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Voices That Carry Beyond the Towers

'Sonic Memorial' will preserve the Trade Centers' aural images.

November 26, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What stays in the imaginations of the two veteran sound producers is not the sight of jets cleaving the towers in two, not the cloud of smoke that rushed the streets, but the ephemera of daily life--memos, notes, mail, swirling like a snowstorm.

"There was all of this paper ," says Davia Nelson, half of the award-winning radio documentary team known as the Kitchen Sisters. To her sound-obsessed mind, and that of fellow Kitchen Sister Nikki Silva, that sight on Sept. 11 triggered a sensory leap. Just like the mail drifting through the air, thousands of voicemail messages, they suddenly realized, were "hovering around in the ether"--and soon to disappear.

Rescuing and preserving those messages seemed less like a whim than a duty.

Silva and Nelson contacted Verizon, the telecommunications company that provided service for much of the World Trade Center complex, and helped shape a phone-in program. An 800 number was set up to allow surviving employees, their families and loved ones to retrieve, on cassette, the voicemail messages left at the towers that day.

With the works in gear, announcements prominently placed, they considered their work done. End of story.

Except, says Silva, "it was sort of the beginning."

To the women, who have long immersed themselves in the arcana of America's journey, it was apparent that what was within those password sealed-phone messages was just one piece of the story. Before they knew it, they found themselves thinking about trying to re-create the life of the buildings through what they call "sonic artifacts": late-to-meeting footfalls, perhaps, or a computer's electronic exhale, the drone of a PowerPoint presentation, the clink of crystal over the sea of lunch-rush repartee.

A seemingly insignificant sound, they knew, could evoke a rush of memory, open the lock on a long-forgotten world. For their end-of-the-millennium National Public Radio series, "Lost & Found Sound," which won them a Peabody Award, they had chronicled America's 20th century history through a series of collage-style radio documentaries mixed with found-sound fragments--carnival talkers and West Virginia steam trains; recollections from a witness to the delivery of the Gettysburg Address; and the hums of old electric fans. Both understand storytelling and history from unique perspectives: Nelson is also a museum curator, Silva a screenwriter who also casts and produces film. But sound breaks the rules of linear storytelling or recalled memory: "Sound," says Sliva, "has some direct line to heart. You can't control it."

The notion of reconstructing the lost world of the twin towers intrigued them. Perhaps they could piece together a sound mosaic that might not only bear witness to the tragedy, but also tell the history of the buildings, the neighborhoods surrounding them and the nation's now evident connection to all of it.

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The challenge became quite clear, says Nelson: "How to capture life --not only death."

They tossed around the idea with friends--other radio producers, sound designers and assorted trusted confidantes--trolling for input, free associating, dividing up tasks: Interviews? Ambient sound? Oral histories? Street bartering? What pieces would it take to evoke not just the story of these buildings but all that fell within their shadows?

Those early hashing sessions became the foundation for building what Nelson and Silva are now calling "A Sonic Memorial."

In their warm, bedtime-story voices, Silva and Nelson lay out the blueprints in a conference call from their home-base office in San Francisco's North Beach: They envision it not as a point-A-to-point-B narrative, but rather a means of conveying the buildings' history and the lives they touched. It's too early to guess what form the project will take. Much of it, Nelson and Silva know, depends on what comes across their paths.

Early digging has already produced a rich selection: Tape of composer-musician Glenn Branca's "Hallucination City: Symphony for 100 Guitars"--performed live last summer outdoors at the World Trade Center--or, in contrast, more subtle fragments of noise: the empty artist studios around the neighborhood, a sense of silence fanning out from the still-burning complex's adjacent streets that were once a loud sound smear of competing activities.

Such early "tiles of sound" tell them already that they might get their wish--to come at this mosaic from unexpected angles. As well as delving into sources of "found" sound, they also hope to conduct oral histories, looking for slantwise takes on their story. "There is a woman who is making a quilt from the clothing of the people who are lost," says Silva. "We want to interview her .... "

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