Working in a small garden on Potrero Hill in San Francisco I am thinking about sounds because of a thoughtful response I got from Hugh Livingston to an email sent to designers on the roster of the Late Show Gardens asking what they were up to. He wrote back that he, unlike the other designers, was not a visual designer but a “sound designer who creates experiences for the outdoors…The systems I design surround the listener in a slowly ebbing ring of natural and instrumental sounds…which creates a perceived cocoon of insulating sound.” He added, “I make what is already there a little bit more real.”
Of the senses, hearing probably factors in least when thought is given to garden design. Until this morning have I never paid attention to sound in this particular garden, which once had Zen-like simplicity before it became this big-leafed bawd, which is what my gardens often do.
What do I hear this moment? A mockingbird soliloquizing, a plane mumbling overhead, a motorcycle farting, the black bamboo whispering, the trickle from the bowl-shaped fountain. (I’m probably imagining the bamboo.) The radio of the car across the street is playing loud a Chuck Berry goodie. Even so, San Francisco can be a surprisingly quiet city. The “cocoon of insulating sound” for the girl walking up the hill across the street is created by her iPod. Real silence would drive us all nuts.
I don’t have an iPod. My friend John encourages me to get one, saying it would enhance my work day, but I tell him I like to hear ambient sounds, even as I acknowledge I’ve gotten hard of hearing.
I imagine a “soundscape” designed by Mr. Livingston to mollify the cynical and thrill the hard of hearing. Just for me, in other words. Sprinkle in some birdsong a la Messíaen, embellish the trickle of the fountain, heighten the winds scuffing the leaves of the rubber tree.
“I make what is there a little more real.” Roll over, Beethoven.