Sanctuaries of sound in New York City: Fellows Friday with Susie Ibarra

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Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra is creating virtual sanctuaries for real cities. Working in collaboration with local artists, historians, architects, city planners and musicians, Ibarra and her partner Roberto Rodriguez — who together form Electric Kulintang — have created a musical pilgrimage that takes the public on a sound walk through 12 sites in Lower Manhattan, each featuring an original composition. But more than that, the locations offer respite — they are an invitation to contemplate the special qualities of the built environment.

Digital Sanctuaries, a co-commission for Electric Kulintang by New Music USA, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and The MAPFund, goes live this week with a series of hosted lunchtime walks. Ibarra tells the TED Blog how the project came together, and shares her plans to bring sanctuaries to other cities around the world.

How would you describe Digital Sanctuaries?

It’s a music mobile app sound walk — an interactive dialogue, with music and technology as the medium. It’s about bringing sanctuaries of sounds to these historical sites, and partly about bringing the sounds of the natural world back into the built environment. Roberto and I had been talking about the possibility of doing a mobile app sound walk with Andrew Horwitz, an arts promoter, writer for Culturebot and the former programs director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. We were asking if we could do a technology piece based around walking within communities in Lower Manhattan.

As the idea took shape, we started looking at sites: the African Burial Ground, the American Indian Museum, Titanic Memorial Park, the New York Stock Exchange, Castle Clinton, Peter Minuit Plaza (where Manhattan was first purchased), Teardrop Park and Battery Park Labyrinth — memorials that were built after 9/11 — and Pier 15. We asked ourselves, “What are the cultural stories of each of these places? What is the energy? And what can we offer both city dwellers and tourists?”

Other cities are interested as well. Pittsburgh is commissioning it. Troy, New York, is interested. We have been talking to Sydney, and we are thinking about taking it to Mumbai and Delhi. I’ve also just talked to a visual artist in Taipei. It’s fascinating, because there’s so much history in each city, combined with contemporary forces.

I’m thinking about bringing Digital Sanctuaries to the Visayas, in the Philippines, which recently suffered a big earthquake. My brother and sister-in-law were in Bohol the day it happened. Luckily, they are okay. Electric Kulintang has worked with the beautiful Loboc Children’s Choir in Bohol. Fortunately, the earthquake happened on a holiday when many places were closed, but the choir lost its church — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and its community and rehearsal spaces. I’m thinking about what kind of sanctuaries would be needed there. How might we help them rebuild?

What makes Digital Sanctuaries interactive?

Digital Sanctuaries offers the audience a virtual experience at each site. The music streams from each location base, and when someone enters the space, they can listen to the music and read about the site’s history. There is also a four-channel mixer page where they can make their own remix, share, and post responses.

Those who cannot visit the Digital Sanctuaries sites in person can visit the website. We’ll have short samples of the compositions on SoundCloud for each place, and information about the work and collaboration. It will also link to Electric Kulintang’s album Song of the Bird King.

Tell us about your concept of sanctuary.

It’s a very intense place, Lower Manhattan. Have you walked down there? The Financial District can really be very intense. We wanted to provide the people who live and/or work in this environment with a place of respite. We considered who might engage with such a sanctuary. It might be people who live there or work there, or just people who are visiting.

The poster for Digital Sanctuaries.

The poster for Digital Sanctuaries.

So do you think the idea of sanctuary will change from city to city?

Yes. Each city will be different historically and culturally. I think that even between Mumbai and Delhi, the sounds we create will be radically different.

What was the process of putting Digital Sanctuaries together?

In the development stage, we work with the collaborating partners — those who are hosting the piece or commissioning it — to listen to what the voice of the city is, and then we do research on which sites resonate best with that. And then, what are the stories of these sites? All this informs the composition. We’re finding that creating these digital sanctuaries of music involves a remapping of cities constructed by histories, and numerous dialogues with the people who live in each place. History and present culture both weigh into the creation of the pieces, and along with stories of indigenous people and immigrants, there’s the natural history of each site.

Roberto and I composed compositions for 12 sites. He composed some, I composed some, and then as a duo, Electric Kulintang, we co-compose. Roberto does some pre-programming with electronics. We invite guest artists for each composition to perform and record in the studio. He and I also perform and record various electronic and acoustic percussion.

All of the artists for Digital Sanctuaries, New York City, are from or live in the area. For example,  African Burial Ground features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa reciting a poem he wrote for the site, Guinean master artist Famoro Diaobate performing on balafon and vocals, and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC singing.

Our collaborating visual artists are also New York City residents. Long-time collaborator Makoto Fujimura is a former resident of Lower Manhattan and is a visionary in supporting and preserving cultural practices. Our interaction designer Shankari Murali, originally from Mumbai, has a well-developed understanding of how to integrate music, art and design for a city.  Together, we developed the mobile app. These will be re-adapted for each city.

Do you think that over time, the compositions themselves will change and evolve?

Yes, I like to think so. Cities’ geographic location, natural history, current residents and those who preceded us have all combined to create cultures unique to each place.  Music is one of these amazing gifts that ebbs and flows and rises out of these pockets. Culture has defined music, and music has defined culture.  And one of the things that interested me in creating Digital Sanctuaries was the potential and possibilities for collaboration.  I like the idea of digital public art, a web that can grow and move — something people can build and add onto.

If you happen to be in New York, join one of the inaugural hosted walks happening every day until Sunday, November 10. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Red Walk, at the African Burial Ground, 290 Broadway, New York, 10007. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Green Walk, at South Cove Park, 50 Battery Place, (Between 1st and 3rd Pl), New York, 10280. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Blue Walk, at the India House, 1 Hanover Square, New York, 10004.