Alley Tones | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Alley Tones

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Many still recall that back when you needed something more palpable than just data to play a recorded song, makers of breakfast cereal briefly and incongruously got into the act. Occasionally, your box of Sugar-Blasted Oat Crunchies would have an actual record pressed into the back that you could cut out, put on the record player, and listen to in all of its scratchy, skipping glory. Those promotional dollars would probably better have been spent on sogginess-prevention research. On a larger scale, though, the idea of using music to enliven a large, square container still has plenty of potential. If architecture is frozen music, then why not use music to soften architecture?

 

  

This is the premise of V/24/7/365, a collaborative sound-and-architecture installation in Strawberry Way near Grant Street, Downtown, by artist Jeremy Boyle and architect Gerard Damiani. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, with financial support from the Heinz Endowments, sponsored the project in the narrow but well-walked alley as one of a number of different fine-art-based enhancements. To everyone's credit, the Boyle/Damiani project was selected in a process that included 50 entries from designers nationally.

 

The street is actually historically and architecturally very rich, with a couple rare antebellum structures, as well as James T. Windrim's wonderful Guastavino-tile-adorned walkway in the old AT&T building and Henry Hornbostel's brilliantly eccentric Smithfield United Church. Banning cars from this street would be a real improvement.  The PDP rightly assessed, though, that this particular eastern block is especially dark and unappealing, with the brick backside of the Reed Smith building on one side and the unpleasantly imposing pinstriped side of AT&T's later, postwar structure on the other.

 

Despite the palpable desire to do so, "We quickly realized that it would be almost impossible to bring more light into the space," Damiani commented. Sunlight really falls only on the uppermost of AT&T's stories. Instead, the collaborators developed a piece that reconstitutes the sunlight and plays with it compositionally and conceptually. A solar cell high up on the AT&T building catches sunlight (sometimes) and acts as a power source, connecting to batteries and a computer inside the AT&T building. The wiring carries the energy down as form, electricity and sound. The final destination of the wires is a series of small round speakers mounted at street level, alternating with pre-existing light fixtures closer to pedestrian level. The sunlight doesn't melt the architecture, but it does make music.

 

Though not trained as a musician, Boyle is experiencing increasingly widespread success with artworks whose medium is sound. In this case, the artist developed the audible part of the piece from an analysis and reconstitution of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." He determined what harmonic relationships in the piece defined time of year and converted that information into "a sort of compositional logic." From there he developed a computer program to "take the information from Vivaldi's composition and convert it into 365 movements," he explains. These change subtly from hour to hour and day to day. On a cloudy fall day, the sound is pleasantly jingly and just a little foreboding in a pleasant, cinematic kind of way.

 

Between the unobtrusive nature of the cable and the low volume of the sound, Damiani admits, "Most people might not even notice the first time through."  But Boyle explains, "We thought a lot about who the audience was. It's people who walk down that street every day." Instead of feeling constantly dreary in a dark, narrow block, they will gradually notice a change from day to day, as the different sounds underscore each day's changes. "It's meant to be subtle," he adds. Still Damiani emphasizes that when they posted a mock-up of their explanatory plaque, "everybody would stop to read it." That just proves that the light touch and intellectual approach are successful in generating interest in the space and cultivating a greater appreciation for public art. This is undoubtedly a welcome addition for the starched legal professionals and telecommunications executives who might otherwise scurry inattentively out of their corporate high-rises and through this space.

 

In this case, music, along with its architectural armature, can indeed give better taste to the dry flakes inside the big box.

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