The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum sits on New York’s Upper East Side in a renovated Andrew Carnegie mansion. When Carnegie purchased the land in 1898, it was more than a mile north of what was then considered fashionable society and many levels removed from the deafening steel mills that accelerated his fortune. It seems he wanted space for a garden.

On a sunny Sunday morning in October of this year, the Cooper Hewitt galleries are quiet with only a few visitors at such an early hour. I break the silence by tapping a few keys on a dot piano in the Designing with Sound exhibit. The notes present a stark reminder of how sound surrounds us, how sound influences us, and how sound is often most noticeable in its extremes – the overwhelming excess in its presence or the overwhelming quiet in its absence.

“It’s this hidden actor in our lives that changes our mood in an instant, guides our choices and makes or breaks emotional connections.” –Joel Beckerman

Discovering Sound: Max Neuhaus in Times Square

In an understatement, artist Max Neuhaus described Times Square as a “rich and complex” aural and visual environment. From a sound perspective I’d call it noisy. Vehicles rumble by with horns honking, tourists wander through excitedly chattering, and commuters stride across metal clattering. It’s a veritable Dr. Seuss soundscape.

So it’s really no surprise that Neuhaus’s Times Square sound installation often goes unnoticed or is easily dismissed as machine noise emanating from underground. Standing by it on the 46th Street and 7th Avenue pedestrian island, 2.5 miles south of the Cooper Hewitt, I see no one else acknowledge the installation or the sound. While for me, the sound anchors my environmental perception in the area, and the island is a different place.

“It’s meant for people who are ready to discover” –Max Neuhaus

Exploring Sound: Aki Onda and Akio Suzuki

Four days later Aki Onda walks past me in a dark performance hall rapping an object on the wall. Akio Suzuki, an older artist who first explored how sound can be part of a performance by throwing “a bucket full of junk down a staircase” at Nagoya train station in Japan, stands at a table in the middle of the hall. Suzuki and Onda are sound artists on their fu-rai North American tour, and I’ve happened on a performance in Marfa, Texas.

Rocks click, bottles tap, rubber squeaks, and amplifiers hum into space as Suzuki and Onda explore the “infinite and variegated possibilities” of sound. In an otherwise hushed room (an extreme away from the Times Square environment), each isolated sound dominates the senses, and the crowd appears transfixed. Walking into the evening afterward, the crunching gravel underfoot sounds at least twice as loud as usual, and I consciously slow a few footsteps to hear the variety.

“Some musicians, when they play, they imagine the notes, but I’m the opposite, I imagine the soundscape.” –Aki Onda

Integrating Sound: Artists at Work

I continue to notice sounds and extremes over the next month. In New Orleans, I see how some venues are structured around stages (and all that jazz), how some performers integrate into existing structures, and how The Music Box Village in the Bywater neighborhood serves as a musical playground of sorts:

At home in Minneapolis I hear the different ways conductors announce the arrival of light rail stops, the extended way sound carries across theater stages, and the flow of DJs working holiday parties. I’m reminded that some designs are intentionally constructed around sound – Warner Brothers drew full animation cartoons around Mel Blanc’s voice, after the voice was recorded, to better synchronize lip movements – while other designs treat sound as a byproduct. You can guess which designs work better.

“Sound design is part of the interaction design process, and not something to be tacked on to the end.” –Aaron Day