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Other people give voice to his work

For sound art installations, talk is priceless

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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BEDFORD — Halsey Burgund spends a lot of his time listening to disembodied voices. No, he’s not a psychic. He’s an artist who collects audio of people speaking and layers those voices with original music to create both musical compositions and sound art installations.

“I’ve spent so much time listening to people’s words, I can tell when people speak from their heart,’’ Burgund says. “Something in their voice changes. Those are the moments I love to grab and work with.’’

Burgund is having a momentous summer. The sound art installation “Scapes,’’ his project for the exhibit “Platform 3: Halsey Burgund’’ at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, opens on Tuesday. On July 30 at the Museum of Science, he will perform his composition “Ocean Voices,’’ a piece he debuted last month at the California Academy of Sciences.

DeCordova visitors can actively participate in “Scapes’’ using smart phones equipped with GPS to listen to recorded sound and contribute comments about what they’re seeing and thinking as they wander the museum’s grounds.

“I stumbled across what looks like an army or a gathering of people made out of pine cones in this secret little spot,’’ says one woman’s recorded voice, probably talking about sculptor Ronald Gonzalez’s “Cones.’’ Visitors’ observations will be woven digitally into the musical composition, becoming part of the work itself.

“Ocean Voices’’ features voices of people around the world talking about the ocean, drawn from a database Burgund set up with collaborator Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist. Nichols will introduce and take part in a panel discussion at Burgund’s concert at the Museum of Science. Anyone can contribute at www.oceanvoices.org, or if you have an iPhone you can use a special “Ocean Voices’’ application.

The concert complements the museum’s “Whales/Tohora’’ exhibit, and it includes recordings from a visit Burgund made to the Museum of Science in February. “ ‘Ocean Voices’ is trying to make people care about ocean conservation and make people understand that life on this planet cannot be healthy without healthy oceans,’’ says Lisa Monrose, the program manager of lectures and special programs at the Museum of Science who booked the concert.

Both “Scapes’’ and “Ocean Voices’’ feature musical composition interwoven with spoken word, but technically “Ocean Voices’’ is music, because it will be performed in front of an audience, and “Scapes’’ is sound art. According to George Fifield, founder and director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, sound art is ambient and site specific, enhancing a particular space.

Sound art “is a whole different way to listen. The sounds are meant to make the space more meaningful,’’ says Fifield. “The really interesting thing about [‘Scapes’] is that it involves a locator. . . . You have to be in the place where the person made the comment to get the comment. It’s totally new.’’

“At ‘Scapes,’ people can go and record whatever they want,’’ Burgund says, leaning back on the sofa in the living room of his home in Bedford, which he shares with his fiancee, architect Laura Duncan. While he provides prompts for people who may be tongue-tied, he’s open to anything folks contribute. “I’m sure people will use it in ways I never thought of,’’ he says.

Lexi Lee, the DeCordova curatorial fellow who has been organizing “Scapes,’’ sees it as a great opportunity for the museum. “It’s going to activate our sculpture park in a new way for the summer months,’’ she says. “Visitors can tap into an invisible oral history, a history of sound they never would have been able to experience before.’’

Burgund, 36, lanky with brown hair that is always falling into his eyes, says he was a musical kid, playing piano and drums growing up in Darien, Conn., the son of a social worker and a hotel developer. He went to Yale and kept up with the music — he convinced one professor to teach him privately about Verdi — but he majored in geophysics. “I’m a sailor, I love to be on the water, so what science do I major in? Fluid dynamics,’’ he says. “I loved the field aspect of it. You drop things in the water and follow them around.’’

Out of college, though, Burgund wasn’t sure what to do. “I didn’t want to be a weatherman,’’ he says. He became a furniture maker, then went into high-tech work, and returned to music, his original passion, in his off hours. From there, he stumbled into a fascination with the spoken word.

“I wanted to record my parents reading a poem I’d written,’’ he remembers. “I had them each read through twice. I spent the next day listening. My dad took longer; they’ve got different sounding voices, different emphases. These were the voices I’ve lived with my entire life. Hearing them in this way, with my words and their voices, something absolutely grabbed me. There was so much music in just speaking.’’

The experience resulted in a song. He wanted to play it with a band he was in called aesthetic evidence, but the usual venues had no interest.

“I’d call dive bars, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with me,’’ Burgund recalls. “Then I’d call museums, and they were like, Wow, this is really interesting.’’ He started hanging around museums. He collected voices at the 2006 opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art. And he began to think, if he weren’t a musician, how else could he get his work out?

The answer was sound installations. He built the “Bring Your Own Voice Booth,’’ an enclosed plywood recording booth where people could record their private thoughts, and showed it at the DeCordova four years ago. He set it up in Harvard Square, among other places. Burgund had his first solo show at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., in 2008. Called “Round,’’ it encouraged museum visitors to comment on art as they viewed it. “Round’’ was a precursor to “Scapes,’’ which has more sophisticated technology, such as the GPS.

Burgund can’t wait to hear what DeCordova visitors have to say. “You can have 100 people talking about one work of art, and you get so much variety. It’s an unlimited source of inspiration. You never run out of people to talk to,’’ he says.

In his wood-paneled studio, Burgund plays snippets from the “Ocean Voices’’ archive on his electronic marimba, a sleek, gray keyboard with black keys. A fluid melody swells and ripples, and as he touches the keys, voices kick in. He repeats phrases, or even single words, rhythmically, and then lets long phrases play out like chants. One part of the database comprises just children’s voices, discussing what the world would be like without the ocean.

“There would be no french fries with salt,’’ says one child. Later, he plays adult voices mulling over how they feel about the sea. “All surround, all enveloping, all encompassing, protecting the entire earth, as if holding the whole land mass in its embrace,’’ says one woman.

While the text is beautiful, so is its melodiousness. “Every sound has a pitch, and a beat. You could assign the metrics of music to anything,’’ says Burgund. “For ‘Ocean Voices,’ I have hundreds of hours, and I listen to all of it. It can be boring, boring, boring, and then someone will come up with something that may not be interesting from a semantic viewpoint, but from a music viewpoint, there’s something there.’’

Back at the keyboard, Burgund sings softly along with the instrumental, his voice softly blending with those speaking. Then the instruments go quiet, and a woman’s voice quietly tells of her love of the ocean.

“We speak to each other,’’ Burgund says. “The chatter of human existence. There is beauty in that.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

PLATFORM 3: Halsey Burgund, Scapes

At the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, July 13 through Nov. 14. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org

HALSEY BURGUND: Ocean Voices

In concert at 1 and 6 p.m. on July 30, Cahners Theater, Museum of Science, 1 Science Park. 617-723-2500, www.mos.org