There's a symphony of sound playing this month at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. Composer and sound artist Abby Aresty recorded the natural sounds of the park over the course of a year — including a gurgling pond, a bicycle rolling by on a gravel path, bird song — and then mixed the recordings into seven compositions.
The pieces are played through speakers that have been installed at seven sites around the arboretum. The project is called Paths II: The Music Of Trees.
When she was recording for a piece called "Vine-Covered Cedar," the sound of a lawn mower in the distance went from an annoyance to an integral part of the scene, Aresty tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block.
"I really wanted to record some of the softer sounds, but as I stayed there and listened, the lawn mower began to move away, and it started pouring down rain," she says. "And then a chorus of birds began chirping, and it was this really amazingly musical moment."
Aresty says it's up to each visitor to decide how to listen to the compositions, which play from speakers temporarily installed in the trees and shrubs. In "Vine-Covered Cedar," she recommends listening twice — up close and then a bit farther away.
"The lawn mower part of the piece, I think, works really well at a distance," she says. "When it gets a little bit softer, you start to hear individual rain drops, which I've transformed into these pitched melodies."
Like the lawn mower that initially covered up other sounds, Aresty says interfering noises like a car driving by are an important part of the experience.
"The piece really does transform based on the ambient sounds," she says."[I wanted] to create this bridge between these man-made sounds and these natural sounds. So if a plane flies overhead, it becomes part of the piece — and you may miss part of what I brought to the space, but it's really this dialogue I'm interested in."
Aresty says she hopes her installation will inspire visitors to the arboretum to stop, slow down and listen for a change.
"I feel like so often when we go to the arboretum, we don't really have the time or take the time to stop and listen to some of the softer sounds," she says. "Even the act of bringing a piece — or a series of pieces — like this to the space, I hope, will encourage people to listen a little bit more carefully, even once the pieces are gone."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. There is a symphony of sound playing all this month at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. Composer and sound artist, Abby Aresty, recorded the sounds of the park.
(SOUNDBITE OF POND IN PARK)
BLOCK: She recorded a gurgling pond underwater using a hydrophone.
(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLE ROLLING BY ON A GRAVEL PATH)
BLOCK: A bicycle rolling by on a gravel path.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
BLOCK: Of course, birdsong and much more. Abby Aresty has taken her recordings, mixed them together and come up with seven compositions which are being played through speakers she's installed at seven sites around the arboretum. And she joins me now from Seattle to talk about her project. Abby, welcome to the program.
ABBY ARESTY: Thanks, Melissa.
BLOCK: Let's talk about one site that you focus on here. You call it Vine-Covered Cedar and you tell people who are going to the arboretum to sit underneath the vines in this little vine cave and they're going to hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWER, RAIN AND BIRDS)
BLOCK: OK, Abby, what are the sounds we're hearing there?
ARESTY: So, one day when I went to record at the arboretum, I was a little bit frustrated because there was a lawn mower and I really wanted to record some of the softer sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWER, RAIN AND BIRDS CHIRPING)
ARESTY: But, as I stayed there and listened, the lawn mower began to move away and it started pouring down rain...
(SOUNDBITE OF RAIN)
ARESTY: And then a chorus of birds began chirping and it was this really amazingly musical moment...
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)
ARESTY: And so I wanted to recreate that a little bit and transform the lawn mower sound a little bit and then work with some of the rain sounds. And birds, of course, are already there at the arboretum, so I didn't need to bring them in.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAWN MOWER, RAIN AND BIRDS CHIRPING)
BLOCK: So people are in the vine cave, how are they listening to this composition?
ARESTY: Well, they can listen in any number of ways. They could sit down beneath the vines, there's a nice little area that I like to sit down in, or they could walk around and explore it from more of a distance. The lawn mower part of the piece, I think, works really well at a distance. And then when it gets a little bit softer and you start to hear individual raindrops that get transformed into these pitched melodies, it begins to get really soft. So it's nice to listen a little bit closer and maybe sit down and listen there.
BLOCK: Is there any chance that when people are listening to these that it's going to get drowned out by, who knows, an airplane going overhead, a car driving by - that it might be lost to the listeners?
ARESTY: Well, it's really interesting, actually, the piece really does transform based on the ambient sounds. And that was my goal, actually - to create this bridge between these manmade sounds and these natural sounds. And so if a plane flies overhead, it becomes part of the piece and you may miss part of what I brought to the space. But it's really this dialogue that I'm interested in.
BLOCK: I wonder if there would be people who would say, you know, the sounds of the arboretum are rich and lush and perfect the way they are now. Why do we need a composer to mix them together and play them back?
ARESTY: That's a great question. The sounds of the arboretum, if you go and listen, I really do feel like there is a bit of a nature versus machine thing going on there. There's really a lot of noise pollution and I feel like so often when we go to the arboretum, we don't really have the time or take the time to stop and listen to some of the softer sounds. And I think that even the act of bringing a piece or series of pieces like this to the space, I hope, will encourage people to listen a little bit more carefully even once the pieces are gone.
BLOCK: Well, Abby Aresty, it's good to talk to you. Thank you so much.
ARESTY: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Abby Aresty's sound installation, "Paths II: The Music of Trees" was composed for her doctoral dissertation. It will be up at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle through the end of October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.