A brightly colored, circular labyrinth, designed by Diana Carulli and located in New York City’s East River Park, was home to composer D. Edward Davis’s participatory sound installation, instill, on September 21. The piece, a sounding meditation, welcomed onlookers to pace the painted pavement, soaking in the multitude of sounds around them.
instill, a work for alto flute, a guide, and eight jars of seeds, was commissioned for Davis by Philip Snyder, the flutist who performed the work on September 21 in its New York City premiere. It comprises what Davis calls a “rotating series of gestures” on loop for approximately four hours (this time around, the performance was three hours). The score is a page long with a repeat sign at the end, and features a set of instructions with guidance for musical performance, a diagram detailing how to set up the space, and a list of required materials. instill is performed at a decibel level that Davis describes as “the edge of audibility” – there, but barely surfacing, steeped into its environment.
It’s an endurance piece for the flutist who performs nonstop, but you are able to come and go as you please, walking the labyrinth or simply watching the action from afar. If you so choose to take the stroll, you grab a jar full of seeds and a set of instructions from the guide and enter the labyrinth. At each corner, you shake the seeds, when the flute plays you hum the pitch, in your vocal range, and drop a seed onto the ground. Gradually, your jar empties. Once you reach the center, you stop and stay as long as you please.
On September 21, the center of the labyrinth faced the Williamsburg coastline. We entered the labyrinth and paused, looking out onto the bustling park full of runners, the boats crossing the river. Every 10 minutes, a train zoomed across the Williamsburg bridge. The FDR highway roared in the background on an endless loop. Kids threw footballs and rode scooters at a cookout nearby. -instill- existed within this already-established ecosystem, providing a space of momentary reflection within a world that doesn’t want to stop.
People came in waves, about 5 at a time, taking the 10-15 minute journey through the labyrinth. Some walked through a few times, others walked through once and left. I was part of the first wave, mostly made up of people curious to learn what the hubbub was all about. As I walked, I began to notice so much sound inside the installation: faint pitches emanating from the alto flute, the soft shaking of seeds in a jar, the low hums of the people around me. The noise outside was omnipresent, but I found it easier to be consumed by the motions and sounds from within.
A couple of kids rode scooters through the labyrinth, oblivious to what was going on outside of their game. It didn’t deter me from walking, shaking my jar, dropping my seeds onto the ground. It was all part of the experience. There was something special about being there for that moment, hearing all the noises as they came, pausing to feel their rhythms inside of me.
instill was welcoming: we each chose the type of participation that suited us best, from walking to watching or even ignoring. I walked the path once, and then chose to stand outside, watching the performance and the action of the park from afar, noticing the difference in sound and activity at each corner of the labyrinth.
The goal of the work is to take stock of time, to step back, to be in a moment. That September afternoon, in the roaring city that never sleeps, the clarity of that moment shone through.