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Traveling at the Speed of Sound 

An aural activist hears the future

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
On a blustery fall day, a woman swept the leaves from in front of her Noe Valley home. Chris Cobb took out his tape recorder. And a few days later -- house, broom, leaves, and all -- the woman was in the middle of Chinatown.

Cobb, a 26-year-old Art Institute student, devotes a great deal of time wandering S.F. with one of his three decidedly low-tech tape recorders (one was $5, one was $2, and the third was found by a friend). He records an environment -- say, a quiet street -- and plays it in the middle of another -- say, a busy street -- in the serious belief that this exchange will have some positive effect on the world around him.

"Sounds belong to parts of the city like voice belongs to you," Cobb says. "I'm trying to bring the quiet into the busy streets."

Call it space travel through sound. Or, perhaps, art through traffic engineering.

Consider: On a Sunday afternoon, the sound of the Noe Valley woman's broom pushing leaves across the sidewalk is barely audible over the chatter of a bustling crowd and the beckoning of merchants in front of the Lien Hing Supermarket on Stockton Street in the heart of Chinatown. A funeral procession -- led by the Salvation Army Band -- makes its way through the crowded street. Just then, the 30 Stockton bus pulls up, with its crush of passengers attempting to come and go through one door all at the same time.

For a few minutes anyway, the Noe Valley woman has been drowned out like someone's whisper on a beach at high tide. But during the natural pauses in life's noise, a passer-by on Stockton can hear the sweeping from Noe Valley as though it were a ghost, making the entire experience teeter between genuinely surreal and just plain goofy.

"In my mind I can still see her, and I have her experience recorded," Cobb says. "Noe Valley is so clean and quiet. Chinatown is so busy. There's a really dramatic social element here."

And a lot of people are starting to stare at this guy with his tape recorder set on the ground in the middle of Chinatown, which is all part of the ironic shtick. People ask questions, Cobb engages in a discussion of the sound of their environment.

"It's not so much hearing what's on the tape, but them wondering what I'm doing," says Cobb. "If I say I'm trying to teach this busy street to act like a quiet street, they might say, 'I hope it works.' They start thinking about it."

Cobb moved to San Francisco from Sacramento last August, but the sound thing is not new. He collected recordings of light-traffic neighborhoods and played them on busy Sacramento streets, many of which were slated for conversion from one-way to two-way streets, to call attention to the increased traffic. Some people listened, even stopped to talk for a while. Others just dismissed him as a nut. When Cobb offered to make recordings for the Sacramento Planning Commission and the City Council, they politely declined.

A Central Valley native, and the son of a truck driver, Cobb is no stranger to travel. He began making recordings of places up and down the West Coast, then as far away as New Orleans, and Europe. But don't mistake this for some kind of random exercise in sound. There's a soundness to his madness.

"If I took recordings of Los Angeles into Redding, it would be like an army invading," explains Cobb. "It has to be in context."

In other words, the Noe Valley woman was more appropriately sweeping in the middle of a crowded street in Chinatown than in the Financial District on a weekday morning. Chinatown is more residential, full of people running their daily errands, and the chore of sweeping the leaves has a chance to resonate. The Financial District is too industrial.

If that's too eccentric for you, consider Cobb's more long-term, time-travel project.

Spofford Lane was once a central avenue of Chinatown, home to the Chinese Freemasons, and a meeting place of revolutionaries planning the overthrow of the Man Chu government in China. Today, it's a relatively quiet space wedged between the hustle and bustle of Washington and Clay streets.

This is a Cobb sound stage. He is collecting recordings from the middle of the busiest markets, the most traffic-congested streets, the center cut of Chinatown's burgeoning population. The idea is to have two people, each playing a tape of the crowds, at either end of Spofford Lane. Simultaneously, they will walk toward one another, pass one another, to the opposite end of the tiny street, somehow bringing life back to a space it once occupied. It's sort of a marriage between historic re-creation and the Doppler effect.

"I'm more likely to place people noises in the alley as opposed to traffic sounds because of what we know about its history," Cobb explains.

Don't look -- uh, listen -- for this latest project until the spring. Art can't be rushed. In the meantime, Cobb's busy bringing Russian Hill and Pacific Heights into the Mission and the Tenderloin.

"It's a social tool. I thought it would be a kick to record some of the richer neighborhoods, where it's clean and quiet, and transplant those qualities into poorer neighborhoods."

Sounds revolutionary.

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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