Super Sonic

“Is our GPS drunk?”

We’re trying to get to A Sound Garden, Seattle’s sonic-driven, semi-obscure public art work. Our electronic map is directing us to turn left onto the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration campus. “These are the federal weather guys,” I think to myself. “What do they know about art?” A malfunctioning GPS seems like the only logical explanation.

I nonetheless follow its instructions. I’m greeted by a slightly curvy road leading to a guard shack. There are nondescript white buildings in the background. Yep – drunk GPS. I drive up to the shack, prepared to find out just how lost we are.

“Excuse me,” I say to the guard. “I think we’re lost. We’re trying to get to the Sound Garden.”

“You’ve come to the right place!” the guard says.

“Really?” I blurt out, slightly exasperated.

“Really.” The guard says. His tone implies this is not the first time he’s had this exchange.

A Sound Garden is a sculpture consisting of large steel structures crowned with organ pipes affixed to weather vanes. These pipes produce various sounds when the wind blows – a concept whose scientific properties are not too dissimilar to The Wave Organ in San Francisco. A Sound Garden is its official name, by the way – not “The Sound Garden” or “Soundgarden.” Nobody ever calls it by its official name. It’s a weird spot; the fact that it’s on NOAA grounds adds to its weirdness. It’s way in the back of the campus, tucked next to a park and Lake Washington, hidden from the lot we’re instructed to go. There’s a lone, tiny sign marking the trail to access the sculpture, making it feel almost as if the NOAA is reluctant to share its existence.

Perhaps they are. The place used to be a popular hangout for Seattle natives back in the day – popular enough to inspire the name of a certain Seattle-area grunge band. Unfortunately, the NOAA severely truncated access to A Sound Garden after 9/11, and they haven’t reversed course yet. They may never. Over the years, locals have almost forgotten it exists. Transplants have no idea it’s here. (I only know of its existence because I stumbled upon an article about places still guarded with post-9/11 restrictions.) When we arrive at the sculpture after a half-mile trek, there’s just one other couple on its compact grounds. The desolation gives the instillation a layer of cool, eerie surrealism.

The sculptures look like mini transmission towers. Their drab gray skeletons stand amid unkempt yellow grass, creating a dramatic juxtaposition with the radiant blue bouncing off the adjacent lake. It doesn’t look like much, but we’re not here for looks. What’s discouraging, though, is the silence. I don’t hear anything as I walk along a path bisecting the structures. I take seat on a bench in the middle of the instillation – still nothing. I spend the next two minutes staring into the lake, preparing to answer my kids’ inevitable inquiry of why exactly we came here.

And then – a low, rumbling hum, coming from the tower directly from my left. Another sound jumps in from the right few seconds later, this one high-pitched, almost like a tea kettle. They harmonize for a second before the low note cuts off. Another mid-range note starts up from the sculpture’s far corner and engages in an impromptu minute-long call-response performance with the high pitch. It’s almost as if a Phillip Glass concert spontaneously erupted around me. In normal circumstances this would be problematic, as I’ve never cared for Phillip Glass. In this context, sitting in view of Lake Washington and the wind gently swirling about, it works. I’m at peace.

The concert lasts for nearly ten minutes. I don’t want to leave. However, my kids approach and ask me the question I prepared for but didn’t think I’d have to answer once sounds started filling the air. I reluctantly acquiesce. As we walk back to the van, I see a rectangular frame propped up just off the pathway. Inside the frame is a photo of the late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. A couple of rock-pinned handwritten notes and some flowers form a semi-circle around the image, which looks straight from the band’s Badmotorfinger heyday. He’s smiling brightly like we prefer to remember him doing. It’s a fitting memorial for obvious reasons, and its presence makes it easy to re-imagine the sculpture’s still-occasionally blowing notes as a collective dirge; a sorrowful song mourning the loss of a beloved Seattle musical icon.

A sudden burst of contemporary pop music coinciding with the van’s ignition turn ruptures A Sound Garden’s sense of tranquility. I don’t mind, though. The secluded sculpture provided enough serenity for me to deal with the din of over-produced Top 40 slickness. It certainly harnesses enough serenity to make the place an essential decompression spot for anyone overwhelmed by the crowded smash of Pike’s Place Market or the Space Needle. It’s worth a visit, even if its location makes one question the sobriety of their GPS.