It starts with an invisible chorus singing a ghostly note in the key of B-flat major. At first, the voices are barely recognizable above the din of downtown Los Angeles traffic during evening rush hour. Buses roar by. A skater scrapes to a full stop. Car horns bleat. But the note nonetheless hovers in the background, a mellifluous ahhh that ultimately crescendos above the street noise as the sky turns purple and the sun slips behind the city’s blinking towers.
This is “Seirá,” an unusual vocal piece by Australian composer Lawrence English, performed not by a live chorus on a stage (or even on the street) but via the scattered air raid sirens that have managed to survive in obscure corners of Los Angeles. It’s part of this year’s “AxS Festival: City as Wunderkammer” (or “cabinet of curiosities,” as the organizers put it), a celebration of art and science presented by Fulcrum Arts (formerly the Pasadena Arts Council).
At sunset Friday, roughly two dozen spectators are gathered for the premiere of “Seirá” at one of the sirens: a yellow Federal Signal SD-10 at the corner of Spring and Temple streets near City Hall. It’s one of the half a dozen points around the city where the broadcasts can be heard. At 5:59 p.m., right as the sun begins to set, barely perceptible tones emerge from the siren and bathe the corner in sound. At its base, the rapt crowd stands motionless.
English, who lives in Brisbane and travels regularly to Los Angeles for work, says he first stumbled on one of the sirens about five years ago: a Federal Signal 500T — the sort that rotates — and he grew intrigued by their purpose.
“I thought it was strange,” he says. “I went home and looked it up.”
That initial bit of internet sleuthing turned into a bit of an obsession. On a subsequent trip, he visited the Los Angeles County archives to look at historical documents related to the sirens and their placement. He also located audio recordings that revealed their tones. (B-flat major, he notes, is a very close match.)
L.A.’s civil defense sirens began as an air raid warning system against Japanese aerial attacks during World War II. But their presence was expanded throughout the 1950s and ’60s as the politics of the Cold War stoked paranoia over a possible Soviet missile attack. The last official test of sirens took place in the 1980s. Now they are disappearing.
“There is a rapid diminishing of the sirens,” says English. “I’ve spoken to people who have memory of it. But so many people do not.”
The composer has preserved their memory in the 12-minute “Seirá,” which pays tribute to the sirens and the sounds they make. The piece, which English recorded in Australia with the Brisbane choir Australian Voices, was inspired specifically by the wail of the500T siren. The shifting vocal tones in “Seirá” echo the changing tones of the 500T as it rotates atop its pole.
Thanks to a grant from the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and the sponsorship of Pasadena’s Fulcrum Arts, the piece will play on half a dozen L.A. sirens every evening at sunset through Sunday. (It is not the first work of art to materialize on this emergency broadcast system: Opera director Yuval Sharon employed the sirens for his staging of composer Annie Gosfield’s “War of the Worlds” last year.)
Amid the clatter of traffic, “Seirá’s” quiet beginnings come off almost as an auditory hallucination — a sustained series of notes break through the hiss of air brakes and automotive stereo systems. But as it progresses, the sound builds, and the work becomes an ethereal soundtrack to random moments of urban life.
At Friday’s broadcast, members of Pasadena’s Selah Gospel Choir infiltrate the crowd, and several minutes into the recording, they begin to echo the tones emanating from the siren. As the L.A. sky puts on its best sunset show, our group is bathed by voices emanating from above and all around. When it comes to an end, the crowd erupts in joyful applause.
Employing old government hardware in the name of art? I can’t think of a better use.
AxS Festival 2018: Lawrence English, “Seirá”
When: Every evening at sunset through Nov. 11
Where: Six civil defense siren sites around Los Angeles
Info: Check the website for exact start times and locations, axsfestival.org/lawrence-english