Arts: Sound garden tableau of words to steal your heart away

An ingenious use of recording technology creates a unique `sound sculpture' from the voices of visitors to Kensington Gardens.
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CLOSE YOUR eyes for a moment and let the surrounding sounds wash over you: dogs yap at your ankles, their barks echoing from all four corners of the park; water bubbles up over your feet and voices chatter in musical harmony. Open your eyes and you are faced with the blank lawn of the Sound Garden, an all-enveloping audio-sculpture carefully choreographed to celebrate the sound of sound.

William Furlong's soundwork is described as a carpet of sound, woven together out of recordings of comments made by visitors to Kensington Gardens. More than a thousand joggers, strollers, dog-walkers, deck chair attendants and park officials are now immortalised, their fragmented voices pouring out of a grid of 16 speakers embedded in the gallery lawn.

"What I'm doing is listening to the sounds of words and responding to them and putting them together and repeating them and overlapping them and hearing what results from that," explains Furlong.

"Someone may say `jogging', which lasts 1.5 seconds, and I take 0.25 seconds out of that and repeat it 50 times. What you've got is... not so much distorted as amplified.

"It can be very musical," says Furlong, who sees himself as a sculptor of sound. "But it's very much a visual arts process of hearing one thing and putting something else against it, rather as a painter would put a colour against another colour."

Furlong began life as a visual artist at the Royal Academy Schools, but soon moved away from realism toward more abstract values, influenced as he was by the conceptual art of the Sixties and Seventies.

In 1973 he hit upon the idea of setting up an audio magazine, Audio Arts, made possible by technological advances and the affordability of cassette recordings. Many artists, such as Andy Warhol, were working with language, and Furlong wanted to capture their ideas by recording them. He edited down hours of taped interviews and lectures, and released them in 90-minute tapes. "It is always important to know what the artist is saying about their work," says Furlong.

Today's sound sculptures are a natural progression from Furlong's work with Audio Arts, capturing the ambience of a time and a place. In the National touring exhibition Voice Over, currently on show in Nottingham, Furlong taped conversations with residents from each town visited by the exhibition, which he edited down to be played in the gallery space. And in Walls of Sound, in Goodwood Sculpture Park, Furlong has created a corridor of sound between two parallel steel walls which emit noises typical of the natural environment.

The Sound Garden, as with other examples of Furlong's work, concentrates on the richness of the human voice. Those recorded in Kensington Gardens paint a picture of a multicultural space inhabited by a number of different communities, many of whom visit the park every day of the year. The air is thick with faceless voices vying for your attention, each speaker playing a separate cassette. It is an absorbing and entertaining work.

"It's a sound map of this space which is Kensington Gardens, the park constructed by the people that use it, through the words I've put together and the sentences I've picked up," says Furlong.

The umming and aahing of one visitor is isolated and arranged into a musical sequence, while layer upon layer of voices have their say: quietly, loudly, repeated endlessly, or left to ricochet around the grid.

A real-life dog, which has wandered in from the park, is rooted to the spot, listening and trembling with confusion. "What," asks one voice, "is going on?"

`Sound Garden' by William Furlong, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 (0171-402 6075), to 1 November