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'Chime' to ring some changes

'Community xylophone' installed in King Plaza

If you stand in Palo Alto's King Plaza on a blustery day, you may hear a wind chime, playing a ghostly melody on the breeze (and at night the effect could be a bit spooky). Listen closer and you'll pinpoint the sound to a pinewood structure that resembles a modest, cabin-style playhouse or garden shed. Reach out and touch a wall and suddenly you're the musician, ringing out the notes and rhythms of the sonic sculpture. Meet "Chime": the city's newest interactive piece of public art.

The Palo Alto Public Art Program has dedicated King Plaza as a space for ongoing, rotating temporary art exhibitions, according to program director Elise DeMarzo.

"We heard a lot of feedback from the community about wanting things that were interactive and playful, and that they'd like to see some change," she said.

"Chime"'s multisensory combination of easily accessible visual, auditory, and tactile elements made it particularly appealing as the city's next installation. It's easy enough for people of most any age, fitness level or musical ability to operate and enjoy. The piece, created by Oakland artist Dan Gottwald in collaboration with Scott Watkins, was installed in Palo Alto on May 16 and will be in residence outside of City Hall until August.

"It's the kind of project I've been dreaming up for a long time -- a great big community xylophone," Gottwald said. But he realized that he had to modify the public-xylophone concept to avoid the need for a mallet or other external striking device, which could prove dangerous. Instead, he designed the piece with internal percussive elements, so that with a simple push to one of the exterior panels, an inner pendulum is activated, which strikes one of the metal, tubular chimes (the fourteen chimes are tuned to notes a fourth apart from each other, in the key of C). The pendulum then swings back and forth, gently rocking the curved panels and continuing the sounds, depending on the pressure of the push. The inviting, homey shape of the structure says, "It's OK, you can touch this. It's gonna do something, there's a musical payoff," Gottwald said.

For an art installation in such a high-tech city, the mechanical workings of "Chime" are refreshingly analog. Perhaps ironically, Gottwald actually has a degree in electronic music. "But I'm way more interested, musically, in acoustic phenomena and how humans make those happen," he said. Interaction with "Chime" is "a real, embodied experience" rather than a mediated one via a digital interface, he said. "It's an intimate experience when you use 'Chime' or hang out next to 'Chime.' It's really rewarding," he added. Gottwald has also contributed work to Oakland's Megapolis audio-art festival, and created the Analogous Ensemble, a collection of his musical-instrument sculptures designed to foster experimentation and collaboration. "It verges on performance art," he said, and all his work is interdisciplinary, blurring the lines between sculpture and music, always encouraging touch and play.

"Chime" was conceived out of conversations between Gottwald and Watkins, whose background is in business and public policy, when they were roommates at Oakland's Mills College. The pair pondered how they could combine Watkins' experience in urban design with Gottwald's in sculpture and music to create public art. When Watkins heard about San Francisco's Market Street Prototyping Festival (dedicated to ideas for making public spaces more vibrant and engaging), he saw an opportunity -- one Gottwald was initially skeptical about, unsure his vision would be well received.

"I thought, who's gonna want a great big musical instrument? It's a ridiculous idea," he admitted. But with Watkins' encouragement and assistance, the team made "Chime" a reality. The "ChimeSF" project was picked up by that festival for a two-year installation on Market Street in preparation for the revamping of the street in 2018. DeMarzo saw it at the Prototyping Festival and came away captivated by "this idea of community engagement through a musical sculpture," DeMarzo said, and believing, "there's sort of a magical element that that piece could bring" to Palo Alto.

"As I watched people interact with it in San Francisco, I saw that someone may be looking at it from one side and thinking about pushing it, then they can see the panels moving on the other side and you get this 'aha!' moment when (people on both sides) are making music together," she said.

On a recent day as gusts of wind in King Plaza set "Chime"'s pendulums gently into motion, kids whizzing by on scooters stopped, intrigued, and began pushing on the panels with increasing abandon and glee, creating a wild glissando.

Playing or composing a formal tune on the sculpture is possible, Gottwald said, but so far his musical experience with "Chime" has been largely improvisational.

"I tend toward not trying to control anybody. It's pretty interesting to me to have a place where it's its own composition right there," he said. "If you find a song or a way to operate it that you like and you want to keep going, I'm all for it, but the composition is the structure itself."

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