Monument Lab: creating an ‘ode’ to Philadelphia with sound

An artist’s multi-speaker sound installation features an alumna’s poetry.

Ursula Rucker, a 1991 journalism alumna, observes “Logan Squared: Ode to Philly,” a sound installation on the terrace of the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street near 19th. A recording of Rucker’s poetry is featured in the installation. | KAM GRAY / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The words of Ursula Rucker’s poetry float from a speaker installation accompanied by a choir of ominous voices.

“This city sparkles bright, even in the darkest shadows,” Rucker said toward the beginning of her epic poem — a narrative piece of poetry that has multiple parts.

Rucker, a 1991 journalism alumna, wrote the poem to serve as part of artist Emeka Ogboh’s “Logan Squared: Ode to Philly,” an installation featured in Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, a city-wide public art and history project that runs until Nov. 19. Monument Lab tries to answer one question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?

Ogboh’s installation is on display every Sunday during Monument Lab from 2 to 4:30 p.m. The audio can also be heard at listening stations in Logan Square throughout the rest of Monument Lab’s run.

Ogboh’s work is a 36-speaker sound installation, featuring Rucker and a 12-person choir. It is on display on the terrace of the Parkway Central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street near 19th.

“I wanted to involve the city in my work,” Ogboh said. “I didn’t want to start inserting my ideas of what Philadelphia is.”

Ogboh, an artist who splits his time between Nigeria and Germany, works with sound and is interested in creating art about cities. But Ogboh isn’t from Philadelphia, though he has visited before. The first time he even remembers learning about Philadelphia was through the 1993 movie that shares the city’s name and stars Tom Hanks.

To create an authentic view of Philadelphia, he enlisted the help of the Chestnut Street Singers — a Center City cooperative chamber choir — and Rucker, a lifelong Philadelphian. She grew up in Mount Airy and now lives in Germantown.

“What makes Philly special [is] that we have the glossy, [the] glamorous, the art, the music, we damn sure have the history,” Rucker said. “But then we also have the grit and the grime, which is a big part of the city.”

“If you live here, if you’re from here, then it’s part of your whole entire makeup,” she added.

Jody Yobro, a Philadelphia resident, listens to “Logan Squared: Ode to Philly” through a listening station at Logan Square. | KAM GRAY / THE TEMPLE NEWS

In her multi-part poem, Rucker references Philly firsts, landmarks and slang words. She points out that the city was the nation’s first capital and also compares Philadelphia itself to the Liberty Bell. She later proclaims, “Our language is our own. It’s filled with ‘yo’s’ and ‘jawns’ and symphonies and sirens.”

She also shares some insight into the attitudes of Philadelphians.

“You might have to work a little harder for a hello,” she says in the poem.

“It’s just true,” Rucker said. “We do the affirmative head nod. If you’re not happy with that then I don’t know what to tell you.”

To further incorporate the city into his piece, Ogboh included part of the orchestral piece, “Four Squares of Philadelphia” to accompany Rucker’s words. The mid-20th century piece by Louis Gesensway dedicates musical movements to the city’s four squares: Franklin Square, Logan Square, Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square.

The movement “Logan Square at Dusk,” which is a part of the larger orchestral piece, was translated from the original instrumental score to accompany vocals by Nathan Lofton, a 2014 master’s of choral conducting alumnus.

“It’s a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle,” Lofton said. “You’re looking for, ‘How can I best preserve this melodic line, that’s written for an instrument that has a wider range than a single human voice does, and make that work with just voices?’”

Each speaker plays an individual voice from the choir for Ogboh’s piece.

Victoria Nance, a second-year choral conducting graduate student, was one of the featured singers. Lofton asked her to sing after having worked with her on a Temple Theaters project.

Nance said she was excited to see the whole project come together on opening night. She added that members of the choir all ran up to the speakers to hear which one their voices were coming from.

“It was really pretty, which sounds really simple,” she said. “But it was just really beautiful to see what we had worked on and recorded put into effect.”

This isn’t the first time Ogboh has used sound to create a monument either.

In 2014, he won a competition to create artwork to be displayed at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the country’s capital. He created a sound installation featuring the speeches of African leaders from 1964 when the African Union — then the Organization of African Unity — was founded.

“When we are thinking about monuments, most times we are thinking about a sculpture, you know, really physical objects that people can take selfies with,” Ogboh said.

But with his other work, Ogboh said he proves that doesn’t always have to be the case.

“I’ve been able to kind of change the idea of monuments from physical objects to something more ephemeral, like sound,” he said.

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