There are plenty of opportunities throughout the year to hear President Lee Pelton’s speeches on Emerson’ campus, but only one place to see one.
Hanging in the central stairwell of 2 Boylston Place — Emerson’s newest residence hall, opened this August – is a massive, multi-floor spectrogram taken from a fragment of one of Pelton’s valedictory speeches. A spectrogram is a visual representation of the frequencies of sound.
“[I]t becomes not just a little bit of decoration on the wall, but something a little more central to how we think of ourselves at Emerson as people who communicate by speaking, and then working with technology to make art,” said School of the Arts Dean Rob Sabal, who led the committee charged with deciding what art to put in that towering space.
The uniquely Emersonian piece came to life through a thoroughly Emersonian process.
Sabal’s point person on the artwork for 2 Boylston was Drea Plummer, a graphic designer for Elkus Manfredi Architects, the firm that designed the residence hall. Plummer attended Emerson, where she studied new media and had Sabal as a professor. (She eventually transferred to Massachusetts College of Art and Design so she could major in graphic design, but said, “Emerson was really great, I loved it.”)
Plummer presented Sabal and a committee of faculty members and a current student with a number of design concepts, but the spectrogram stood out, Sabal said. Everyone agreed that whatever sound was visualized should relate to the College somehow – the committee kicked around the idea of using a quote from founder Charles Wesley Emerson, but settled on something from President Pelton.
“People thought this was kind of an interesting idea,” Sabal said. “Then we worked with the president to outline some possible quotes, went through some possible speeches. He ended up deciding on one that he thought was particularly appropriate.”
The quote that produced the spectrogram comes from a speech Pelton delivered on May 18, 2015, at the Undergraduate Commencement. It reads:
“The world awaits your arrival with open and anxious arms and it cares not that you will be rich or famous, but that you will live a good life, that you will add, rather than extract, value from human society – do this and all the other things will not matter.”
Once the quote was selected, it was time for Pelton to hit the studio. Television, Radio, and Film audio post-production supervisor Pierre Huberson recorded Pelton reading the quote.
Independent programmer Jesse Kochis ran the recording through a programming language called Python to generate the spectrogram. Plummer then extracted a chunk of the full spectrogram and rendered them in six different color schemes, which she presented to the committee.
Once the design was decided, Plummer still needed to do a little more work so the graphic could be scaled up to several floors high and printed on … wait for it … acoustical panels. Then Plummer ran the design through Photoshop to give it a “crisp pixel look,” she said.
“We liked the pixel look, because … it played into the digital idea of visualized sound. We also really liked the idea of the speech being artwork that is an acoustical panel.”
A plaque near the piece displays the full quote, and a QR code embedded into the pattern allows students with QR readers on their smartphones to hear Pelton reading it.
Plummer said her department at Elkus Manfredi does a lot of large-scale environmental graphics in the buildings they construct, but this was her first time doing anything that large, as well as her first time working with acoustical panels.
It was also rewarding to work with her former new media professor and her former college, she said.
“I would say this project definitely plays into that new media a little bit,” Plummer said, “so it was definitely great to come back around and play with that.”