If you throw a New Year’s party and no one shows up, is it still a party?
For the first time since it began to be broadcast on television in 1973, the dropping of the ball in New York’s Times Square will not be accompanied by a crowd of people. Because of the pandemic, ABC will broadcast a version of its annual “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” but without the usual crush of onlookers.
Since the ball started dropping onto the roof of the Times Tower on New Year’s Eve 113 years ago, in 1907, it has been disrupted only twice — during the blackouts of World War II.
A few days after New Year’s 2021, Times Square will be the centerpiece of a site-specific sound art piece called “Times3” that considers where the urban hub fits along a timeline of its own distant past and possible future.
“Personally, I run from Times Square. I don’t enjoy being in that space,” said Geoff Sobelle, a former Philadelphia theater artist now living in Stuyvesant, New York, and co-creator of Times3 with San Francisco-based composer Pamela Z.
“The overt cacophony and commercialization of that place is so intense,” Sobelle said. “To me, it’s like every store is trying to sell you something, and that something is crap.”
His distaste for Times Square is one of the reasons he was attracted to the commission from the theater festival Prototype to make art out of Times Square: “It has a nice friction.”
“Times3” will debut on Jan. 8 as part of Prototype, an online festival of experimental opera that expands the parameters of the genre. Unlike traditional opera, which is usually a dramatic narrative sung in performance, this piece does not have a coherent storyline, and the music is created via its own editing process. Entirely aural, “Times3” is meant to be experienced through streaming audio while either standing in Times Square or in the comfort (and pandemic safety) of your own home.
The piece attempts to add a dimension to the geographic space — hence transforming the name Times Square into “Times Cubed” — by considering what that location was like before European colonists arrived, and what it might be like after humans leave the place.
Sobelle has been long associated with the experimental Philadelphia company Pig Iron Theatre as well as creating works that were curated as part of the Philly Fringe Festival before moving into a deconsecrated church in upstate New York.
For this Times Square sound piece, he interviewed a dozen people engaged in some way with the site — like Eric Sanderson of the Manahatta Project, an ecologist who reconstructed what the island would have looked like 400 years ago, when it was known as the “island of many hills” by the native Lenape people.
On the other end of the timeline is Alan Weisman, author of the 2007 bestseller “The World Without Us,” a speculative account of what will happen to built environments should people suddenly vanish.
“He paints a really compelling picture of Times Square,” Sobelle said. “What happens when the generators run out, and there’s nobody to turn the lights on, and the subway tunnels start filling with water.”
In Weisman’s deeply researched book, without underground pumps, the subway tunnels would quickly flood, and ultimately a river would return to roughly follow the direction of Broadway. Without climate controls, skyscrapers would begin to give in to New York’s extreme freeze and thaw cycles, ultimately collapsing. Sidewalk cracks would allow small roots to invade the pavement, leading to the reforestation of the urban jungle.
To fill in between those two extremes on the timeline, Sobelle spoke with architects, urban planners, theater producers and cultural historians about what the site means to New Yorkers. A literary historian explains how, in the early 1960s, Frank O’Hara used to write poetry in Times Square during his lunch break from working at the Museum of Modern Art. Later, in 2010, architect Craig Dykers was largely responsible for Times Square’s redesign as a pedestrian space.
“This pandemic moment is a pause — or it can be; a moment of taking stock and stopping for a moment,” Sobelle said. “In this incredible busy place of Times Square, the belly of the beast, can we use that as a site of meditation?”
Sobelle sent all his recorded interviews to Pamela Z, who transcribed not just their words but also the pitch and rhythm of speech. In a process she has been employing for decades, Z deconstructs language into its musical qualities, using snippets of spoken sound as building blocks for a composition.
“I make samples from speech sounds, those samples can range from full sentences to just phrases, to words. Sometimes, just syllables,” she said. “Sometimes, the fragments are so small they are not allowed to say anything. It may be a looping phrase or syllables chopped in half.”
The result is a voice-based musical composition, sometimes accompanied by instrumental arrangements, which is often divorced from the words’ literal meanings.
But not entirely divorced.
“I can pretend all I want that I’m just listening for sound, but it’s language,” Z said. “Language has so much baggage and meaning. You can’t drain that or expect people to ignore it. I see that meaning as being another layer. The sound is a layer, the meaning is a layer, and all these things are seasoning the dish.”
Sobelle, who spent months researching the past, present, and future of Times Square and recording hours of interviews, said all that material could be used for several seasons of podcasts. But “Times3” — with voices chopped into musical fragments — is not that kind of project.
“It’s not a history lesson. It’s an art piece that is meant to shake you up,” he said. “This is allowing little pieces — flotsam and jetsam — of what they say to bump up against each other. Your brain is going to be doing most of the work. It’s all to foment your dreaming.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that the commission of “Times3” came from Prototype opera festival.
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