on one side of the record. The bizarre swamp chorus is heard alone on the reverse side.”
3. RCOA Stereo Systems Test Record, side 1 (1974 Yorkshire Records). Art Direction, Lucie Leniston; Producer, Harold L. O'Neal Jr. From the liner notes: “The Ultimate High-Fidelity Test Record.” Side 1 includes: Reference Tone 1kHz; White Noise For Channel Identification; Left & Right; Channel Identification; Channel Balance Test; Left Channel Frequency Test 50, 100, 200, 400, 700, 1,000, 2,000, 4,000, 6,000, 8,000, 10,000; Spot Checks; 30Hz - 2kHz Sweep; Right Channel Frequency Test (Same As Left Channel); Cartridge Tracking Test (Tone Bursts With Specific Frequency With Noise); Anti-Skating Test.
Background music: A mix of Shirley Bassey singing “Light My Fire” (1970 United Artists Records) and city sounds recorded by Thom Holmes, including sounds of the handball court at First Avenue and Houston St. and the sounds of the fountain area behind Village View apartments on First Avenue.
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.