Sculpting a New York Park in Sound

Take a walk through New York City's Madison Square Park, and you might be surprised by the sounds reverberating through it. Bird songs, bell chimes and traffic sounds all interwoven to form the latest creation of sound artist Bill Fontana.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This week, Madison Square Park, a six-acre green space in the middle of Manhattan, is full of the cascading sounds of birds and bells. It's a sound sculpture. And NPR's Margot Adler went to check it out.

MARGO ADLER: The sounds of birdsong from all over the world, mixed with the occasional chime of bells from the old Metlife tower, seem to come - well, it's unclear where they come from.

Marita Cherco Roscaya(ph) is standing in the park by a baby carriage carrying her five-week-old granddaughter.

Ms. MARITA CHERCO ROSCAYA: I cannot see the birds. Where is it?

ADLER: Where do you think they are? Do you think they're real or do you think it's a recording?

Ms. ROSCAYA: No, it's real. Of course, it's real. I think it's real.

ADLER: Her husband disagrees. A couple of hundred species of birds migrate through the city's parks in the spring and fall, but in small parks like these the sound of birds is often drowned out by traffic noise.

Enter Bill Fontana, sound artist, and his latest project, "Panoramic Echoes."

Mr. BILL FONTANA (Sound Artist, "Panoramic Echoes"): There are four parabolic speakers, which are these large spotlight-size speakers of the rooftops of...

ADLER: Can we see them?

Mr. FONTANA: You could see the ones - the one in the 14th floor balcony of the New York Life Building. It's just behind the tree.

ADLER: Fontana didn't like the idea of placing speakers in the park. He wanted something different, something more mysterious. And he loved the idea of bringing back to life the chimes in the old Metlife bell tower, which had been silent for seven years.

(Soundbite of bell)

ADLER: The bells in the tower ring every 15 minutes. Fontana sends the sound of the chimes to the four speakers and a computer program creates a sense of cascades. Sounds engineer Tony Razello(ph).

Mr. TONY RAZELLO (Sound Engineer): It appears as if when the chimes are playing there's a bell on every side of you, but it's actually coming from the speakers and then there's a spatial element, acoustically, when you hear the bells about 47 stories above your head.

ADLER: There are minutes of silence and street noise and then the birds begin again. Artist Bill Fontana says it's more magical that way.

Mr. FONTANA: If the sound was going constantly, it would - maybe can be irritating or seem artificial.

ADLER: Whether real or artificial, almost everyone likes it. Zuni Akroni(ph), a visitor from Germany is sitting on a bench and writing in a notebook. Manny Colero(ph) is standing nearby.

Ms. ZUNI AKRONI (Tourist): I hear this birds singing. And yeah, it isn't real, is it?

ADLER: It's a recording.

Ms. AKRONI: Yes. It's great.

Mr. MANNY COLERO (Resident, New York City): You know, when I initially heard the birds, I'm looking around thinking spring is definitely in the air. So I was very happy. It actually put a smile on my face.

ADLER: The sound sculpture will be in the park or around the park or on top of the park until the heart of spring, May 1st.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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