“I listen to a place, record its sounds and then look for the empty spaces. I put the music in the gaps,” said Hugh Livingston, a sound artist, explaining his new sonic landscape commissioned by Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. His approach fits with the “niche hypothesis,” which posits that all species in a biological environment seek out their own frequency to communicate in so they don’t compete with each other. Like other living things, Livingston said, “I don’t compete with nature. I complement.”
For his new installation, which is called The Pool of ‘Bamboo Counterpoint,’ Livingston miked the landscape, capturing sounds night after night to use in his sound piece. He discovered “sirens are going all night; air traffic is continuous.” He also recorded parts of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto on an old Steinway at the museum. There are notes from a bamboo flute, given Lover’s Lane Pool, the site of the installation, is shielded by bamboo.
The sound is piped through 12 black speakers set on acrylic tubes in the pool, which has been dyed black. Livingston said the tubes refer to “organ pipes.”
The speakers are controlled by an “engine,” an algorithm running through some 600-800 variables. The algorithm separates the sound into 12 independent channels or fragments, creating “swirls and eddies” of sound when they come together for the listener. “The fragments are echoed, like they are spinning in another directios. It creates the feeling of three dimensional space. It’s like two pianists improvising off of each other.”
The engine creates patterns but they don’t repeat. “Some segments are contemplative, with simple drops of water, while others are dense and active.” The overall effect is like a “chorus milling about backstage at an Italian opera house. Something is about to happen but it’s not quite clear what it is.”
Livingston said the sounds from the installation also interact with the landscape, with humidity, light, and wind.
Still, he believes his works are “no substitute for nature. This is just like a sculpture to be experienced in the landscape.” If anything, Livingston says, his goal is to get us to listen more closely, so “we hear other things elsewhere in the garden.”
Listen to The Pool of ‘Bamboo Counterpoint.’
Also, check out Livingston’s homage to the birds of Russian River:
And his Russian River opera: