Little wooden stereo boxes hang from bare trees in the Center for the Arts Green, as though taking the place of forgotten bird nests. Sporadically they sing, or perhaps the birds tweet, and a melody springs up between the trees. To artist and musician Gabe Greenberg ’14, these are the spontaneous songs of tree chimes, and comprise his interactive sound installation music thesis, “Chime Tree.”
The project was inspired by “The Singing Oak,” an installation in New Orleans’ City Park. It is colloquially referred to as the Chime Tree and, true to its name, is large oak tree covered in chimes. Greenberg was struck by the chance musical patterns created by the wind and strived to emulate these concepts in his own interpretation of the “The Singing Oak.”
The installation itself is composed of several aspen speakers hung on trees and connected via wires to a generator box. Within the box is Greenberg’s computer, which runs multiple programs that work together to create Internet interfaces. There is a URL that visitors can visit on either their computers or smartphones, where they can choose from a number of widgets with different sounds and effects. Once chosen, the effects play and move around among the many speakers. The speakers are an analogue to the chimes of “The Singing Oak.”
Greenberg hoped that audience members’ abilities to choose the sounds would facilitate their engagement with the piece.
“I was trying to do something that similarly created a space that people could feasibly spend time in and interact with what they were hearing more directly,” Greenberg said. “I was trying to take the idea that people naturally interact with what they’re hearing by internally and conceptually constructing it into anything they want it to be.”
This approach focused not only on auditory and visual senses, but also on the importance of physical interaction.
“With this they have a more tactile and direct way, if they choose, to interact with what’s being played,” Greenberg said.
Audience members were not just touching screens; rather, some people violently shook their phones or pulsed them to a rhythm in an attempt to alter
the melody created. It was difficult to tell which sound bite was attributed to whom, but regardless, “heys!” and “yays!” could be heard throughout the crowd when people recognized their musical contributions.
Sometimes, the system directly responded to the signals given by URLs and cell phones, but sometimes it was difficult to tell. Lena Meyerson ’16 noted this ambiguity.
“You don’t actually know which parts of it are functioning,” Meyerson said. “It’s hard to tell if it’s actually working or not. It appears that certain aspects aren’t making noises, but maybe they are just making sounds that we can’t hear.”
This created a sort of anonymity within the crowd: no individual was the singular artist or composer. This communal experience was Greenberg’s intention for the project.
“I wanted to do something that wasn’t all about me and wasn’t as fleeting as a concert,” Greenberg said. “I wanted to make something that was more of a shared experience.”
Jackie Soro ’14, a housemate of Greenberg’s, was seeing the installation in its entirety for the first time.
“I’ve been hearing this stuff every single night at home,” Soro said. “It’s so cool to hear it outside.”
Part of what made the experience so different for Soro was the sculptural component of the installation. It was not only an examination of music and composition, but also the visual arts. Meyerson described this commingling of the visual and auditory facets of the installation.
“It’s a classical amalgamation of 90-degree angles and hilly curves,” Meyerson said. “I like the aesthetic of it.”
Soro noted that the installation inspired a strong connection with the environment.
“It’s really connected to nature,” Soro said. “It doesn’t really look out of place in the trees because of the naturalistic wood even though there are wires running on the ground. You can even hear it vibrating on the ground.”
Sometimes, we turn to nature to escape noise and technology. We try to escape phones, computers, and the dreaded URL. Chime Tree introduced its viewers to a world where these factors are not barriers to but rather components of a contemplative environment in which nature and technology mingle to create a new hybrid that is equal parts organic and man-made. What was once a computer-generated sound becomes a chime, a birdcall, a car horn, or a person’s whisper. Suddenly, all of these sounds combine to form one melody.
Meyerson reiterated the accidental and communal qualities of the piece.
“There’s an honesty in [it],” Meyerson said. “I think that it’s a really beautiful metaphor.”
From Greenberg’s candid introduction to the visible wires connecting the speakers, this piece embraced faults and defied false façades. It spoke to the honesty of human interaction, with nature, technology, and between one another.