A group of Pleasantville High School students at the Jacob Burns Film Center’s Media Arts Lab have collaborated with John Morton and Adam Rokhsar to design and install Usonia in Nonna Square, a small urban green in downtown Pleasantville, NY adjoining the train station. The interactive installation focuses on the sonic placement and manipulation of field recordings, film clip audio, and interviews made in Pleasantville to create a “visionless cinema”— sonic events describing a narrative that is heard but not seen, and contrasting with the visual activity passing in front of listeners in the park. The installation is activated by two handcranked music boxes mounted on a metal pedestal and surrounded by four speakers. Each music box, run by visitors to the installation, controls a different aspect of the sonic mix.
“Usonia,” a term first coined by writer James Duff Law in 1865, refers to his notion of a more inclusive United States and recognizes the growing country’s broad cultural backgrounds. In 1945, Frank Lloyd Wright participated in the creation of Usonian Homes, a neighborhood adjacent to Pleasantville, based on Wright’s ideas of community and landscape integration.
The collaborative process in creating this installation has evolved over many months of discussions, workshops, and experiments, culminating in a “pop-up” installation. A careful balance of directed activities and an expanding awareness of sonic details and interplay have encouraged a sense of ownership in the students.
Usonia has been created by John Morton, composer, in collaboration with Adam Rokhsar, Dylan Franks, Kate O’Brien, Jack Butler, and Jacob Nemec.
As a composer, instrument builder, and sound installation artist, John Morton has presented his music throughout the United States, and has participated in collaborations at The Kitchen, The Playwright’s Center, and at the Kohler Arts/Industry Program. His CD, Outlier: New Music for Music Boxes, was the subject of a feature and live performance on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday (“Music Box Man”), and he received NYFA Fellowships in 2002 and 2006. In 2010, he was a fellow at the Bellagio Study Center in Italy and was in residence at the Bogliasco Foundation in Genoa, Italy in October 2011. He was awarded a McKnight Visiting Composer Fellowship, where he explored the compositional and sculptural possibilities of abandoned farm equipment in western Minnesota.
For the last 12 years, Morton has been composing with music boxes by altering the internal mechanisms and overlapping multiple music boxes simultaneously. Working with simple tools, he frees up the music box’s inner works, expanding the variety of available sounds and thus generates a method for the continual layering and variation of musical material. The repetitive nature of music boxes and their ability to evoke musical associations are employed, and, through the use of digital technology, the music box sound is directly merged into the compositional process. These works have led to the creation of sound installations that embrace the randomization of sonic choices and utilize site-specific sounds and other mechanical music-making devices.
In 2009, “Central Park Sound Tunnel,” Morton’s six-channel sound project, was installed in a pedestrian tunnel north of the Central Park Zoo (featured in The New York Times article “Sound Tunnel: Avant-Garde Park Portrait” by Randy Kennedy), and he collaborated on a music box sound installation with sculptor Jackie Shatz based on Darwin’s writings for Glyndor Gallery at Wave Hill. “WaterWall,” a sound installation on Governors Island in collaboration with Jackie Shatz, was exhibited during the summer of 2011. He recently completed a commission for the Adirondack Museum, “Sonic Hotel — Lost and Found Sounds of the Adirondacks,” an 18-channel sound installation situated in a former log hotel on the museum campus. He also collaborated recently with composer David Simons on a motion-activated installation for “The Art of Video Games” at the Hudson River Museum.