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Garden Art Installation

Artist Hugh Livingston
Garden Art Installation

Hugh Livingston in front of The Pool of ‘Bamboo Counterpoint.’

Dr. Hugh Livingston, a cellist, composer, and sound-installation artist, spent seven weeks in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens this spring creating a unique sound sculpture. Situated in the Lovers’ Lane Pool, The Pool of “Bamboo Counterpoint” consists of twelve speakers mounted on clear acrylic pipes that play a soundscape of melodic piano and nature recordings from the gardens—birdsong and the rustling of wind in the bamboo. In addition to hearing about Livingston’s inspiration for the piece, we also wanted to learn about the process of creating his installation and other current projects.

Hugh Livingston: In advance of the installation this spring, I visited last July for a garden tour and brainstorming session. There were a variety of opinions about where to locate the installation, whether it should be part of the central environment of the garden, in a spot where visitors experience it as soon as they arrive, or in a corner of the garden that you might not visit. And we decided that [the latter] was the best way to go. Some people are going to miss it.  Not everybody’s going to find his or her way down the steps. So there is that risk that it’s something not every single visitor will see. But also, if somebody wants to seek it out and sit there on a quiet day, then that possibility is available.

When I first looked at the space, I saw the tiered seating and wondered, “Why is there a pool of water where a performance stage should rightly be?” From that, I developed the idea of representing an opera, a history that never happened. To me, The pipes are arranged to look in different directions like twelve characters in search of the opera that they’re supposed to be singing in. I recorded sounds from the gardens to give them their voices and to echo the surrounding environment.

A computer is programmed to mix the many different sounds, but with a master overlook to the whole thing. It’s improvising, but within certain aesthetic guidelines. So it’s changing all the time. I spent a lot of time thinking about foreground and background and about which sounds belong together and which ones should be heard separately. The computer has all of the different possibilities, and it’s rolling the dice and making decisions. There are thousands of sound recordings that it mixes, but there are 180 different variables, determining how dense one section will be, how loud it will be, the speed of the sound. . . . After I made the software, I would just sit there for hours and listen and tweak the numbers here and there until I really struck something that I liked.

The garden opens to the public at 2:00 p.m., so during the installation process we would usually plan to have any drilling or sawing cleaned up by that time. And I would sometimes play around with the sound when the garden was open because it’s complicated—you want to just be alone and try out your ideas, but then you also want to get a sense of how people react to it. So, sometimes I would work very early in the morning when it was cooler and then come back at 2 and just sit on the bench and watch people and hear their conversations. I constantly changed it. The whole thing is this huge process of listening—you want to see what works and what doesn’t. . . . So I constantly added new sounds, recorded new things, and mixed them in.

[In terms of my other work,] all of my performances and most of my sound pieces are outdoors. I just did an opera on a river in Sonoma, in California wine country. That was a really beautiful experience: people got to walk in the woods for about half a mile, maybe a little farther, and the singers were all over—up in the trees, in canoes on the water, even instrumentalists on opposite riverbanks. There were all sorts of things just coming from unexpected places.

[The Dumbarton Oaks installation allowed me] to make something that was very sculptural. I had been working toward that with various other ideas about site-specific work. I wanted people to come and photograph the sculpture and later, with the image as a trigger, to remember the sound.

The Pool of “Bamboo Counterpoint” will be available for viewing in the garden through the 2014–15 season.

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