Sound installation at Phipps teaches visitors to pay attention

Most buildings are like fortresses, with thick glass and insulated walls to keep the elements out. But Abby Aresty has spent the last year trying to bring the wind and rain inside. 

The artist and composer has biked around Pittsburgh, recording the sounds of parks, side streets and riverbanks. She has woven these sounds together to create “Of Earth and Sun,” an installation at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes.

Ms. Aresty has finished her residency at Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry and moved to Iowa, but she plans to keep perfecting the piece from afar. Eventually, the soundscape will vary according to the weather, time of day and season, as determined by the weather station on the building’s roof. But already, the piece reminds visitors to pay attention to the city’s subtle music. 

Often, she says, we listen just long enough to determine where a sound is coming from, how it is being made. She wants us to listen more closely, to notice the changes in rhythm, pitch and volume. 

“I love listening to natural sound in this musical way,” she says. “There are so many different textures going on at the same time.”

To capture these textures, she visited Frick Park late at night for its chorus of katydids. She stood with her hand inside a garbage can to capture the drumming of rain on its metal lid. 

The recorded sounds are played through transducers, which transmit vibrations to the building’s windowpanes. When you listen to “Of Earth and Sun,” it can be hard to know what is part of the recorded piece and what is filtering in from outside. This blurring of boundaries is deliberate, says Ms. Aresty. 

At first, you try to distinguish the source of the sounds, looking for the transducers, comparing what you are hearing to what you are seeing outside. But then the sounds take on a life of their own. You begin to hear them in layers, the way gurgling water and birdsong form a kind of duet, the way gusts of wind crescendo and fade.

Visitors to the Center for Sustainable Landscapes can hear a recording of Ms. Aresty’s composition in the atrium space during regular business hours (9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Sunday). Phipps members can sign up for bi-weekly tours of the center’s BETA project, which includes the sound installation and other art (Registration: or 412-622-6915, ext. 6505). 

Ms. Aresty hopes visitors’ attention to the intricacies of sound continues even after they leave the center. If you are listening closely, the cicada‘‍s electrical buzz combines with a jackhammer, punctuated by the mewing of a catbird. You hear the changing tone of the wind as it ripples through leaves. Walking back out through Schenley Park, you can even pick out the tiny flap of a monarch butterfly’‍s wings as it flutters from one thistle to another. 

Eric Boodman was an intern for the Post-Gazette (Twitter @EricBoodman).


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