SCOTT SIMON, host:
For most city dwellers, the crrr-crrr of a broken doorway buzzer, the screech of a subway car, or bits of sidewalk conversation: excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, are the signature sounds of urban living. But for artist David Gunn they're the sonic elements of a New York City folksong.
(Sound bite of David Gunn urban sounds)
SIMON: I've been humming that tune all day. Mr. Gunn's interactive online exhibit is called Folksongs for the Five Points, it's a permanent installation on the website at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum there in New York. David Gunn is the museum's digital artist in residence. And he joins us from our studios in New York.
Mr. Gunn, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. DAVID GUNN (Digital Artist, Lower East Side Tenement Museum): It's great to be here.
SIMON: How does the museum work?
Mr. GUNN: Well, the basic idea behind the site is to allow visitors online to explore the sonic characteristics of the Lower East Side in New York. So there's what we call an interactive sound map, which has lots of different sounds recorded in the area, from field recordings of passing buses to local inhabitants and musicians. And visitors to the site can basically explore those sounds in their own way, and to find out a little bit more about the area and its history.
SIMON: Mm-Hmm. Now, you've got a seafood salesman.
(Sound bite of a Chinese seafood salesman)
SIMON: And over the decades, wouldn't it be fair to say that often the language in which the seafood salesmen are shouting changes palpably.
Mr. GUNN: The selling of seafood is one of those sort first entry-level jobs. It's one I assume that maybe you don't need English as a first language to do.
Mr. GUNN: And one of obviously related to the Tenement Museum, one of things we're looking at in this project is how different immigrant populations deal with coming to a new city. And getting their kind of, you know, how do they make their living? And so what we have on the site is actually an elderly Chinese gentleman on the edge of Chinatown, kind of selling all the things you would expect, the kind of strange and wonderful things from kind of crabs to all sorts of dried and unrecognizable seafoods.
SIMON: What do you think these sounds say to us about the way we live now, and about the extraordinary melting pot New York is?
Mr. GUNN: One of the things we're trying to do with this site is really encourage a more open sense of what culture is. And to get the sense that it's not a finished or complete idea. It's more something that's always in changes, always in flux. So every different visitor who goes to this site can remix their own elements of culture, involving different cultural groups, different types of sounds and perspective of the city to create their own sense of what the Lower East Side means.
SIMON: Create their own song, in a sense.
Mr. GUNN: Yes, exactly. I mean, I think one of the things we're really interested in is the idea of music as a carrier of cultural identity. So if you look, for example, at the evolution of the blues in America and the kind of turn of the century, that's all about two musical traditions; one being kind of African polyrhythmic tradition, and secondly kind of Western instruments combining to create something new that's become a really iconic moment in American history.
And this site tries to do something similar to that using different types of music, and allowing them to interact with each other to create something, a fusion, which is a new cultural identity.
SIMON: Mm-Hmm. As the artist, did you record all these sounds?
Mr. GUNN: Yes. Lots of days kind of walking around the Lower East Side with people staring at me strangely, as I put microphones into drains and manhole covers, and things like that.
SIMON: We want to play a section from a monologue that you have. Someone you call anonymous, seems to be an ex-con who's trying to turn his life around.
Unidentified Man (Resident, New York City): I start this Wednesday from parenting skills. It's six to eight at night, Monday nights once a week, 17 weeks. Then after that, they're going to give me custody for weekends, for three months. And I needed a discharge and after that he becomes legally mine, because I have a job as a messenger in the daytime.
Yeah, if I stay in town, I'll get arrested again. I know myself. It's really taken, it's an addiction. Money is an addiction. But it's hard being a messenger in the daytime in the winter. It's cold out here. But it's hard. I'm going to look for something else. I put in an application at Century 21 the other day.
SIMON: Who was this man? What can you tell us about him?
Mr. GUNN: This recording is actually, it's an unusual one for the site. What we did was we actually opened up the site to allow anyone who's in the area to contribute their own sounds. And this sound came from a guy who lives in the Lower East Side. And it's actually a recording he'd made in, I think the mid '90s. And it's all of a young boy of about 15 or 16.
And it really is a small snapshot into a different period in the history of the Lower East Side as a time when drug dealing and prostitution were mainly kind of the main elements of that area, rather than today, where there is a far more kind of complex intermingling of kind of affluent and less affluent people. At that time, it was a very different part of the world.
And that recording that guy had been taking, I think he'd just come out of jail the day when that recording was made. He'd been addicted to various drugs and was trying to find his out. But at the same time, was tremendously hopeful without really quite knowing how he could, how he could turn his life around. For me, it's one of the most powerful recordings that are on the site.
SIMON: How would somebody make their own song using the elements on your website?
Mr. GUNN: On the site, everyone has, there's a series of shorter and loops. And some of those are musical, and some of them are more field recording based things. And so people can choose the elements that they like the best and bring them together. So it's very much, it takes a lot from sort of the idea contemporary remixing that we have sort of with DJ culture and those types of things.
SIMON: For example, what kind of sounds can we choose from?
Mr. GUNN: We commissioned an artist called Victor Gama(ph), who came to the Tenement Museum and recorded some pieces of music. And you combine those, which kind of sound like harp music, almost, with field recordings. And one of my favorites is the sound of steam coming up through the subway. But when you listen to it, it's created a strange kind of percussion rhythm that almost sounds like a drum line. You've got a drumming accompaniment to Victor's harp music. But it's created by, you know, the sound of the steam and the manhole covers, rather than an actual drummer.
SIMON: What are some of the interesting songs you've heard, with kind of unexpected juxtapositions?
Mr. GUNN: I think whenever you put two recordings on top of each other, it really changes. It doesn't just add an extra layer. It changes how you perceive a sound. So there is, for example, an excerpt from a church service taken on the Lower East Side on the anniversary of September the 11th. And that speech in itself is very powerful. But when you start overlaying that with one of the, there's an excerpt of a jazz song; when you do that it creates this kind of upbeat and interesting, kind of inspiring feel to the piece.
But then again, if you take it, you put another piece behind it and, say, take one of Victor Gama's performances, it suddenly takes on a whole dynamic. There's a kind of a far more introspective affair.
Unidentified Man (Preacher): The Prophet Isaiah said our first concern will be for the poor. I don't think it's an accident that we have it this way. The poor...
Mr. GUNN: As the portrait continues over the next six months or so, I think we hope to see more and more people adding their own sound, so that it really becomes something owned by the community.
SIMON: David Gunn, speaking with us from our studios in New York. And to make your own folksong, you can come to npr.org and get directions there to their website.
Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Gunn.
Mr. GUNN: Thank you for your time.
SIMON: After talking with Mr. Gunn, I made my own folksong. Listen for the Second Avenue train, a street singer, and a seafood seller.
(Sound bite of urban sounds)