Research & Innovation

Confront Rising Seas with 1970s Pop Music

In a sound work, the College of Arts and Letters’ Nancy Nowacek and Carlos Alomar mixed the love and heartbreak of musical anthems with urgent environmental warnings.

Nancy Nowacek, assistant professor of visual arts and technology, collaborated with Carlos Alomar, director of the Sound Synthesis Research Center, to create “Long Distance Dedication (Now on with the countdown),” an immersive sound work presented at the latest installment of Works on Water’s three-year triennial.

As listeners wandered the exhibition on Governors Island at the end of October, the project mixed natural sounds with lyrics of 1970s pop songs and urgent messages about rising sea levels and extreme weather. “I hope that listeners are—at first—a little disoriented by the piece,” said Nowacek, who thought in time they'd “start to tune their listening in a couple of ways: to the lyrics and emotions in the songs as they appear and disappear, in the context of the climate crisis, and to the sounds of the natural world around them in the absence of the pop fragments.”

Visitors streamed the work by scanning QR codes posted around the island. At moments, the music and speech waned to silence, and the surrounding environment's sound filled the gap. In doing so, the piece offered participants an opportunity to both enjoy and reflect on water’s relationship with the urban environment.

Each of the day’s artistic pieces concerned water. The organizer, Works on Water, is a non-profit organization that assembles a community of artists who consider the importance and impending issues of our waterfronts and waterways. Nowacek is a co-founder of the group and serves within the central and curatorial leadership teams.

Previously, Nowacek organized “Walking the Edge,” a participatory performance that invited New Yorkers to walk, encounter, and reflect on their city’s 520 miles of coastline. Another of Nowacek’s works, titled “Citizen Bridge,” proposed and prototyped a floating pedestrian walkway that would connect Brooklyn with Governors Island.

For this project, Nowacek found herself inspired by the 1970s pop music that she heard playing in a corporate lobby. “I started thinking about the ideas of loss and regret in all of their backing vocals and choruses,” said Nowacek. The thought led to a conversation with Alomar, a celebrated guitarist, composer, and arranger of the era. Alomar’s previous collaborators include David Bowie, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, and more.

Throughout lockdown, Nowacek and Alomar kept in touch virtually, and in time, the two were able to work together and feed off each others’ ideas in his home studio and during a working session on Governors Island.

“Carlos is quite honestly one of the most generous, hard-working, and creative collaborators I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Nowacek. “He’s very much a ‘yes, and’ collaborator, which is the most exciting kind of partner to have in the creative process.”

Their creative output remains available for lovers of music and water alike.