View photos by Brett Delmage of the sculpture launch and performance

Two Ottawa musicians unveiled a sculpture that sings in an Ottawa city park on Saturday.

Jesse Stewart and Matt Edwards created The Listening Tree in St. Luke's Park, on the north-east corner of Gladstone and Elgin. It's a 5-metre-high structure of stainless steel tubes which acts as a transition and gateway to the park. The individual tubes echo the stainless steel traffic signal poles on the adjacent sidewalk, while their combined form resembles the canopy of large trees in the park.

The Listening Tree visually bridges the stainless steel poles on Elgin Street to the park's tree canopy - and makes music in the wind ©Brett Delmage, 2016
The Listening Tree visually bridges the stainless steel poles on Elgin Street to the park's tree canopy - and makes music in the wind ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Most importantly, this sculpture creates sound – but only when the wind is in the correct direction. Several of the tubes have carefully tuned slots in them which will channel the wind when it comes from the south or west – but most strongly from the southwest, when gusts blow up both Elgin and Gladstone. The result: a series of shifting tones.

“We thought it would be nice to have something that would draw people in a little closer so they could have a more intimate experience with [the park], and we decided to do that through sound,” Stewart said.

But not all the time. “It's not singing today, unfortunately. The wind is not blowing in the correct direction for that to happen, but, actually, we think one of the special things that can happen with this piece is that it's not always singing. You have to be here at a specific time. And so the experience is tied to that time,” Edwards told the audience of local residents, jazz lovers, and city staff and politicians.

“It's not supposed to be always active. It's just supposed to be once in a while, so the neighbours don't complain, but other neighbours get to enjoy it,” said local city councillor Catherine McKenney. When McKenney asked who had heard it during the ceremonies, several members of the audience put their hands up to indicate they had heard the sculpture singing since it had been installed a month before.

When Edwards was recently adding a protective layer of wax to the sculpture, he related, a man came up to him and said, “This amazing thing happened the other day. I came here and I heard it singing! It was a bit of a windy day, and I didn't realize that was going to happen. I've never heard anything like it.”

Stewart said they hoped the sculpture might allow people “to experience a sense of discovery – that they might be here and all of the sudden it will start singing.”

Saturday at 1 p.m. was the official opening. Stewart and Edwards played an short concert to start the ceremony, producing intimate, improvised music on two handpans, a drone-producing Shruti box, an accordion, a bamboo flute, and a frame drum.

Stewart and Edwards said they had known each other for many years but had only started working together in 2014 on public art projects, under the name Mixed Metaphors. Edwards' background is in architecture, while Stewart has also created several visual art installations as well as his better-known work as an award-winning musician and academic. This was their first successful commission.

The sculpture was created for the City of Ottawa Public Arts program. 1% of the budget of city capital projects – in this case, the reconstruction of Gladstone Avenue – is allocated for public art. “All that painful reconstruction project now culminates in a wonderful and unique work of art for this community,” Nicole Zuger, the public art program manager, told the crowd.

Mixed Metaphors' project was chosen by a jury from a field of seventeen, after public consultation on the three finalists. Besides artistic excellence and connection to the surroundings, the projects were also assessed for safety and durability – Stewart later thanked the engineer who scrutinized every weld holding the tubes together. The sculpture, which weighs 4200 pounds, was fabricated by Mike Milligan Ironworks in Ottawa. Edwards specifically recognized their expertise and collaborative spirit in creating the piece.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of the sculpture launch and performance

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