Carlin Wragg
Kevin Bleich

Volumes of Voices

Volumes of Voices takes visitors on an immersive literary journey through the New York Public Library, revealing the library’s collections, treasures, and hidden sonic character.

Cabinets of Wonder

On this, the 100th birthday of the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Volumes of Voices takes visitors on an immersive literary journey that exposes the library's collections, treasures, and hidden sonic character. Inspired by musique concrète and Wim Wenders’ film 'Wings of Desire,' Volumes of Voices abstracts the 88 miles of holdings and 10,382,600 cubic feet of space in NYPL's flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman Building into a dynamic sound sculpture that showcases how the digital, the physical, place and space, the real and imagined, coexist in library collections. Built from streamers of vintage catalog cards, projected light, and sonic hotspots mapped to stereo headphones, each visitor's path transforms into data that triggers the layered movements of a dynamic sound poem. Voices read from collection treasures while sounds sourced from the building’s interior underscore the power of the spoken word.

Readers, literature lovers, and library enthusiasts.

User Scenario
You approach the square perimeter of an an empty room delimited by vintage catalog cards suspended from the ceiling in streamer clusters. Projected white light pulses; the sculpture is breathing. You notice the books listed on the catalog cards evoke classic disciplines: language and literature, philosophy and history, politics and religion -- this is a humanities collection in microcosm. As you enter the room, a whisper of voices surrounds you. The composition builds, revealing the sonic keystones of a library reading room, its click of computer keys, a symphony of pages. You realize that you control the sound that surrounds you. Will it change if you stand still? Will it quicken if you move forward? Intrigued, you stop. A voice in your ear recites lines from John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” You step to the side, a piano’s notes ascend, playing scales. As you continue on, the composition changes. You hear the strings of a violin, the cry of a flute, a viola quietly calling.<br />

The installation is controlled by a Microsoft Kinect sensor tethered to an instance of the Processing coding environment that captures each visitor’s center of mass, mapping his or her relationship to sound hotspots and transforming the coordinates into Open Sound Control messages. This information passes over a local network to the audio engine, modulating parameters that directly affect the installation’s sonic character.

As the New York Public Library continues its fight to secure adequate funding, like other libraries and cultural venues, it faces the question of relevance. Long a refuge for the seeker and the scholar, the library is a symbol of the past, the present, and the future of learning. Volumes of Voices is a memorable literary journey that exposes the library’s collections, treasures, and hidden sonic character, catalyzing a refreshed partnership between the library and the lifelong learners it serves.