What Are Those Strange Sounds in the Air at the New Berkeley BART Plaza?

Chris Brown created sound art for the Downtown Berkeley BART plaza. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

The first thing East Bay educator and composer Chris Brown noticed about the new plaza atop downtown Berkeley's BART station wasn't the incandescent globe sculpture or LED stage lights but the speakers: eight of them in weatherproof casing, each mounted on the top of a 21-foot pole. "They aren't arranged in a circle or a square," he said. "They're facing inwards—so people will walk through a sound hallway.”

Brown is the first participant in a unique series of public sound art installations at the renovated transit plaza. He created an audio collage called Flow in Place from hours of field recordings—snippets of parties, performances, and unplaceable din—collected on three continents over the past 25 years. Each of the piece’s 140 fragments sweeps from one end of the eight-channel speaker array to the other; during a test last week, the ebb and flow felt enveloping, even pleasantly disorienting.

“I’ve thought about the installation as being analogous to an aquarium, where fish swim back and forth,” Brown said. “I also hope to see some commuters skipping.”

The plaza, which will also feature a Michael Christian sculpture and performances programmed by Taylor Street Production, debuts with a celebration this Thursday, Oct. 18. Flow in Place, the first of ten sound art commissions, will run 7am to 10pm for two months, followed by works from artists including Maggi Payne, Danny Clay, Edmund Campion and Jim McKee. Jennifer Lovvorn, the city's new chief cultural affairs officer, said the speakers and plaza are meant to be a platform for experimental music in the Bay Area, and to join the Berkeley Art Museum, UC Theater, and incoming Cube Space in cementing downtown Berkeley as an arts and culture destination.

Sound is a relatively undeveloped field of public art, but there are precedents: In New York, the amplified hum of a tunnel junction emanates from beneath an unmarked grate in Max Neuhaus’ Times Square. In San Francisco, Bill Fontana’s field recordings play from the side of the North Beach library branch in Sonic Dreamscape. Still, to Lovvorn's knowledge, there isn’t a permanent, eight-or-more-channel speaker system for revolving sound installations sponsored by another city in the United States.

BugID installed the sound system.
BugID installed the sound system. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED )

Plaza renovation began years ago, and Lovvorn said it occurred to Berkeley civic arts commissioners to retrofit the light poles with speakers accommodating sound art in perpetuity. "Rather than just doing a permanent sculpture at the site, the commissioners chose to create a platform to present a sound series," she said. The cost of the Meyer Sound speakers, custom installation and ongoing technical support by BugID and $4,000 stipends for commissioned artists is nearly $350,000.

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Although some businesses use sound (particularly classical music) to discourage loitering, Lovvorn strongly pushed back against concerns that the project is similarly motivated. "We hope it attracts people and encourages them to linger around the plaza," she said. "It'll actually be interesting to see if a culture arises around the speakers."

At the plaza last week, Lovvorn and Brown were waiting for a BugID technician to arrive and dial in the decibel level of Flow in Place. The piece is not “narrative,” Brown said, meaning it’s not meant for start-to-finish listening. He explained that he wants it to complement, not overpower, the area ambiance. “It should sound integrated into the environment, as if it’s being generated in real-time,” he said. Still, Brown also wanted to hear it cranked, at least once. So did Lovvorn. “It’s a construction site, we can be loud,” she said. “If anyone complains—it’s a sound check.”

Brown hopes to see some commuter skipping.
Brown hopes to see some commuters skipping. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED )

Brown recounted how, in the early 1990s, he mail-ordered a set of binaural microphones, which record sound the way it strikes a pair of human ears, and flew to Cuba to learn conga drumming on a grant from Mills College. (This year, Brown and Payne agreed to retire early from co-directing the school’s Center for Contemporary Music in order to offset budget cuts to the department.) He clipped the mics to his sunglasses. “The recordings here at the beginning, we’d just stepped off the plane and were having lunch on a plaza,” he said. “I felt like I was wearing an audio camera.”

As Brown paced across the plaza, still enclosed by chain-link fence, Flow in Place stirred one memory after another. “Now we’re in Bali,” he said, as the sound of pattering drums and voice mingled with engine noise from a bus passing on Shattuck Avenue. “This was recorded in the Marin Headlands, a performance in one of the old batteries.” He walked in circles, looking upwards. “There’s also some stuff from the tennis courts at UC Berkeley.”

Brown marveled at the speaker system, saying it’s comparable to something found at a college with an electronic music program. (Later that afternoon, Brown and the BugID technician blasted Neil Young for kicks.) For Flow in Place, he created an algorithm to randomize the order of the segments, and the length of each sample determines how it spatializes, or moves from one end of the plaza to the other; a worker passing by at the same time every day will encounter something different. “I thought about what kind of sounds or textures won’t dominate the public space, but will interact with it,” Brown said. “You can’t expect an audience’s full attention.”

“The horse clopping, that was a trip,” Lovvorn said.

“Horse clopping?” Brown smiled, looking confused. “I don’t think that’s in there.”

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