Banging on Steel Panels: the sound design for Agora

Agora rehearsal, late August
McCarren Park Pool circa 1937

McCarren Park Pool circa 1937

The first word that comes to mind when I think of Noemie LaFrance’s “Agora” is BIG. It was staged in a 50,000 square foot abandoned swimming pool. McCarren Park Pool, designed by Robert Moses, was opened in 1936, and with a total capacity of 6800 simultaneous swimmers(!), was the largest of 10 pools scattered around New York City. The pool was closed for repairs in 1983, but never reopened due to the protests of local yahoos who were concerned that the pool would attract “undesirables”.

So there it sat for 20 years. Enter Noemie, who is both a keen visionary and an entrepreneurial force, to cut through the red tape in short order and stage her latest site specific work in the world’s largest abandoned swimming pool. Her previous two projects were site specific works as well. “Noir” was staged in a parking garage, with the audience seated inside cars, and the Bessie-winning “Descent” was staged upon the spiraling staircase of a clock tower, the audience peering down over the edge into the infinity below.

My initial connection to this project came through Brooks Williams, the proprietor of Harmonic Ranch and my boss & collaborator at that time. Brooks is best described as equal-parts visionary, composer, and wizard. I have literally seen him “fix” things by pointing his fingers at them and shooting out invisible beams. Brooks had composed the scores for several of Noemie’s previous works. For Agora, we shared many of the compositional duties; Brooks served mainly as Head Dude, Noemie Liason, and provided the Magical Embellishments, and I was the Field Recordist, Pool Specialist, and Creator of Primary Sound Beds.

The arch

The arch

Generally when I am collaborating, I like to adopt elements of my collaborator’s own creative processes and use them for the project; I feel that this strengthens what I call the the “holistic aesthetic” of the project and often creates interesting, albeit subtle, interconnections. This could involve, say, delving into the colloborator’s specific medium, ie. doing some painting if I am working with a painter, or simply picking key themes or phrases given to me by the collaborator and seeing where they take me. For Agora, I knew that the site-specific element was key, and that I was going to need to spend a lot of time at the pool and collect sounds that were specific to that space.

It was really a simple matter of just being there with a recording device, and exploring. One of the first things I did was to walk around and look for any object in the space that would make an interesting sound by being banged upon by a closed fist. There were a number of steel plates covering defunct windows and doors on the various structures, which produced massive booming, resonant taiko-like tones.

There are always process-oriented rules with a project like this, and one of the staple site-specific rules I came up with was that any sound had to be produced strictly with objects that came from within the space. I could, say, whack a steel plate with a stick, but only if that stick was found within the confines of the pool. Thus, some of the sounds created were specifically dependent upon what objects were found.

Agora - Wet Feet and Structurepercussion excerpt

Some configurations included:
- Ambient noise of nearby children playing, recorded through different lengths of found pipe
- Pebbles falling into skimmer
- Flagpole struck by found metal objects
- Abandoned beach chair and other large objects thrown down side of diving pool
- rhythmic footsteps sloshing in standing rainwater from recent storm

Agora - Skateboard Excerpt
Pool bottom

Pool bottom

By far the most interesting naturally occurring noise involved a number of abandoned spraypaint cans that would roll about in the wind. This resulted in some very hollow, deep rolling sounds as well as some nice plinks & tinkles coming from the small metal ball moving around inside the cans. I made extensive use of these sounds in the “skateboard” sequence.

Another unexpected sound came from a small cat who appeared to be living inside the diving pool! The diving pool was located at the south end of the main pool, considerably smaller and about 15 feet deep, and was kind of magical because there was actually a small forest growing inside of it. When Noemie heard the recordings of the cat offering his friendly mewling greetings, she was very enthusiastic about including them in the score, and they made their way into the “invocation”. I was quite alarmed later when I showed up one day and found that, for safety reasons, they had completely filled in the entire diving pool with dirt, all the way to the top. I wonder whatever happened to that cat.

Agora - Invocation

We went through a number of brainstorming sessions to determine exactly how the score would be presented in the space, and decided to mix the score in surround sound, with 5 channels of audio placed around the perimeter of the pool. This would allow not only for interesting, discreet placement of various sounds, but also for some very interesting movement of sounds, churning around and sweeping back and forth across the pool. We were mixing in a very small room and honestly had no idea what it was going to sound like being blasted out over a 50,000 square foot empty swimming pool. It wound up sounding fairly massive and incredible, and I was impressed that we were actually able to “place” a sound in a fairly specific area. My favorite Moving Sound Moment took place during the pre-show music, wherein Appalachian banjo music and WWII battle sounds, 180 degrees apart, slowly encircled the pool over a five minute period.

With high brick walls and a massive arch on the west side of the pool, we were concerned that there would be some weird things happening with echoes. Ultimately, it wasn’t deemed to be an issue, especially considering that most of the score was rather atonal and ambient. The loudest and most rhythmic element of the score was the drum&bass beat for the “skateboard” segment; interestingly, the sound bouncing back off of the arch was delaying by almost exactly a quarter note, staying in time with the beat. Ah, synchronicity.

The arch, mosque in background
The arch, mosque in background

I was really fascinated by the “cellular” composition of the choreography; the idea that there were, in fact, many smaller performances going on at any given time in different areas of the pool. These mini-performances would reference each other, cross paths, consolidate back into a whole, split back up again into mini-performances. To this end, there were two types of tickets sold. One ticket was a “stationary” ticket, which bought you a seat. The other was a “roaming” ticket, which simply bought you entry to the pool area, and you were free to walk about, interactively customizing your experience as seen fit. The pool was just so BIG; the performance that you experienced on any given night depended upon where you were sitting or standing.

Obviously the whole “agora” concept was a key element in Noemie’s aesthetic; the public meeting space, the movement and activities of people in public areas, travel and interaction of people with each other and with urban architecture. Brooks and I assembled quite a few recordings of ethnic music, varying languages, and sounds from public spaces around the world. Some of these made their way into the “invocation”, the sound collage that started off the show.

Astoria Pool - Tri-Boro Bridge in background
Astoria Pool – Tri-Boro Bridge in background

Noemie wanted some actual pool sounds, and one day we took a field trip up to Astoria Pool. This was really kind of wild, because the pool there (one of the other 10 WPA pools opened up in 1936) is nearly identical to McCarren Park Pool… except that it was still fully functional, full of water and people! We spent the afternoon there, watching, listening, recording.  A little bit like stepping back in time.

In his review in the NY Times, John Rockwell said the score was: “aesthetically compelling and technically superb, a mixture of sounds and musical snippets that shaped the performance and indeed the entire space.” Whoa. But, indeed, it was the space that shaped the sounds.

- Read more about the history of McCarren Park Pool

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