John Luther Adams’s “Soundwalk 9:09” is a composition that’s only complete once you listen to it on the noisy New York City streets. The piece is available for free download and streaming this week from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in anticipation of the opening of their Met Breuer branch on March 18. It’s intended as a sonic bridge between the two buildings.
“Soundwalk 9:09” references the amount of time it took Adams to stroll the eight blocks from the main branch of the Met to its new space in the Marcel Breuer-designed former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It has two parts, “Uptown,” and “Downtown,” for both walking directions. Crowdsourcing sound samples from those Upper East Side streets, Adams built a layered landscape of droning, ethereal tones, a cocoon of noise from which voices, sirens, horns, jackhammers, a burst of trumpet, and birds emerge. The idea is that, as you walk, you can’t tell what’s coming from your headphones and what’s coming from the real-time action around you, encouraging a closer listen to both.
Adams wrote in his note to the listener:
The ideal listening balance between the “live” and recorded sounds is one in which you aren’t always certain whether a sound you’re hearing is coming from your ear buds, your imagination, or from the streets around you.
I tried out both sections this past weekend, starting at the main branch and walking south along Central Park. Passing by the entrance steps, the jingle of a dog’s collar mingled with the rhythmic claps of a performer singing an a cappella “Lean on Me.” A group of girls on scooters rolled by, and when I entered the tree arcade by the park, a swell of sound seemed to respond, with a distant singing of birds. I might be a slower walker than Adams, as I didn’t quite make it there by nine minutes. Once at the Breuer building’s stern modernist castle façade, I listened to the “Downtown” section as I walked up Madison Avenue. It was much less eventful, mainly with traffic churning by and the occasional conversation overheard at the corners.
Adams, who recently moved from Alaska to Harlem, has mostly been inspired by the great expanses of the Northwest, orchestrating huge panoramas of sound. His Become Ocean, which received the 2014 Pulitzer for Music, involved contrasting patterns in considering the melting of the polar ice and the majesty of the Arctic waters. Alex Ross at the New Yorker noted that the composition had a palindrome shape, writing that anyone “who has gone down a stretch of road and then reversed course knows that a landscape does not look the same when viewed from opposite directions.”
“Soundwalk 9:09” has a similar design, reversing course with its own flow of sound, this time inspired by the human-made instead of nature. The listening experience won’t be for everyone, as its polyphonic aesthetic doesn’t offer any rhythmic or melody support for all that noise. Yet I found myself listening intently for noises I would usually tune out, appreciating the airy brakes of a bus, or the metronome-like pound of a hot dog vendor’s serving tongs on a metal surface. Would simply tuning in to New York City’s distinct chaos of noise without headphones have similar rewards? Definitely. “Soundwalk 9:09” is intended to sharpen those senses, and make a simple walk between two buildings an exploration into urban sound.