If you stand on East 1st Street in Manhattan these days, just below 2nd Avenue, you might hear the sounds of Beverly Hills. It might sound like someone’s taking a pee, or you might hear geographically inappropriate birds — you might hear traffic, even when the street is free of it. And you might hear that most emblematic of Los Angeleno sounds: the mechanistic noise of a leaf blower. The sounds emanate from a storefront gallery at 34 East 1st Street. That’s the home of the gallery Audio Visual Arts. Between noon and 6pm from Thursday through Sunday each week, there’s a small speaker outside the gallery that plays Exterior Sounds.
Exterior Sounds is the self-explanatory name of an ongoing series of installations. The latest such sonic installation is by Scott Sherk, head of the art department at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Sherk’s exhibit takes the equally self-explanatory title “23 Fountains of Beverly Hills.” It consists of brief segments of audio recorded at water fountains in the famed Los Angeles neighborhood. (The audio has been made available for a broader audience by the netlabel stasisfield.com: MP3.)
The sound in Sherk’s piece isn’t just of fountains — or of leaf blowers. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear voices, cars (there’s an especially fine moment when the white-noise rush of traffic is supplemented by the electronic ping of a truck backing up), footsteps, even what sounds like Frank Sinatra singing from someone’s nearby stereo.
If field recording is like photography, then the manner in which a photographer frames reality within the rectangle of an image provides a model for how a field recordist — or, to use a term gaining favor, a phonographer — frames the sound of the world captured on a recording device. In Sherk’s “23 Fountains of Beverly Hills” that framing comes in several forms. As with any field recordings the frame is primarily a matter of when a track begins and when it ends — that is to say, what sonic document of the real world is determined to be of sufficient value to be culled and presented to an audience. It’s an example of curation as art production.
Sherk’s effort here includes additional acts of framing. There is the bite-sized nature of those 23 fountains, each heard in its own brief segment. Then there is the piece’s title, which can be read as ironic, but needn’t be. And then, in Manhattan’s East Village, at the AVA storefront (pictured below), there is the physical context: the experience of a listener standing in one urban environment but hearing another.
More information at the website of Audio Visual Arts, audiovisualarts.org, from which the above photo is borrowed. “23 Fountains of Beverly Hills” runs through February 5, 2010; it opened on January 15. More on Sherk at thethirdbarn.org.