'Sonic Babylon' sound gardens wed technology, storytelling around the world
Professor of Music Bill Duckworth
Posted: February 16, 2010
LEWISBURG, Pa. — On the grounds of the National Film and Sound Archive in the capital city Canberra and three other locations in Australia, visitors with a laptop or digital device may tune in to an array of local sounds ranging from musical performances to the calls of native birds.
The sound gardens, created by Bucknell University music Professor Bill Duckworth and his wife, media artist Nora Farrell, Class of '88, are part of an interactive art project dubbed "Sonic Babylon," which soon will reach North America and Europe in a dozen more "gardens," each with its own local signature.
"The intent is to surround the world with sounds and music in a defined space," said Duckworth, who is on sabbatical in Australia this year. "Within that space you can come in with a mobile device and plant sounds. The sounds range from natural sounds to people telling stories and making music. What you hear depends on where you stand in the garden. It is very much alive."
The first permanent sound garden was planted at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. Other sound gardens have been planted at the Noosa Regional Gallery in Tewantin, at the Red Note Café in the South Bank Parklands of Brisbane, and for the On Edge festival in Cairns. Additional sound gardens are planned for children's hospitals and churches, and a solar-powered garden is in the works for the Noosa Everglades.
"Right now, we're exploring the question: What kinds of sounds do you put in a children's hospital?" Duckworth said.
Visitors need a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or digital device such as an iPhone or iPod Touch to participate in the sound gardens, Duckworth said. Once signed in, they may use sound garden software to plant "flowers" or "ground cover," or "prune" sounds others have left behind by raising or lowering the volume and adjusting the repetition. Wireless nodes detect where listeners are positioned, and the sounds vary depending on the visitors' location. Most gardens have a range of two to five city blocks.
Most of the sounds are less than a minute long, Duckworth said. Their frequency of repetition varies from constantly to once a month. A local "gardener" also monitors the sounds to ensure they are appropriate and do not violate copyright.
"Particularly for the opening the challenge is to fine-tune a garden so it sounds as good as a piece of music," Duckworth said. "It starts out as a composed piece and transforms into a musical collage."
The sound gardens are rich with local sounds, Duckworth said. The ability to interact with the garden is part of the appeal, but visitors seem to respond most to sounds they know and recognize.
Duckworth and team are working on building an "ubergarden" to make the sound gardens available online.
Duckworth and Farrell, who is the owner of the software design company Virtual Instruments, began working on the Internet on virtual and interactive music in 1997. They have worked on projects in the United States, Japan and Australia since 2002.
The couple developed a three-act opera, "iOrpheus," that was performed in 2007 on iPods, mobile phones and laptops in the streets, parks and promenades of South Bank in Brisbane, originally the site for Expo '88. Park visitors used digital devices to interact with the opera, which is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. An excerpt of the opera is available on YouTube and at http://www.iOrpheus.com or www.billduckworth.com.
Duckworth and Farrell also launched the Cathedral project, which weaves together music from participants around the world in an interactive work of music and art. Begun in 1997, it is the first interactive work of music and art on the web. Using the virtual instrument called the PitchWeb, website visitors could perform online with each other and with The Cathedral Band, musicians who gave periodic live performances from venues worldwide.
Duckworth, known as the founder of Postminimalism, is a theorist and composer of more than 100 works including his "Time Curve Preludes," which have been performed on five continents. He was named one of six Master Teachers in America in 1983 by the College Music Society.
A 1992 Rolling Stone magazine profile called him a "hip, bright, innovative" teacher who "opens up worlds" students never knew existed. He is the author of seven books including two textbooks on music theory. Duckworth has been teaching at Bucknell since 1973.
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