People travel from all over the world to experience the strange tranquility of Central Park — 843 acres of scenic nature in the middle of New York City. But this summer visitors have been accosted by sound as they pass through one of the park’s tunnels near the children’s zoo. Six speakers perched inside the tunnel play a loud but artful arrangement of sounds recorded around the park over the course of a year. Listeners can experience the entire sonic nature of the world’s most famous park in one sitting.
Each performance of John Morton’s sound installation, known as the “Central Park Sound Tunnel,” lasts 20 minutes and starts anew on the hour and half-hour with the chiming of the nearby Delacorte clock. Performances are all different, randomly generated by a computer program. The rich collage of sounds can include musicians playing in the park, penguins in the zoo, ducks in the pond, loud New Yorkers, snow being shoveled, leaves being raked and countless other noises. Sounds are often tied together with effects like delay, warbling, looping, and reversal adding a psychedelic element. The exhibit closes on September 10th.
Morton, an experimental composer known for his inventive work with music boxes, spent a year collecting recordings around the park for the exhibit. “I started to go out into the park and do all these surreptitious recordings without people knowing,” he says.
Morton aimed to gather as many interesting sounds as possible. He is particularly fond of the sounds recorded at last years Make Music New York, an annual daylong festival in which thousands of musicians, amateur and professional, emerge to make music around the city, many of them in Central Park. “I would say literally every 20 or 30 feet there was a musician doing something,” he says. “There was a kid sitting by the boat pond playing Beatles hits on his violin.” Indeed, one of the exhibits’ highlights is a charming rendering of “Eleanor Rigby” on the violin.
Sound installations are rare in Central Park and Morton’s is the first to make use of one of the parks hallowed tunnels. “I’d always wanted to do a tunnel exhibit,” says Clare Weiss, curator of public art programs for NYC Parks. “John really latched onto this idea that people act differently in tunnels — they shout and listen to echoes.” She adds that children respond to the exhibit right away, “They start jumping and zooming around,” she says.
The computer that randomly programs the performances is located in the attic of a zoo building nearby. Morton says that the random nature of the exhibit may seem simplistic, but it has meaning to it. “I was really interested in the sense of New York being a city of coincidence,” he says. “Where everything is so packed together that you have these coincidences, things overlapping each other. If you listen to it sometimes it’s mundane, but sometimes the coincidences are amazing and all you can say is ‘Wow.’ I wanted that to be the overlying principle of the piece.”