RETU(R)NINGS, an electroacoustic installation generated from turnstile data, will play in the library each day at sunset

NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library will become the site of Manhattan’s newest permanent sound art installation with the official unveiling of RETU(R)NINGS, a one- to two-minute long sonification of the library’s turnstile data designed to reverberate within the atrium’s unique architectural structure, on September 9.

Once per day—timed to coincide with sunset in New York City—two computer-controlled loudspeakers, installed on the catwalks surrounding the atrium of Bobst Library and directed towards the building’s 150-foot high open interior, will project a brief cascade of electroacoustic tones of varying timbres, frequencies, and durations, unfolding in kaleidoscopically changing patterns and blending harmoniously with the ambient sounds of human activity within the space.

“One of the pleasing aspects of the Bobst Library atrium is how it both amplifies and blends the ambient sounds from the flow of people within it, so that even at its most crowded it is never cacophonous,” said Elizabeth Hoffman, a professor in NYU’s Department of Music and co-director of the Waverly Labs for Computer Music Research at NYU, who co-created the installation with J. Martin Daughtry, professor of ethnomusicology in the Department of Music, and Kent Underwood, director of the Avery Fisher Center for Music and Media at NYU Libraries.

“The pixelated metal veil surrounding the atrium has the natural resonant properties of a musical instrument and when the sounds unfold in the space, it sounds like a gargantuan hand strumming the metal,” she continued.

 

Bobst Interior. Copyright Olivo, Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

How it Works
The sound installation draws upon anonymized data taken from the turnstiles at Bobst Library’s main entrance. A computer algorithm creates an artistic interpretation of each data set to produce a one- to two-minute sequence of musical tones.   

The number of people who enter the building each hour on selected dates from 2016, 2017, and 2018—chosen to coincide with the four lunar quarters of the year—represents a data point. As the number and pattern of people entering the building changes each day, each historical data set produces a distinctive melody. The number of people entering per hour is represented in 24 data points with each number creating a different bell-like sound which is then layered into the final piece. For example, the days with fewer visitors each hour cause the entire piece to move much more slowly.

“After much experimentation, I settled on a balance between a sonification process that would be audible (meaning easily detectable correlations between aspects of the data being used and the sounds) and one that would exploit the data for provocative artistic ends, namely harmonic and timbral and structural designs that were so particular or unusual that I would not have thought of composing them from scratch,” said Hoffman.

The physical design of RETU(R)NINGS consists of two custom-made loudspeakers, mounted adjacent to the atrium screens on floors 4 East and 8 West. The spatialized deployment of the loudspeakers turns the 12-story high atrium into a cathedral-like resonator. The perforated aluminum veil that encloses the atrium assists in the building’s capacity to diffuse sound naturally throughout the entire space, both vertically and horizontally.

As a real-time listening experience, the piece is designed to blend into the ambient murmur of the library’s physical attributes (such as elevators and air conditioning systems) and the activities of the NYU community members within the space.

“The sound installation intertwines with the atrium’s ambient soundscape in a way that is both contemplative and evocative. As the tones expand and dissolve, library users are offered a moment to pause, listen, and connect with the presence of fellow members in the academic community. The concept and audible experience connect meaningfully with the life and purpose of the building and tie the installation to visitors’ connectedness with larger experiences and phenomena, such as slow, cyclical planetary rhythms,” said Underwood.

The Inspiration Behind the Work
RETUR(N)INGS
has historical roots in one the few permanent sound art installations in New York City, Times Square by Max Neuhaus (installed in 1977). The harmonic sound texture emitting from beneath a metal grate on Broadway between 45th and 46th streets is designed to blend harmoniously with the surrounding noise of Times Square. Hoffman notes that the installation changes by virtue of the surrounding, shifting environment, including visitor density and background noise—a key characteristic that is shared with RETUR(N)INGS.

The installation at NYU is also inspired by Neuhaus’s Walkthrough (1973), a series of overlapping sounds in the subway entrance at the former Metropolitan Transit Authority building at Jay Street in Brooklyn (now home to NYU’s media, technology, and arts programs) that responded to changes in humidity and temperature, and influential sound art artists including Berhard Leitner, who created numerous soundscapes in Berlin, and Maryanne Amacher who used architectural spaces in intimate and musical ways to create immersive environments.

RETUR(N)INGS officially opens September 9, 2019 with a celebration from 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM. Remarks from the installation’s creators and Dean of the Division of Libraries, H. Austin Booth, will begin at 6:45 PM. RETUR(N)INGS will play at sunset (7:15 PM) for approximately two minutes. Reporters wishing to attend should RSVP to Sarah Binney at 212.998.6829 or sarah.binney@nyu.edu. RETUR(N)INGS is free and open to the public from the building’s lobby.

About NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
The striking, 12-story Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, designed by Philip Johnson and Richard Foster, is the flagship of an eleven-library, 5.9 million-volume system that provides students and faculty members with access to the world’s scholarship and serves as a center for the University community’s intellectual life. Bobst Library houses more than four million volumes, 235,000 serial titles, and over 40,000 linear feet of archives and provides access to thousands of electronic resources both on-site and to the global NYU community via the Internet. The Library receives 10,000 visits per day and circulates 304,000 items annually. Bobst Library offers approximately 2,500 seats for student study.